My First Zune Experience

A little over a week ago, I had the opportunity to actually hold and play around with the new Microsoft Zune digital media player. My hunch was correct: This device rocks and if the software and services supporting it are as beautiful and seamless as the display, navigation and overall user experience of the physical hardware, holiday shoppers will have a tough decision to make come November 14, 2006. Is it finally time to demand both form & function (Zune) in their next/new portable device or will they continue to follow the herd and choose form & marketing (iPod) instead?

30GB White iPod vs. 30GB White ZuneThe 30GB Zune equals the 30GB iPod in form as far as both design and specifications are concerned. Go compare them side-by-side yourself. The first thing you notice while reviewing the pictures is the Zune will be slightly bigger in both length and height/depth. Looking at the specs in the table below the pictures on that page, you see the devices are the same width but the Zune is slightly heavier.

A quick look at the screens shows the primary reason for the size and weight disparity. The Zune screen is huge and gorgeous, let me tell you, and the UI and navigation run circles around the dated iPod interface. Personally, I will readily accept a few more millimeters in each dimension and several grams in weight for the experience the larger screen provides.  This is particularly true for watching videos while traveling — the primary selling point of the newest generation of iPods with their larger capacities and the wider selection of content available through iTunes.

The iPod screen looks like a postage stamp compared to the Zune’s. Who cares if you can buy and store dozens of videos if you will never watch them on the device? One thing we know is our eyes do not improve with age. A larger screen could attract more seniors to the market and everybody wins. Tweens and Metrosexuals can have their iPods. Boomers and Gamers their Zunes. Split everyone else.Abraham Simpson

The Zune does not have a click-wheel which I am sure will draw the rancor of iPod fans everywhere. I never bought into the whole click-wheel thing. Sure, it is innovative and cool but it is neither an ergonomic nor efficient way to traverse vast, hierarchical collections of music as simple up/down/right/left/select gestures. It is akin to navigating the folders and files on a computer using a trackball or by rotating the mouse in a circle . There is a lot of energy expended moving the selection device in directions that are not relevant to the structure of the data.

I also find song selection with a click-wheel to be aggravatingly imprecise over short distances (e.g., move one song up or down). This applies to both my iPod and my Sonos controller (which also employs touch-wheel technology). Picture a senior citizen with rheumatoid arthritis trying to use a click-wheel. Speed of navigation with the Zune’s directional keypad vs. the iPod’s click-wheel is a non-issue. Also, the Zune UI ups the ante in content organization. Try it. I bet you’ll like it.

I haven’t even mentioned the Zune’s customizability or wireless capabilities. (Yes, its wireless is standard 802.11b/g so it has the potential to tap into wireless networks at home, work and on the road. Sweet!)

Here is my scorecard:

  • Function: The Zune wins hands down but Apple isn’t standing still.
  • Form: This one is a tie as the Zune’s screen easily neutralizes any coolness attributed to the iPod’s click-wheel, industrial design and workmanship.
  • Marketing: Apple is brilliant and the iPod brand is well-engrained but Microsoft isn’t standing still.

I’m eager to see what new functions/features Apple is cooking up and how soon they will go to market with their newest lineup. As for marketing, Microsoft has a solid product and price. If the company can nail the positioning and promotion over the next six months, Apple may have a real fight on its hands.