Microsoft Zune review

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While Microsoft’s recent forays into digital music haven’t met with the greatest success, it’s certainly got determination. With its hardware partners failing to produce an iPod killer, the company has taken its latest initiative in-house. The result is the futuristically named Zune.

Microsoft Zune review

This first-generation device is only available in the US – we’re told the Zune will come to the UK in 2008, although we doubt it will be this model. But with all the fuss that’s been made on both sides of the Atlantic, we decided to take a look for ourselves. Cue a trip to the US and a bill for $269 including taxes (about £137).

It’s immediately obvious how hard Microsoft has worked at some of the details. Packaging may be inconsequential in the big scheme of the things, but it’s a significant influence on initial impressions. In this case, it’s a satisfyingly unfolding (and iPod-like) series of compartments and drawers. On pulling out the Zune itself, though, our reaction was less enthusiastic: it looks like a first-generation iPod – big, shockingly boxy and more prototype than 21st-century-product-aimed-at-taking-chunk-from-monolithic-competitor. And yes, it’s brown, although black and white models are also available. Each has a different-coloured trim – a distinctive but subtle touch, albeit at odds with the sheer brutality of the rest of the hardware. We can’t complain about build quality: the rugged plastic casing feels like it would survive an unaided trip through a safari park. But the Zune is hardly desirable.

Before attaching your Zune (via that most annoying of things, a proprietary connector), you’ll need to install the Zune software on your PC. In our case, that took an entire day. The problem was our firewall, which stopped some unknown element of the setup accessing the internet. But rather than wave its arms in a useful manner, the install routine simply sat there and waited for everything to get better. There’s no warning, nor a clear declaration of internet access even being required. That’s simply ridiculous for modern software, particularly for something gunning for the mass market.

Moving to a domestic ADSL line, everything progressed more smoothly: a software update, then a firmware update. Twenty minutes later, we launched into the Zune front-end – a butchered version of Windows Media Player 11 which, peculiarly, doesn’t use Aero’s Glass effects in Windows Vista. It scans for media in the usual places, and will find MP3, WMA, AAC and JPEG formats, as well as WMV videos. What it won’t do is synchronise any DRM content unless it comes from the Zune Marketplace. Amazingly, that includes ignoring Microsoft’s own PlaysForSure files: bizarre for a company that makes so much noise about backwards compatibility. It also, currently at least, has no provision for the company’s DVR-MS Recorded TV format, as used by Media Center.

The software is set to automatically synchronise the content it finds to the player, like an iPod (although you can switch to a manual mode if you wish). Once synchronised, you’re instructed to remove the Zune. Want to add more tracks? Unplug it and plug it in again – a very silly detail.

But after such an infuriating start, some nice things started happening. The Zune sprang to life almost immediately, with the big, bright screen bringing up a sensible menu. It’s nippy in use and the control system is self-explanatory – a four-way rocker switch with a central select, a play/pause button and a back button. Pictures and video look superb: while the screen’s standard aspect, the 3in diagonal means you can just about get away with widescreen video. We also like being able to set the background image to any photo on the device.

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