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APCUG Reports
July-September 2007

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Zune - A Player for the Rest of Us
By Ash Nallawalla, APCUG Director, Australia

Are you older than 50? Have you tried to use an MP3 or video player but found your thumbs and fingers were all mixed up? Perhaps the text was too hard to read? A solution is at hand, in the form of the Microsoft Zune player. Its large fonts and simple controls make it quite suitable for the 50+ age group. The buttons give positive feedback, unlike the capacitive touch pads on others where you might click more than you intended to. Available in stores and online for around $230, this gadget is a portable picture viewer, video and music player, as well as a radio. It is about the size and weight of a deck of cards.

The Zune has a 3x2-inch (320x240 pixels) color screen and a 30 GB hard drive. Its circular control is 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 lock. The only accessories that you get are a soft pouch, earphones and a USB connector. The two earbuds are magnetized, so they snap together when not in use and do not get tangled up.

There is built-in WiFi, but it only communicates with another Zune, with which you can transfer music (not video). These shared tunes only last for three days and you can only play each one three times. 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 80-100 GB drive, but this will void the warranty.

In use

Installation was dead easy on my Windows XP desktop, once I swapped the USB connector from the front of my PC to a slot at the back. The Zune was recognized and the process 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 (included in the box) of the Zune Pass, which normally costs $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 synchronized them with the Zune. 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! Think about it - if you lost your home in a fire or flood, wouldn't it be great if you had transferred all your pictures and home videos to the Zune?

I am more of a radio listener than a pure music listener. The Zune displays the radio frequency in a large font so you'd need to be almost blind not to read it. My favorite FM station supports 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 synchronized 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.

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.

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. I had to use a third party hack (to my Windows registry) to achieve this.

Community

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

Zune Insider - Cesar Menendez (MSFT): http://zuneinsider.com

Zune Guy - Bill Wittress (MSFT): http://zuneguy.com

Zune User Group: http://www.zuneusergroup.com

Recommendation

You will enjoy using a Zune! I have a white Zune but you can get it in pink, red, brown and black. You can buy numerous accessories such as docks, protective cases, chargers, cables, and so on. For more information, visit the official site http://www.zune.net.