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Zune: Reflections on the First Generation

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John Tränkenschuh explains his love-hate relationship with his Zune. While he likes the device, the missing video content has him "Dazed and Confused" and scattering many small references to '70s music.
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At one time, I was wildly thrilled over my Zune. It has so many cool features. But all those neat design niceties are undercut by problematic execution of what should be a superlative media experience. I wish I could organize this article better, but I feel in a genuine daze at the wide gap between promise and production. And like the movie "Dazed and Confused," all the ’70s music I like isn’t helping.

Okay, let’s get into all the cool-ocities. Then let’s dig deeply into the issues.

I bought it in December. Neat packaging. Nice, I mean really NICE packaging and manuals that suggested, "I’m forgiving—let’s play." The following week, the Central Illinois snow swirls up like an angry demon and snaps our power as you might a spider web connection to the grid.

The Zune’s radio, a unique feature, lets me warn my daughter that college is closed, and given our hinterland location, that saves her from battling sloppy roads thick with drifts, ice, and callous drivers dodging each other—at times unsuccessfully.

I had struggles placing the earpiece covers on (ear-butter sponges, so called by my friend). There is an odd projection to the perfect spherical roundness. I finally place it on and insert into ear. Then, it makes sense. That small projection locates it into the ear with a sure fit difficult to have with my iPod.

More? The back of the earpieces have odd depressions and projections and magnets and huh? As I place them together, they stay together. The harness around the two separate lines to the earpieces slides up, giving me a single wire to wind into a circle, making unraveling less a ball of twine wrapped at random.

I really like the auto-pause and power down feature, triggered by pulling the earphone connection from the Zune.

This is a green machine and not a glued shut, disposable Nano leeching heavy metals into groundwater. The Internet shows me how to crack the case and change the battery if the time comes. But that time hasn’t, after seven months of playing and inconsistent charges. I know I’ll have several vendors who will sell me the new battery while properly recycling the old.

The controls? Are you a motorcyclist? The disk control is very much like a TV remote. Need to up the volume (and what biker doesn’t when crankin’ the Doob’s "Rockin’ Down the Highway")? Push the rocker switch up. I’ll let you guess how to volume down. Need to advance to the next or previous song? Much like our remotes, that’s click the right or left of the dial. Need to back out and go up a level? That’s the button on the left that has an arrow on it. Need to pause your "China Grove?" That’s the button with the two lines on it.

Got it? Everyone I’ve tossed it to sure has, unlike my iPod. The whole "swirl the dial" to increase/decrease volume is just tough on ’em.

So how do I navigate my long line of albums—albums with READABLE fonts and VIEWABLE cover graphics? Dial up to go up. And as I navigate, a big letter displays that tells me that I’m in the T’s. A quick flick later, I’m in the D’s, and the Doobie Brothers are taking me "South of the Border" on our Cycles.

And when I’m listen[in’] to the music, I can carry the Zune in my shirt pocket and control volume with precision. The iPod? Without some amount of direct touch on the dial, the swirly thingie ain’t a sure bet. Ditto for driving. Keeping the eyes on the road and reaching for the ’Pod can have you turning down the volume as your finger searches for the button and skirts the dial in the wrong direction. I’m dyin’ when I should be dialin’!

And let’s settle something. I’m on my bike to ride to Patrick Simmons’ lead solos. I demand something the size of the Zune! I want to find controls easily; and when I’m watching a movie, I don’t want to go blind watching the fuzzy motion graphics on a postage-stamp sized screen.

The Zune software is cool and lacks complexity. It finds all my MP3s and brings them over without hassle. You just plug in the Zune, and any firmware updates just happen. There is no need to manually trigger a new firmware check.

If there’s a new download, don’t worry. You’ll be asked politely if you want to dedicate the bandwidth and time needed to do the download.

As you know, I work a job as an Info Security guy. Microsoft doesn’t keep Zune drivers instantly downloadable on the Net. Microsoft doesn’t make Zune drives instantly accessible to the PC, so forget ’Pod slurping, or making off with company information on your music player.

Okay, a determined and malicious person could warp the Zune into a slurpmobile, but see the difference? The person must reveal his/her maliciousness, while in comparison, any iPod person can "accidentally" make off with wads of data. Zune: the one media player businesses can trust.

So I’ve got music and radio. Want more? Video. Okay, maybe you like 30 frames per second (fps) video and are willing to dedicate gigabytes to video content that Microsoft wmv files will render at 20 fps—and 200 megabytes.

Much as I’ve explained in my articles on Pocket PC video abilities, Zune is a great extension to the Microsoft video empire: lots of free tools and videos formatted for Pocket PC render beautifully. "Converting Video for Your Pocket PC the Easy Way" is my best take on getting the video experience going.

And as I demo my wedding video, the 1987 Spring Play, my kids as toddlers mimicking the Spice Girls...that’s when it hits me. Design-wise, I like and use my Zune more than I would a video iPod. So why is Zune content such a hassle???

First, I find out that all my "Plays for Sure" content won’t. I’m stuck going to the Zune store. Who thinks pushing one initiative and then marketing a device that doesn’t comply is a good idea? My fellow device innovator at work buys a video ’Pod and pays $15USD for a downloaded copy of "Pirates of the Caribbean" for her Caribbean getaway with friends.

But me? I got my kids singing "Tell me what you want; what you really, really want." Granted, they did a great job, a fine job, a sterling job, swinging their little diapered butts; but that (like the Spice Girls themselves) really, really gets old in a hurry. And like those diapers, they both stink—and for all the same reasons.

And as for the ’87 play? See a mullet once, that’s funny. More than that, that’s a trip to Wal-Mart on a Friday night—hardly the multimedia rich experience the Zune promises.

But what is it that really upsets me? Yup, the whole "iPod Killer" hype everyone plopped onto a new media player. Huh? Some say, "Gee John, I guess you’re upset you didn’t get the video iPod instead." I guess because I didn’t make the SAFE choice and play Follow the Lemmings, well, I’m woefully discontented that I have an honorable mention device? Nothing doing!

The Zune has displaced the iPod in my man purse. It plays louder, longer, and more lusciously as the album cover is truly displayed on that gorgeous screen. And as the star-burst play duration indicator shimmers seductively across the screen, and as THREE lines of song and CD details display on the page in a READABLY sized font, well, I do have a super visual experience in comparison with the scratchy screen "Where’s Waldo" display on the ’Pod.

But I have a tough time getting el cheapo accessories. Yes, the store shelves dance with off-brand power cables, car players, and other accessories. For That Other Player. My need for a car charger for the Florida trip becomes Sir Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail. Put yourself in my place when traversing the South for a Zune Car Charger.

"ZUNE! It’s called Zune, not Dune! Dune is an excellent sci-fi novel; Zune is a media player you have on the second shelf!"

I did find one with both a wall outlet plug endpiece and a car charger endpiece. And that gets me upset again. Zune is powered up from USB and needs all the power it can get. There is no outlet charger provided with the Zune. It’s USB or nothing. And when you use USB, use a primary USB and not some crowded hub if you want to see the charge balls roll. I have a USB plug in converter, but guess what? We need more Power!

And that’s what has me stuck in a series of CompUSAs, Wal-Marts, and Best Buys, visible from the interstate, asking the same questions and being challenged as a stranger in a strange land. And by the way, the little carrying bag for the Zune? TOO SMALL.

But it’s worth it. The Big Display! The easy-to-navigate-and-use-by-touch-only controls! The ability to use the Zune software. It’s all there... But content is still missing. So, what would I recommend, if I were able to reach those Zune-y marketing people?

  • Let Zune be a part of the Plays For Sure initiative. Your current plan basically tells me that my current music investment is worthless.
  • Whatever else you read into the YouTube popularity explosion, understand that people want video content and are willing to pay for it. And the Windows Media Video files are so nice, so small, and so much more easily downloaded! My video projects last as long as full-length movies. They are 200MB in size. The 30 gigabytes a Zune has will seem endless in comparison with the same size iPod, trying to store its somewhat bloated video files in comparison.
  • Open the wireless interface for loading purchased songs and movies at airports.
  • Businesses Want The Zune! Expose APIs to It. Everyone has new employees to train on minor matters, such as how to submit an expense report via the online interface. People can use Windows Media Encoder to demonstrate the application, and mobile workers can view the content while traveling with their company-issued Zune. They could even take a quiz using the simple controls, and while at the airport, they could email their quiz results back to Company Central—while downloading their next training.
  • Point Out This Device’s Video Abilities! I notice that pictures can be displayed with slideshow effects. Let traveling salespeople know that the Zune can display their sales presentations just as easily. There are video output cables you can buy that make it easy to pack a Zune for your next big sales trip. Need email and other stuff and hate to haul HEAVY laptops? Pocket PCs and Ultra Mobile PCs can be a great complement to the Zune.

And so you have it. Here’s one neat media, not just music, player design. Here’s a fascinating video architecture, one populated with free tools and lots of use. Here’s a proven, robust music distribution architecture that’s full of many different songs and integration to the PC that anchors them—and an XBOX 360. But despite all of these advantages, well, Zune just seems left out in the rain.

Maybe that’s why I like it; I’m a biker, a nonconformist. I love to see an underdog win, and win big. I dig Rocky movies. I used to sell Windows/286, at a time when that wasn’t quite ready, right? I know Microsoft believes in incremental changes that get it right eventually. I’ve seen Novell reps write them off. And now look... I believe the Zune will be more, much, much more, and sooner than we might think. So it’s my main music tool. It plays my .Net training videos (downloaded from Microsoft). It’s my stake in the rich media experience "sand". It’s my Zune, and I’ll break your fingers if you try to take it.

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