The new Zunes gave me a tingle on Friday, briefly thrilling me with Microsoft's latest foray into digital media players. It was outside my...
The new Zunes gave me a tingle on Friday, briefly thrilling me with Microsoft’s latest foray into digital media players.
It was outside my daughter’s school, in a line of SUVs full of parents on cellphones waiting to pick up their children. After a few days carrying a pair of the new Zunes — which go on sale Tuesday — I had yet to use their signature wireless music-sharing feature.
Perhaps another parent had one, I thought — some of them work at Microsoft. I also needed a pick-me-up after spending more than an hour futzing with the Zunes, trying to connect them through my home network.
I held a Zune above the dashboard and, sure enough, it showed another Zune nearby. How fun. Who could it be and what should we share — “Magic School Bus,” perhaps?
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Then I realized the other Zune was in my pocket.
Microsoft has a long way to go before its year-old Zune business reaches critical mass, having sold only about 1.2 million units. But it’s making progress in its effort to build a system rivaling Apple’s iPod-iTunes juggernaut.
After hands-on time with the new Zunes, I like the players and think they’re a big improvement over the chunky Zune 1.0 that Bill Gates launched a year ago at a rock show in downtown Seattle.
Even if the Zune’s wireless capability remains just a novelty, Microsoft should have better luck this time around because the new models are more svelte, the software is better and it’s offering a range at different price points, particularly the lower end, where there’s more sales volume.
The provocative brown color that helped get people talking about Zune (and is now on clearance for as low as $99) is gone. The new ones come in safer black, white, pink, green and an especially nice red lacquer.
New on Tuesday are an 80-gigabyte hard-drive model for $250 and two solid-state models a little smaller than a business card, with 4 gigs or 8 gigs of memory for $150 or $200. The original 30-gig model is available in other colors with new software for $200.
Also debuting are a Zune social network that seems like a longshot, an upgraded online music store with a big selection of unprotected songs and a new software jukebox.
Zune continues to draw on the local scene. The players still say “Hello from Seattle” in tiny letters on the back, and mine came with a video from Robyn Hitchcock and his Seattle backup band, the Venus 3.
In short, Microsoft’s doing it all with the new Zunes. Yet it still feels a bit like watching an A-plus student at a high school talent show with a Stratocaster performing a perfect version of “Purple Haze.”
Next he’ll get a tattoo, you think, and sure enough, that’s an option on the new Zunes. You can order them customized with laser-etched art or text.
Zune 2.0 succeeds as a fashion accessory, particularly the small Flash models, but consider the source of this observation and make up your own mind. They’re still thicker and boxier than comparable iPods, suggesting cigarette cases.
Apple still dominates, but the huge gap in quality between the iPod and its competitors has narrowed in the low to midrange. The Zunes are just a few of the nice options now in the $150-$250 range.
Comparing the smallest models, I prefer the iPod Nano’s square shape, broader screen and aluminum flange. Sony’s finally making decent Flash Walkmans that are worth comparing, as are the new credit-card sized players from Creative.
On hard-drive models, the new iPod’s flange feels like a defect to me and I prefer the Zune’s bigger screen.
Zune’s new top-level menu uses a big, modern font that’s not only stylish but easier to navigate, although I miss the ability to flip through album covers as you can on new iPods.
The Zune also has improved controls. It’s main button is a rocker switch, clicking up and down or left and right. But its also touch-sensitive, so you can navigate with a flick of the finger. It’s especially nice for flicking volume up and down.
Zune’s software jukebox feels less like a spreadsheet than other media players, and its minimalist controls and drag-and-drop file synchronization are a breeze.
Less impressive by far, though, was my experience with a new wireless synchronization feature. You’re supposed to be able to update the devices with new content wirelessly over a Wi-Fi network, but it took me more than an hour to get it to work, and then it only loaded 8 of 25 songs on the album I was using.
Security settings on the network may be the problem, but it’s an off-the-shelf Qwest DSL setup with default settings. I also was handicapped because Zune’s online support page didn’t address the new feature.
More testing is needed to know whether that was an anomaly. In general, though, I’ve found the convenience promised by wireless gadgets fades quickly when they encounter obligatory security settings.
If others have the same experience, wireless sync in Zune 2.0 may have the same fate as the wireless sharing that debuted in Zune 1.0 — an interesting bonus feature that’s rarely used. Neither is required to use the product. Either way, most people probably will use a cable to sync, just like an iPod, since that’s also how you charge the device.
Microsoft built Zune 1.0 with off-the-shelf parts, basing the player on a Toshiba model and the jukebox on Windows Media Player. This time the Zune team started from scratch, showing what it can do alone. We’ll see if glitches surface, but so far Zune 2.0 seems like a dramatic upgrade and a new high-water mark for Microsoft in hardware development.
The new Zunes still won’t displace the iPod — especially on the basis of their wireless features — but their quality and the pace of improvement will no doubt have Apple worrying about Zune 3.0.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or email@example.com.