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Zune 8

Zune 8 GBThanks to good friends in the Microsoft Windows group in Redmond, I received a shiny new, red 8 GB Zune at CES personalised at the back.

Package

The compact packaging of the 4/8 GB Zune does not contain a software CD like the original Zune. You get a manual, a USB cable and a set of earphones. The box comes in a soft pouch and could be mistaken for a perfume box.

Setting Up

You first set up the Zune software on the PC by going to www.zune.net/setup. You get to choose between the “full Zune experience” and simply downloading the software. I already had the latest software on account of my old Zune, so I explored the Zune.net site and noticed ZuneOriginals.net. This site apparently lets you customise your Zune.

This is where the typical Zune customer who dares to leave the 50 states gets a rude shock.

access denied error message

Being back home in Australia, I got the above error message, which has been reported by others since last November. You can’t use a normal web proxy to access the URL, as it is on a secure site (and I couldn’t be bothered setting up a proxy under an SSL certificate). This is a strange way to treat a customer who makes the mistake of buying a Zune while visiting the US, or at least an American who is travelling abroad.

Then you try to set up a Zune account.

not available in your region

You get another rude shock if your IP address is outside the home of the brave. Luckily, I already had a Zune account from the time I set up the original Zune. I think I was in Redmond at that time, so I snuck in. I assume that this clumsy method of exclusion by IP address is based on a desire to protect the local music industry, to protect overseas MSFT subsidiaries and also to avoid a negative experience for foreign customers who cannot reach Zune support locally. My other players are Creative and SanDisk, which don’t give me such grief. I have no idea about the iPod experience. Microsoft would be better off to block non-Americans at the shopping cart transaction level (This is done by T-Mobile in the US. The latter won’t accept a non-US credit card).

Using the 8 GB Zune

The device refuses to work until you have installed the Zune software on the PC and connected the player at least once. When you connect the device to the PC, it proceeds to update the firmware. Luckily, there is no IP address check, else I’d have a beautiful paperweight.

Software

The Zune software is easy to use and is intuitive (but it deserves a separate review). I was able to find all my music, video and images and sync them to the player. I can also sync my podcast subscriptions automatically. Unless it was a coincidence, the software showed both my Zunes in their correct colours – a nice touch.

Controls

The main input on the player is the Zune Pad, a rounded rectangular touch-sensitive button. You change the volume and select options by rubbing your thumb from top to bottom or left to right. The default touch sensitivity was fine for me, unlike the over-sensitive controls of the original Creative Zen, which tended to overshoot the desired selection.

Display

The tiny 4.5 cm (1.8-inch) glass-covered screen is watchable for short music videos that have close-ups of performers but it would not be fun to watch a full-length movie on this model. During music playback, the backlight disappears and helps to conserve battery life. The USB cable acts as the media conduit to and from the PC and also charges the battery. There is a small, recessed set of holes to take a wrist strap, which is not supplied.

FM Radio

The FM radio displays RDS data, so you can see the name of the radio station and the song being played. You can choose your locale between USA, Japan and Europe – I chose USA, so local Aussie stations displayed the callsign of US stations on the same frequency, but the RDS data showed the local name, e.g. “Gold 104” below. I can live with this. You cannot record a radio program, as you can on some Creative units.

Sound Quality

The sound quality is fine too, just like the original 30 GB Zune. There is a good selection of pre-loaded media. The supplied earphones do a basic job, but like all players, you need to buy high-quality headphones to get optimum sound. There isn’t an equaliser (EQ) control or preset, so you cannot customise the sound to your liking. This option is present on the old Zune 30, so its omission seems to be a deliberate decision. Why hobble sound quality if the objective is to push buyers to the 80 GB model?

Sharing

The latest 2.3 (1145) firmware is common to all models and renames Community to Social. You can share a song by sending it to a nearby Zune (that is turned on and has wireless enabled). The other Zune has to accept it and will get three plays (the three days limitation has been removed).

Other New Models

Zune models

There is a new 80 GB model (only black) that works just like the 4/8 GB versions except that it contains a hard drive, not Flash memory and has a larger screen. The 4/8 GB models come in pink, red, green and black.

Conclusion

The Zune 8 is light, easy-to-use, has a good battery life, feature set, and great sound quality. The software is a testimonial to Microsoft as a leading software company. In conclusion, the 8 GB Zune is a fine multimedia player and you will not regret buying it. Well done, Microsoft.

Ash Nallawalla

Ash Nallawalla reviews products for many publications, notably PC Update. He writes a monthly column for APC Magazine, the largest consumer printed PC magazine in Australia.