Zune 8GB, 3rd Generation

In the interest of full disclosure, there's something I must confess to everyone reading this review: I'm an oddity in today's downloading, high-speed, personalized world of music.

You see, I've never owned an MP3 player. My last source of portable ear candy involved a Discman and a pair of headphones that resembled earmuffs. As recently as two years ago, I was carting around a small carrying case with my favorite CDs. That is, until my Discman was (believe it or not) stolen.

Since then, it has been a long, mostly silent road filled with good books and magazines. I keep holding out for the latest technology, knowing that in less than a year the newest MP3 models will be history. But if I keep looking into the future, the next decade will arrive, making an article such as this far too embarrassing to write.

So I took the plunge and decided to test out an MP3 player to help me decide which one I ought to buy. The advantage of having so little experience with these gadgets is that I have no allegiance to Apple, Microsoft or any of the other companies that sell MP3 players.

The disadvantage? What follows will not include an in-depth analysis or detailed comparisons to other products. As Sarah Palin would say, I'm just an average Joe.

Now, on to the review…

When I first held the red Zune 8GB third-generation (model 1125), I was thrilled by its lightness (1.7 ounces). Microsoft clearly doesn't have the same Twiggy-esque obsession with thinness that Apple does. The $139 Zune isn't nearly as slim as the fourth-generation iPod ,but it still fits comfortably into the palm of your hand.

I enjoyed the contrast between the Zune's glossy maroon shell and its matted "Zune pad" that's used to scroll up and down playlists with the flick of your thumb.

The Zune's most distinctive feature, however, is the engraved art on the back of the player. My model displayed a Pisces image by Catalina Estrada from the Zodiac series. Users can choose from funky designs created by a wide variety of artists from across the globe. The artwork on my sample Zune looked like a fancier version of an Anime cartoon.

Passing on the Zune Pass

After admiring the exterior, my first priority was to download music, which led me to the Zune Pass, Microsoft's would-be cash cow. When I first explored the Zune Pass, I thought it was just fantastic. Unlimited music! Free downloads! Turns out I didn't quite understand the way it really functioned. The $14.99 monthly pass doesn't buy unlimited songs. You can, however listen to unlimited songs, and at the end of each month, you're permitted to keep 10. All of the other music that you download disappears as soon as you cancel your subscription. It's an improvement over the way the Zune Pass used to function. In the past, subscribers couldn't keep any of the songs after their subscription ended.

In another somewhat confusing twist, the 14-day Zune Pass trial offer that's now available on Zune.net doesn't function in the same way as the actual Zune Pass. You are not permitted to keep 10 songs. As soon as the trial ends, the music you downloaded is deactivated. Only after buying a Zune Pass subscription can you redeem a code for 10 songs. Since I normally only buy a few songs at a time, I'd rather purchase them at my leisure. My preference is to avoid subscription services while acquiring the nearly 2,000 songs that one can store on a Zune 8GB.

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