This is probably the part where you call me crazy, but I’m very impressed with Microsoft’s version 2 of their Zune software. When the first generation Zune was launched with its associated software, the software was described as nothing short of a total disaster, with problems ranging from atrociously long install times to completely uninstallable. The first gen hardware was also nothing special – clunky and not aesthetically appealing.
So, it seems only appropriate that the revamp of the Zune MP3 player lineup, which has been well received in general, is accompanied by a vastly improved software component. After reading of the faint praises of the new Zune 2.0 software in a few reviews, I knew that I’d have to take it for a test drive. If these reviewers, who were previously burned by the horrid software, were more than cautiously optimistic, I suspected it would be even better than they let on. And I wasn’t disappointed. I’m so impressed that it has since become my main music player. Let me explain.
One of the main ‘features’ that made the iPod so popular is its simplicity. Recently, other features, such as videos and photos have started appearing, but they are still first and foremost music players. The user interface is designed for easy navigation of music. Although it may lack a ton of customizability, it does what it was intended to do well. The same can be said of the new Zune software. While I cannot test the syncing functionality, since I do not have a Zune, my impression with the rest of the application has been extremely positive – for playing music, it performs beautifully and simply.
This time around, installation isn’t a problem (that’s a good sign…). A short wizard prompts the user for the location of various types of media and we’re off to the main interface, which is split into three panes. From left to right they are: Artists, Albums, and Songs. The Artists and Songs columns are text-based, while the middle Album column shows off the album art for the albums in you library. In addition to the straightforward layout, the artistic design of the user interface is also very clean and calm. Important – the interface is extremely smooth. Unlike Windows Media Player 11, which takes a little while to become perfectly responsive during the loading of all the album art, and iTunes, which just performs poorly overall in Vista, the Zune software ‘scrolls like butter’ as a certain someone would say. The album art loads extraordinarily quickly and performance isn’t compromised while its loading either. Props.
There are two search methods. The first one is most obvious – in the form of the search dialogue at the top right. A search here is not ‘live’ as in you have to press enter to display the search results. In a day and age when almost all desktop search has become of the search-while-you-type kind, this was a little weird. However, once you press enter, you’ll realize why this compromise was made. Not only are the contents of your collection matching the query returned, results from the Zune Marketplace are also displayed in a panel to the right.
Luckily, if all you’re trying to do is search through your music collection, just start typing what you’re looking for at any point in the browsing interface. As you type, a display will appear that shows what you’ve typed so far, while in the background, the search results are being displayed. This search design takes search immediacy to the next level. You don’t even need to indicate that you want to search by clicking on a search dialogue. I find this search implementation feels quite natural, and after using it for a while, you’ll start wondering why search in other applications aren’t designed this way.
Now Playing with Zune
Lots of media players include visualizations that pump along to the beat of the music and almost every player has the capability to display the song’s associated album art while playing the song, but none that I’ve seen have taken the new Zune software’s route for background visuals during music playback. Instead of jiving bars (I’m not even certain there are any ‘visualizations’ to speak of) a collage of album art from your collection provides visual pleasantries. Just click the little pink bars beside the music controls in the browsing interface to activate this view. Every once in a while, the background album art switches to different ones, providing a bit of motion and change. The current artist, album name, song and art are displayed prominently towards the top left. Mouse over the applications and a now playing list and controls fade in. Otherwise, they stay hidden, making this application a very solid choice for playing music at a house party or the like.
One addition that could be cool is to have the ability to click on the album art to have that album start playing, right from the now playing screen.
The aesthetics, performance, and fancy effects do have an effect on system load unfortunately. Compared to Windows Media Player 11, the Zune software uses substantially more memory – to the tune of around 60-70MB, compared to ~30MB after some use. On the other hand, it uses less memory than iTunes, which with CoverFlow browsing shoots up into triple digits of memory usage.
Playlists, Podcasts and the Marketplace
Of course no media player would be complete without playlist support (and more recently Podcasting support). The Zune software offers both of these, albeit in a somewhat dumbed-down fashion.
There is a separate ‘tab’, if you will, in the interface that allows control over playlists. Here, they can be created, deleted and modified. To add songs to a playlist, from the browsing interface, just drag the song or album or artist onto the playlist button at the bottom left of the application, at which point releasing it will send it to the currently selected playlist, or if you hold it there a little while longer, a pop-up will appear, presenting other playlists you can add to. Fairly standard.
Podcast support on the other hand will be slightly lacking, especially if compared to something like iTunes. Most podcast RSS feeds have dedicated, one-click buttons to subscribe in iTunes; however, to subscribe to new podcasts with the Zune software, you’ll have to manually copy and paste that address. First you’re greeted with a prompt for the podcast URL.
Then, depending on your podcast settings in the Zune software, it’ll automatically start downloading the latest few podcasts from that subscription.
The general features of a podcast are there. For example, you won’t have to restart or find your place in a podcast if you pause it partway through and go off to listen to some music.
Microsoft has integrated the online Zune Marketplace music store within the Zune software. Fortunately, it’s much, much more responsive than the iTunes store. It keeps with the style of the application and doesn’t feel like an embedded browser (to be honest, I’m not even sure it is an embedded browser that’s fetching the store).
Purchases are made using the same Microsoft Points you use in the Xbox Live Marketplace. Other options include a $14.99/month subscription deal. I don’t have a Zune, so obviously, I didn’t test out the integration of the store and a Zune. Clicking through to an album brings up the album with all songs listed, as well as other albums by the same artist.
Photos and Video
With the big 3.2″ screen on the new full sized Zune’s, it’s obvious that it was designed for viewing photos and videos as well. As such, the Zune software has support for both. Unfortunately, there is no support for much outside of WMV. DivX and Xvid are both definitely not supported by default. While it makes sense that you cannot play Xvid/DivX videos using the software, since the Zune doesn’t have support for those formats, it’s still disappointing as I won’t be able to use it as default media player outside of music. For some who want to be able to use one piece of software for all their multimedia needs, this could mean crossing the Zune application off the list.
Still for the formats it can play, the application does a fine job of it – like the music playing screen, the player controls only appear if you mouse over the application and they fade in and out nicely.
The photo gallery continues with the slick design of the rest of the program. The photos are organized by file structure hierarchy. At higher levels, the number of photos in each folder is indicated. Once you enter a folder, thumbnails will be shown, all generated extremely quickly, without bogging down the interface.
Double-clicking on a image will bring you to the display screen. If you had music playing, you needn’t worry – it’ll continue playing in the background. Here you can manually peruse your photos, or you can start a slideshow. At any time in the gallery or during a slideshow, a button allows you to switch the controls from controlling the flow of photos to the music.
Is that an iPhone I see?
So What’s Wrong With It?
I’m generally very impressed with the music playing capabilities and the aesthetic appeal of the new Zune software. While being a fairly niche product for now (serving the needs of Zune users), it presents one of the best user experiences of any program I’ve used to date. However, it’s not without its faults.
The nearly complete lack of video format support is a big downer. I’d love to be able to use it as my movie player as well, but currently, that’s not possible. Additionally, many features have been completely cut out to keep the program simple. For example, there’s a complete inability of modify an MP3’s tags. You can edit an artist, album or song name, but as far as I can tell, it doesn’t actually change its tag outside of the Zune program. Better support for finding and adding podcasts would also be a big plus. In its current form, searching and adding podcasts requires the user to find the RSS URL, the manually copy and paste it in. Hardly user friendly, and I’d imagine many users would rather skip the whole process altogether, leaving the podcasting functionality unused.
My final point isn’t so much a flaw in the software as something that I’d like to see added – support for other MP3 players. Microsoft at one point initiated a big push with their PlaysForSure initiative, but it seems like since they launched the Zunes, there’s been a substantial conflict of interest. Taking a page from the iPod/iTunes book, Microsoft’s promoting much more integration between the Zune and its software. As much as I want to use the Zune software for all my multimedia needs, I still need to open up Windows Media Player 11 every time I hook up the Samsung P2 to transfer music. Opening up the Zune software isn’t something Microsoft’s likely to do in the near future, but definitely should be considered. It would help drive more users to the Zune Marketplace.
A very good user experience would aptly describe what I feel the Zune 2.0 software is. The user interface, aesthetic design, and simplicity have made it the default music player on my desktop computer. The flowing design and smooth effects make Windows Media Player and even iTunes feel a little dated.
I was, unfortunately, unable to test the entire syncing portion of the software, as I don’t have a Zune (hey, Microsoft, feel free to send me one, and I’ll be more than glad to test that portion of the software 😉 ) but given the level of integration in the rest of the application, I’d be surprised if it didn’t work well. I think it says something that I’m impressed, even though half the functionality of the program wasn’t even tested.
Have a Zune? You’re probably already using the software and being impressed. Don’t have a Zune? Give the software a test run – you may find it’s better at playing music than what you’re using now!
- User experience, user experience, user experience
- Good integration with the Zune Marketplace
- Simplicity and ease of use
- Very slick search-as-you-type implementation
- Very limited video format support
- Simplicity can also be a disadvantage – no MP3 tag editing
- Podcast support is a bit lacking
- Memory usage is higher than Windows Media Player 11 and other lighterweight players
- Support for MP3 players other than the Zune