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11/15/2006
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First Look: Microsoft Zune

If you find a certain air of geeky awkwardness appealing, then you might like this first try at a media player from a company not famous for its hardware design.

Microsoft's much-publicized Zune media player has just hit the market. After a few hours of playing with it, I'm impressed -- less impressed with the hardware; more impressed with the software.



Microsoft Zune
Physically, the Zune lacks the iPod's jewelry-like qualities: no slick chrome back, no incredibly cool touch-sensitive scrollwheel, slightly bigger, much boxier. While the Zune imitates the iPod's stark, featureless, how-do-I-use-this-thing design, that only works once. When you see it again in the Zune it's not even flattery, it's just imitation. I got the white Zune (it also comes in black and brown) with a white case that seems to be covered by a layer of frosty polyethylene. It doesn't fingerprint as badly as the iPod, but it does make the Zune look like an iPod in a Tupperware container.

The Zune has a central control wheel, just like the iPod, but it's smaller -- and it's not really a wheel. It's just five switches (left and right, top and bottom, and center) under a plain, unmarked black plastic disk that practically screams "cheap" -- it looks like it will have a chip out of the edge in four or five months. And those five switches don't quite do what you'd expect them to. There are two additional buttons to the right and left of the wheel that do most of the heavy lifting.

In fact, the Zune's operating interface feels more complicated than the iPod's. I'm clicking "Up" to get back to higher-level menus when I should be clicking "Back." I'm holding buttons down when I should just be clicking. In particular, the Zune misses the easy list-scrolling functionality provided by something like the iPod's scrollwheel or the BlackBerry's clickwheel.

On the other hand, the screen is big -- twice as large as a standard iPod -- and bright and beautiful. It obviously gave the Microsoft designers plenty of inspiration to reach into the eye-candy bag and sprinkle it on everything the Zune does.

Zune Has The Basics Covered
In fact, once you shift focus from the hardware to the software, the Zune stops looking like a complete iPod knock-off. It does some things the iPod doesn't do -- yet. Like the FM radio: I was pleasantly surprised to realize just how nice that is to have. And the ability to beam songs and images between Zunes: That might be nice someday, when a sufficient number of other people have a Zune, too. If they ever do.

The Zune definitely has the basics covered. It plays music. It plays a lot of music. I haven't used it long enough to run down the battery, and I'm dubious of the 14 hours of play time Microsoft claims in the specs -- it might be more like eight or 10. But that's a lot.

It holds a lot of music, too. The specs don't mention exactly how big the hard drive is, but it had 27.7 GB available when I took it out of the box (it comes with some sample music, pictures, and videos already installed). I loaded it up with more than 1,600 MP3 files ripped from 130 albums, almost 8 GB worth, according to the Properties inspector on my PC. All that content filled an additional 6.09 GB of disk space on the Zune, so there must be some serious compression going on in the Zune application that loads the portable device.

The music it plays sounds good. Sound quality in a portable player is pretty subjective, and very dependent on external factors like the quality of the headphones or earbuds you're using, but at least the Zune delivers quality to the output jack. The FM is clean and static-free. Zune video looks good, too -- it's bright and detailed, even given that you're looking at a screen that's 2.5 inches by 1.75 inches. Photos look good, as well. (Album covers, on the other hand, look terrible, probably because they're very small, heavily compressed files.) Both audio and video play smoothly, without stutters or frozen moments. It's possible to force the audio to skip by turning the wireless on and off while you're playing music, but you have to force it: if you behave, the playback will.

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