Wed, 15 November 2006
This is a mini-OOBE (out of box experience) review of the Zune. It focuses on unpacking the device and using it for the first time. I will cover the Zune software installation in another post and on an upcoming podcast.
My Zune Experience
Tuesday I woke up early and headed to Target to wait in line for the Microsoft Zune player. (I figured if there was going to be a line my Target store would be out of the way and not have a long line.) I was running a little late and arrived five minutes after 8 AM and found the parking lot pretty empty. I walked in the store and only saw two other customers and an empty electronics counter. I asked if they had any Zunes and he had one in his hand for another customer and two more under the counter. It turns out this Target store only received eight white Zunes and they only had two left when I entered the store (5 minutes after they opened). I asked if they sold the five units before I arrived and never got a clear answer (maybe some Target employees are "happy" owners of a white Zune). From what I could tell there was never a line for the Zune but I'm sure others will be disappointed if they go in to pick up their own unit later.
I took my Zume home to see for myself what the company from Redmond was shipping. Before I describe what I found let me tell you that I'm not an iPod user and that I use an iRiver MP3 player for my music and podcasts. I'm also a Windows XP user which is a good thing because it's one of the requirements mentioned on the Zune package (no support for the Apple Mac).
I unpacked the unit and you can find my pictures here. The Zune was packaged in a nice cardboard box without any sign of the heavy plastic packaging that is so much the norm these days. Two things stood out as I unpacked the box. 1) There was no AC adapter and 2) No user manual. There was a Start guide that basically told you to insert the enclosed CD in a Windows XP machine and described the simple controls on the Zune. The Zune charges its internal battery using the supplied USB sync cable (an AC adapter can be purchased if you need to recharge the Zune and you don't have access to a computer with a USB port).
I didn't have a chance to install the Zune software because I was working on an important project and wanted to wait until I finished before installing software that I heard could cause problems. The following are my observations from using the device right out of the box.
Physically, the Zune is about the same size as a Video iPod with a larger screen. The Zune feels solid in my hand and looks like it's enclosed in a plastic case (which you can't open). The plastic case protects the Zune but I'm concerned about the control pad which looks like the scroll wheel on the iPod but is really five buttons that controls volume and media forward/rewind. There is a small gap around the round control pad that looks like it could trap food, dirt and other stuff. Time will tell if this is a problem.
Here is what you find on the Zune case:
Top: Lock button and 3.5 mm headphone jack
Front: Back button, Pause/Play button, Control Pad with volume up/down, forward/reverse, and OK (center)
Bottom: USB sync connector (power and computer sync)
Back: "Hello From Seattle," "Assembled in China," model number (1090) and serial number. I did not find "Microsoft" anywhere on the device.
One note about the battery -- there is no way to open the Zune which means the battery is not user replaceable. This means after two or three years (depending on use) the battery could fail to hold a charge and you will need to buy something new.
Start me up
Pressing any button powers up the Zune (the Start guide says you press the pause/play button for 3 seconds to turn it on). The home menu allows you to select music, videos, pictures, radio, and settings. I selected music and found 11 sample songs to choose from. I plugged in my own headphones (I don't do well with earbuds) and the music was loud and clear. When a song is played album art is displayed along with information about the song. Also displayed is a time line with the elapsed time and total time. A battery icon in the lower right corner indicates how much battery life remains. After a minute the display goes dark (to conserve the battery) but the music continues to play. Pressing any key brings it back. I later found that the display time is settable in the "settings" menu under "display->backlight." The default is 1 minute but can be changed from 1 second to always on. What is strange is calling this "backlight" because when it goes off the display goes completely dark. I'm use to Microsoft PDAs where the screen display is still readable when the backlight is off. This is not what I expected but I'm sure other (non-engineers) would not even question this.
The main reason I was interested in the Zune was video. The Zune comes with 15 sample videos which gives you a good idea of what's possible. Up until now the Zune displays everything in portrait mode but when you start a video the display switches to landscape. What's nice is the control pad also switches so when you rotate the Zune to watch the video the up and down control pad still controls the volume and left and right control pads controls the forward/rewind functions. The video is displayed full screen and when you press the pause key the time line is displayed with the elapsed/remaining times. The back button backs you up one menu level or back to the main menu if you press and hold the button.
The Zune comes with 28 sample pictures that you can view one-by-one or as a slide show. You can also make one of the pictures the background image that is displayed whenever you are not listening to music; viewing a video; or looking at pictures.
The radio function was interesting for a couple reasons. The display is like a radio dial and can display radio station information (call letters and information about the song being played) if the radio station is sending it out over a subcarrier (I found a number of stations here in the San Francisco area that supported that feature). The Zune uses the headphone wires as an FM antenna so for weaker stations it was sensitive to how the wire was positioned. Looking at the settings I found you could select North America, Europe, and Japan which is great for international travelers.
11 songs; 28 pictures; 15 videos
0.54 GB used
27.22 GB free
Version 1.0 (193)
I thought it was odd that this is Hardware version 2.0 when the unit was just released. There are rumors that the Zune is made by Toshiba so this could be the second generation of the Toshiba hardware (with new software supplied by Microsoft).
As I mentioned before there was very little document included with the Zune. That was a Start, Product Guide, and a postcard with the download code for the "14 day free trial of a Zune Pass." The Product Guide is really a safety and warranty guide and gives very little information about the Zune. The only value to the Start guide is the last page that describes the location and function of the buttons.
In the descriptions of the Zune functions it mentions how to reset the device (press and hold the back button while pressing up on the control pad). I thought it was odd that it was given such high importance but based on my experiences with Microsoft WinCE and Pocket PCs maybe they expect the user to need this when all seems dead. (It also raises the question about what embedded OS is driving the Zune -- WinCE?)
I went to the Zune website and found a place to download manuals but they were PDFs of what I already had. From what I can tell the User Manual in on the Zune.net website. That is where you find a troubleshooting guide and the accessories available. It also gives you information about the Zune Marketplace (for music) and Microsoft Points that you use to purchase music. (I'll have more on that in a future post.)
The Zune looks to be a nice device with support for the three things I'm looking for in a portable device: music player, video player, and a place to show off some pictures. The fact that it has a radio that displays radio station information (good when visiting new cities) and can be set for international travel, is an added bonus.
I now need to now install the software and look at how that integrates with the Zune and if it gets in the way (more on that in a moment).
What I don't like about the Zune is the lack of Macintosh support (currently it only supports Windows XP SP2 and newer). That seems like a slap in the face to Apple users. (I seem to recall that when the iPod was first released it didn't have Windows support.)
I also don't care for DRM (Digital Rights Management) and at this point in time I don't plan to place any DRM media on my device. I don't believe I'm part of Microsoft's target audience for the Zune because of my age (baby boomer) and that I want to fill the Zune up with my own non-DRM media: podcasts, my music CDs, podsafe music, and videos I create or download (legally).
What I would really like (but not expecting) is a Zune-like device that looks like a storage drive that I can plug into any computer and transfer whatever I want (and have it playable on the Zune).
So far I would keep the device if I'm able to add my own content and DRM doesn't get in the way. I've heard rumors that I may run into problems so I'm going to try it and I'll let you know how it works out. (I purchased the Zune at Target because they do have a 90 day no-questions-asked return policy but I do plan to keep the Zune if all goes well.)
After I install the Zune software I'll update this review and create a podcast talking about my experiences. Stay tuned.
[technorati tags: zune microsoft ipod]
Category:Technology -- posted at: 7:42pm PST