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Zune 30

Microsoft released the Zune player earlier in 2007 (only in the United States). This is the first such device I have managed to keep from my teenage son, so I got to know it quite well. I have not owned or used an Apple iPod, so you won’t see any comparisons here. This is just about the Zune.

What is the Zune? It is a portable picture viewer, video and music player, as well as a radio. It is about the size and weight of a pack of cards. It has a 3×2-inch (320×240 pixels) colour screen and a 30 GB hard drive. Its circular control wheel is really a 4-way switch and the centre is a push-button. There are two smaller Back and Play/Pause buttons. At the base there is a docking socket and at the top is an earphone socket and a locking switch. The only accessories that you get are the earphone and a USB connector.

Zune can talk to an Xbox 360

Zune can talk to an Xbox 360

There is built-in WiFi but it only works with another Zune, with which you can transfer music (not video). These tunes only last for three days and you can only play three times. You cannot re-send the same tune after three days have elapsed. Once you name your Zune (its “tag”), you can participate in the community of nearby Zunes within WiFi range and share your music or let them see what you are listening to.

How much can you fit on the 30 GB Zune? The official estimate is about 30 hours of video, 25,000 pictures, or 7500 tunes. Some people have hacked it to take an 80 GB drive, but this will void the warranty.

In use

Setting up was easy, once I swapped the USB connector from the front of my PC to a slot at the back. The Zune was recognised and it updated the firmware and the Zune software. It fetched the latest data from the Zune Marketplace, which is the online music store.

I tried the 14-day free trial of the Zune Pass, which normally costs US$14.99 per month or $44.95 for three months. You can download all the songs you want and they can be played while your subscription is current.

The Zune software found all music, video clips and pictures on my PC – there wasn’t a lot to begin with, so this was quick. I found a couple of CDs and some music clips online and synchronised them with the Zune (which I named www.trainSEM.com). There is still 27 GB free so I might get a converter program that will let me load some full-length movies that I could watch on a round-the-world flight later this month.

The Zune’s ability to store digital images and home-made videos makes it easy to bore your relatives and workmates with your family’s latest activities and archival footage featuring at least four generations!

I am more of a radio listener than a pure music listener. I enjoy the banter and the song introductions on Gold FM, the local 70s and 80s rock station. The Zune displays the radio frequency in a huge font so you’d need to be almost blind not to read it. My station and a few others support the Radio Data System (RDS) which is also known as the Radio Data Broadcast System (RDBS) – this means the name of the song being played and the performer are displayed on the Zune.

You can store song lyrics if you have them, but you cannot see them on the Zune screen. In the future we might see synchronised lyrics but I am not sure if there will be a bouncing dot to go with the words.

I noticed a clever feature when listening to music and I pulled out the headphones in the middle of a tune. The music pauses – so you don’t lose your place and it can be resumed when you plug back the headphones. The two earbuds are magnetised, so they snap together when not in use and will not get tangled up.

Audio quality is fine, at least for what you can expect from basic earphones. I didn’t test the battery capacity but most people report about 11 hours with the WiFi switched off.

Quirks

The main irritation for me is that while the Zune is being charged, it is unusable for anything else. You can click the buttons and nothing will happen. I can shave while my electric shaver is being charged, so why can’t the Zune play? Perhaps I should listen via the desktop PC and the Zune software, except that I have tinny speakers built into my monitor and they aren’t suited to music.

My next nag is the inability to connect to the Internet with the built-in WiFi. This could be a future possibility. Closely related is the inability to get podcasts into the Zune easily. The latter is easily solved with the free, third-party program FeedYourZune, which is also an RSS reader.

You cannot use the Zune as a data storage device and so it is not visible through Windows Explorer. It would be handy if we could use it for occasional data storage.

Community

There are many sites that feature the Zune. Here are a few:

For the older demographic

Such devices are generally not aimed at the older demographic, but the Zune’s large fonts and simple controls make it quite suitable for the 40+ age group. The buttons have a positive feedback, unlike the touch pads on others where you might click more than you intended to.

The Zune is presently sold only in the United States and retails around US$230-$240 from most online outlets. The issue is integration with a local online music store, official support and the availability of accessories. I have a white Zune but you can get it in pink, brown and black. You can buy numerous accessories such as docks, cables, protective cases, chargers, cables, and so on.

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.