My tiny Creative Zen 4gb has been on its last legs for a while now so when it finally died the other day I was not massively surprised.  I had been looking around for a new MP3 player for a while but nothing out there caught my fancy, Creative’s design team seems to be on some experimental type of drugs and iRiver has continued down the insane interface line a little too far for my liking…then there is the iPod.  Every time I mention getting a new MP3 player the inevitable is mentioned…“just get an iPod” there is a simple reason i refuse to do this and that is iTunes.  I hate iTunes and i’m pretty sure it hates me back, any time I install iTunes it attempts to purge my music collection. Then there is the DRM issue.

Ok rant over. The Zune appeared to be the solution to my problems, the only issue…they are not available outside of the United States. A quick search turned up a importing company specialising in Zunes and all possible component parts (find them here). However eBay turned up a few second hand, a quick bid later and my Zune was on its way.

The Device:

I have to say the Zune packaging is impressive, having seen how the touch arrives (in a tiny platic case) the Zune unboxing was far more momentous. The Zune itself is dominated by its large and very clear screen,  the devices physicals controls are limited to back, play/pause and the infamous “Squircle”.  The user interface is really what drew me to the Zune, the landing page is very clearly laid out and beautifully designed, clicking into the music menu shows you a view by album by clicking right or left on the squicle allows you to see your collection by artist, genre, songs or play list. It is moving through these lists that the true power of the control is evident, swipe a finger over the squircle and it rapidly accelerates through the list, yes I know the iPod Touch has a similar feature but once you reach roughly where you want to be in the list you can click up or down with the edges of the control to move one item at a time, the tactical feedback provided by this gives you much better control.  I have heard many people crying out for haptic feedback on the Ipod Touch/ IPhone and it will be interesting to see whether or not Apple chooses to implement this.

The large screen of the 80GB Zune begs to be used for video, natively the Zune will play any .m4v, .mp4 or wmv. I loaded a couple of high quality paintball videos to the device from my library, the results are very impressive, great clarity and colour. I’m looking forward to a nice long train journey to get the best out of this!

The Software:

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The Zune software is a truly beautiful looking piece of code, unfortunately it seems to suffer from some terrible performance issues, right now just playing a track it is consuming ten percent of my duel core cpu and using 120,000k of memory. A search for Zune software memory issues throws up a large number of users suffering from similar or worse issues, especially those using Windows Power Packs.  That however is the complaint i can make about this otherwise great piece of software. The control over your collection is superb and it does all of this without having to mutilate my music collection (iTunes take note!). The playback on the device has a very impressive visualisation mode the smart sync works excellently, especially with podcasts with which you can set the number of episodes you wish to have on the device at one time, removing older podcasts automatically to replace with the latest downloaded content.

A short gripe:

The Zune is a US only product, OK getting hold of one in the rest of the world is not a major issue, either hunt one down on eBay or face a extra charge on import duty. However I feel that I’m missing out of a major part of the Zune experience…the Zune Social. If you are outside of the continental United States any attempt to access the Zune.net features such as the Album Store and the Zune Pass is greeted with a simple denial “The Zune service is not yet available in your region.”.  The Zune has been supposedly on its way to Europe for over a year now I’d love to see these features over here, until they are I guess I’m going to have to try proxying past the IP restriction.

I’m really impressed with the Zune, if you are looking for a high capacity mp3/video player and don’t want to end up with an Ipod I recommend having a look at the Zune.  I’m going to have chance to use it extensively tomorrow as I’m off to the Future of Mobile with Chris. I hope to get a write up about that event up later this week.