Zune: Music, Rethought

One of the more fantastic ironies of Apple’s success with its iPod, iPhone and iPad over the last decade is that iDevices, along with iTunes, have become so prolific that using them is no longer about thinking different, but going with the flow.

Enter Zune.

Questioning Windows Media Player’s continued existence

For some people to think that the same company who brought us Windows Media Player, is the same company who designed Zune player would require stratospheric suspension of disbelief. But it’s the truth. Windows Media Player has always been the forgotten child in every new Windows release – it received evolutionary and incidental updates to its functionality, but the experience has always been half-baked. There is no integrated, high-quality Microsoft-backed store and the interface remains convoluted alongside iTunes; and that’s despite Microsoft dramatically improving codec support in Windows 7 and allowing you to stream your media collection to another Windows PC over the internet via a Windows Live ID. Don’t ask me how, though, because there’s no simple way to set it up.

Leaving aside the fact that Microsoft decided to make its own iPod competitors (called Zune devices, which were never released outside of the United States), the accompanying Zune desktop software for these devices was essentially a ground-up project, independent of Windows Media Player and with a radically smooth, flowing interface with the aim, so it was said, to make music more ‘social’. Believe what you will about the marketing, but the Zune interface is a revelation – it’s a very dynamic and visual experience that brings album art to the fore and discards the boring, monochrome database view of iTunes and other media players of yore. In fact, so pleasing is the Zune experience, it’s a wonder why Microsoft persists with Windows Media Player at all.

Overseas expansion

So why is this important all of a sudden? Well, anybody who lives outside the United States has never had the opportunity to really get to play around with Zune in any meaningful sense. A couple of years back I downloaded and installed the Zune player on my machine just out of interest, but it was useless due to the strict region controls that Microsoft built into the software. In other words, you needed to import a Zune device and a willingness to tinker with granular region settings to get the most out of the desktop software – an exercise best left to the extreme gadget fans.

However, the advantage with Windows Phone 7 is that all devices on which it is installed, including the HTC Mozart 7, are now Zune devices which means the desktop software is now much more useful.  Of course, as I alluded to in earlier blog posts, the Zune Marketplace is still largely unavailable in Australia meaning the music store is inaccessible. An annoying limitation that arises from this restriction is that it also renders the podcast directory inaccessible so you’re only able to subscribe to podcasts by manually entering URLs. At this point, I’m struggling to understand Microsoft’s bizarre approach to region controls – it seems obvious to me that the podcast directory should be demarcated from the general music store. That said, the software has somehow managed to import subscriptions from iTunes by itself so the podcasts I do listen to are already in there ready for me to sync. Furthermore, Australian users are at least able to browse, purchase and download applications and movies.

zune_app_marketplace

Quickplay

When you first open the Zune software in Windows, you are immediately brought to a ‘quickplay’ start screen at which your recent music and video playback history is displayed via album art or a video thumbnail. It’s also possible to ‘pin’ favourite artists and albums to this screen for quick access, as you can see in the image below.

zune_quickplay

If you have a reasonably large collection of recent playbacks, the album art and thumbnails will scroll smoothly to the left or the right accordingly with the movement of the mouse cursor. The advantage of the ‘quickplay’ screen is that it’s dynamic, constantly refreshing itself with recent music, video and podcasts – all dependent on how you interact with your content. The difference is stark when compared with the initial experience of iTunes which would ordinarily rely on smart playlists to reproduce something even remotely similar to the Zune ‘quickplay’ experience.

iTunes_comparison

Collection

The collection screen of the Zune software sorts your music in three columns: artists, albums and songs. The album column is front and centre as it primarily relies on album art:

zune_collection

If you change the collection view to videos or pictures, the software reverts to a two column view where – interestingly – you can share content directly to your Windows Live account if you have Windows Live Photo Gallery installed. This seamless integration with Windows Live is what I believe  to be one of the key strengths of the Zune software – in iTunes, your content is static and disconnected unless you choose to expand it by delving into the voluminous iTunes store. Even if you connect your iPhone, iTunes doesn’t even backup your photos to the Pictures folder in Windows so that you can readily sort and share them. In fact, the only backup it does is equivalent to making a ghost copy of your computer’s hard drive. That’s all well and good, but I shouldn’t have to open the Facebook or Flickr app on the phone itself in order to share photos and videos, especially when the device is connected to my computer. Logically, everything should just move across automatically as it does with Windows Phone 7 and Zune.

However, where the iPhone is more useful is in the fact that it complies with ordinary digital camera standards such that when you plug it into Windows, you can copy photos across as if it were a generic digital camera. This is good in situations where you want to have the photos developed at one of the myriad of photo kiosks in shopping centres, Dicks Smith or Harvey Norman ‘big box’ stores – these kiosks, via USB, will recognise the iPhone as a digital camera.  Unfortunately, the HTC Mozart 7 and Windows Phone 7 are not similarly compliant and thus it’s not possible to copy photos to your computer unless the Zune software is installed.

Music Playback

One of the most attractive experiences of Zune is the music playback screen which uses album art to create a beautiful collage in the background which dynamically changes when new songs are played or added. The software also has a subtle transparent gradient of colours which change according to the beat of the song. In the foreground, album art also dominates by displaying a large thumbnail of the album art of the song currently playing.

playback_music

What I love about this is that the computer isn’t brought to a screeching halt by virtue of making your music playback a visual experience. This is completely unlike iTunes whereby Cover Flow increases CPU utilisation dramatically and makes the entire experience miserably laggy even with a quad-core Intel processor. While I’m told that iTunes works better on Macs (unsurprisingly, of course) the gigantic album artwork theme of Cover Flow is, nevertheless, nowhere near as attractive.

That said, there are still some limitations – namely, there is no built-in equaliser which is unlike iTunes where users are given equaliser options that can be adjusted for every single song should the user so require. This limitation replicates itself on the phone as well, where you’ll need to revert to HTC’s Sound Enhancer applet to make global changes to the system’s equaliser. In my experience, the software seems to optimise sound for pop music, which doesn’t bother me per se, but rock enthusiasts (or even classical lovers) may be frustrated at the lack of an equaliser option.

Furthermore, the interface for embellishing album information and adding album art is both convoluted and not as intelligent as in iTunes. This is disappointing given the software’s unique reliance on album art to make the experience visually appealing. Whereas iTunes will find album artwork fairly simply by right clicking the album and selecting ‘find album artwork’ (you can even set it to automatically search for artwork each time you add music to the library); Zune, on the other hand, requires the user to match the album details manually with Microsoft’s online database before you can download the album art. This may seem innocuous, but if you’ve got a special Australian release album which features a bonus song not available in other markets, the software won’t allow you to download the album art because the details are different. iTunes won’t normally require such minutiae, all it relies on is the name of the artist and album name. The whole process can be averted if you ensure every album folder in Windows has a JPEG image of the album art, but it’s no longer 1995 – this should be a painless, automatic experience. In this respect, iTunes gets it right despite looking (and operating) like something designed in 1995.

Sync Interface

The sync interface is comparatively basic alongside iTunes, but that’s largely due to the fact that Windows Phone 7 is much more cloud focussed and is thus far less reliant on desktop backup.

sync_interface

One of the most obvious examples of this cloud focus is that the Zune software does not sync with Microsoft Office Outlook in any way whatsoever. Contacts, calendar, tasks, notes and so forth are all based in the cloud, making an Outlook sync redundant. A few of my fellow reviewers have complained about this and their comments are somewhat legitimate. All I would say in response to that is if you download the Windows Live Outlook Connector, you can interact with your Windows Live Hotmail contacts, calendar etc from within Outlook without any troubles. So, it’s just a matter selecting your contacts, calendar etc and copying it to Windows Live Hotmail from within Outlook – this is a simple task because Outlook demarcates your regular Exchange and POP accounts from your Hotmail account without overlap. Once you’ve brought everything into the cloud, you’ll wonder why you tied yourself to the desktop for so long.

The wireless theme continues with Wireless Sync which is excellent – so long as your computer is on, Zune will automatically sync your photos, music and videos after your phone has been connected to the wall charger for 10 minutes. Again, this makes a lot of sense – whereas all of Apple’s ‘mobile’ devices demand frequent desktop connections to do anything, it’s refreshing that  Zune actually treats the HTC Mozart 7 as a mobile device by allowing the option of wireless sync. Where this feature would really shine is if Australians were given access to the podcast directory – you go to sleep at night, your new podcasts are wirelessly synced by morning. Unwired’s slogan ‘no wires, no wait, no worries’ is particularly apt here.

Getting music and video onto my HTC Mozart 7 was as easy as dragging a song to the phone icon in the bottom left corner of the app, or right-clicking and choosing ‘sync with Robert’s HTC Mozart’. Videos which are not encoded in a compatible format are automatically converted. As an example, I dragged an episode of Mad Men to the phone and it immediately began a conversion process. It took about 10 minutes to convert the 350MB file and copy it to the device, but the transfer from an XVID in an AVI container to an MP4 compatible in Windows Phone 7 was without headache.

Peculiarly though, if you happen to perform a hard reset of your device which wipes all of the data, Zune doesn’t backup your apps on the computer. That would be fine if getting your apps back was as simple as entering your Windows Live ID and watching, as occurs in the People Hub, your apps automatically download from the marketplace. But that’s not what occurs – as I’ve read, you’ve essentially got to manually download everything again. Furthermore, all of your app data is blown away, which is also inconvenient unless all of your apps feature some sort of internet backend that stores the relevant data. The iTunes backup model makes more sense in this respect.

On the Phone

The slick interface of the desktop software is mostly replicated on the phone, taking full advantage of the pervasive Metro Panorama interface in Windows Phone 7, except its called Music & Video hub. The main difference is that there is an FM Radio option available which works as one would expect – this is particularly handy if you don’t want to waste data or battery by streaming radio over the internet. However, I’ve got to say I’m missing WunderRadio on the iPhone which allows you to stream radio from all over Australia and the world, even AM stations. Yes, I listen to AM radio and I’m proud of it. Smile

Perhaps the main weakness of the playback experience on the phone is that there is no easy way to seek or skip through songs, podcasts or videos. Ordinarily in most playback apps, you can drag the cursor left or right to a desired point in a song, video or podcast. This is not currently possible in Windows Phone 7 – instead, you’ve got to hold down the fast-forward button to skip to the appropriate spot. The button is pressure sensitive so it will speed up the longer you hold it, but again, this is an unnecessarily time-consuming process. Just give us a cursor, Microsoft.

Impossible, too, is the ability to create playlists on the device. That has to be done within the Zune desktop software. I don’t use playlists that often, so it’s of no major consequence to me. Bear in mind, though, it only became possible to create playlists on the iPhone this year.

When Australians are eventually given access to the Zune music marketplace (I hope), it will integrate with the Music & Video hub allowing you to search, download or stream content directly from the device. At this stage, as stated in respect of the desktop software, the marketplace option in the Music & Video hub is not yet available to Australians.

Third Party Integration

Given how well Microsoft has been able to integrate Facebook with the People Hub, for example, it would be nice to see more developers plug straight into the Music & Video Hub, particular for streaming music apps. The TWiT app does integrate with the ‘history’ area of the Music & Video Hub in the sense that if you’re halfway through a TWiT podcast, it will show that it’s paused and when you click on it, it will open up the TWiT app and play the podcast from the point at which you paused it. The YouTube app behaves in a similar way.

Another app, called Lyrics, is able to search for the lyrics for all the songs in your collection. It’s also able to automatically provide artist biographies as well as find more songs by the artist. In countries with access to the music marketplace, you can buy music straight from the app.

This type of integration really leverages the ‘hub’ theme of Windows Phone 7 and countervails claims that you need to endlessly scroll to find your apps. The point of the hubs is that the apps should integrate so seamlessly with the core OS that you don’t need open them individually. Nothing could so perfectly illustrate this than the Facebook integration – I haven’t needed to open that app at all. But the integration needn’t be as deep as Facebook – it just needs to make sense. Insofar as Zune is concerned, any application that relates to music or video should be hooked into the Music & Video hub.

Wrap Up

There is no doubt that the Zune software is a positive addition to the whole Windows Phone 7 ecosystem. It’s fast, looks good and has flexible syncing options. It should be the main media player on Windows as well, going forward.

But, there are some limitations that need to be resolved – Australians need access to the music marketplace and podcast directory, adding album art needs to be a lot easier and an equaliser should be a standard feature of any music application. I’d also like to see more third party integration, particularly with respect to internet radio streams. There’s no such streaming app that caters for the Australian market as of yet.

I guess the question, or the elephant in the room, is whether Zune competes well with iTunes and iPod. On a feature-by-feature comparison, iTunes is still ahead. But if we’re talking about the core music, video and picture experience, there’s no doubt that Zune competes and I’d say it’s better in a lot of respects. On the phone, the story is much the same. With the exception of the lack of slider or cursor to skip to certain parts of songs or videos quickly, Zune is rather nice on the phone.

The marketplace issue is just a reflection of Microsoft’s poor localisation efforts. As with Bing Search, if you’re in the US, it’s a great piece of software. Unfortunately, international customers don’t receive the same benefits. That’s an area where Microsoft really needs to lift its game, because Apple and Google get it right more of the time when it comes to localisation in overseas markets.

So, would I discard iTunes and iPod? No, but the reason is more simple than the issues I’ve mentioned above. It’s lack of storage. As much as I love the Zune experience, I have over 20GB of music that I like to carry everywhere with me. The limitations I’ve mentioned throughout this article can be resolved with software updates, but the HTC Mozart 7’s 8GB storage ceiling is an insurmountable hardware limitation.

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