Dec. 2, 2008 -- 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.
If exploring, rather than keeping music, is your priority, and you happen to know other Zune-o-philes, then Zune offers two other important advantages. In addition to the Zune Pass, you can receive music from other Zune users, wirelessly. After you receive a song from another Zune, you can listen to it three times before it disappears, unless of course you choose to buy it. If you don't know many people with a Zune, the Zune online community offers the opportunity to share music remotely with a much larger network of people than you may know locally.
'Heard it on the Radio'
Do you believe that video killed the radio star? The iPod still hasn't added FM radio. To get your fix you have to buy an iPod "radio remote" for nearly $50. With Zune, however, FM radio is built right into the device. You can also listen to the radio commercial-free with Zune Channels, available for free with a Zune Pass. Possibilities include the Billboard Hot 100, KROQ or a customized channel made up of your favorite artists or genres.
And here's the most interesting feature of all: Not only can you listen to the radio, you can tag the songs you like and buy them on the spot, provided that you have a Wi-Fi connection and you're listening to a radio station that broadcasts song data. This defining feature and Zune's music-sharing capabilities are some of the ways Microsoft hopes to take a bite out of Apple.
Now, for the most important part: the music. If you're not happy with your MP3 player's sound quality, then all the bells and whistles don't amount to much. After listening to a variety of songs for hours, until the Zune's battery finally faded, I couldn't shake the feeling that the bass sounded inferior. It could have been because I was using the standard headphones that come with every Zune. Without a pair of higher-quality headphones to compare these with, it's difficult to know. The songs certainly sounded richer when I played them through the speakers attached to my PC.
And speaking of PCs, you'll need one if you're considering the Zune. They aren't (yet) Mac-friendly.
Right now, iPods dominate the MP3 player market. According to The Associated Press, market researcher NPD Group said 71 percent of MP3 player sales from January to September of this year went to Apple, whereas Microsoft accounted for merely 3 percent. The Associated Press also reported that Apple had sold 160 million iPods since their 2001 launch, and Microsoft sold 2.5 million Zunes since they were first introduced in 2006.
IPods may have won the popularity contest, but if FM radio and media sharing are at the top of your list, Microsoft's 3rd generation Zune just might be the best choice.