Hardware Review: Zune 120GB MP3/Video Player

zuneAn MP3 player is like a relationship.

You may go through a few that break down or get lost immediately. When you get one that works the way you like, you hold onto it, take care of it, and hope it lasts a lifetime.

My Creative Labs Zen Vision:M (30GB) recently passed away after a 4 year relationship.

I was beside myself, but determined to go on with my life.

My first blind date after returning to the MP3 player scene was with the Microsoft Zune 120GB.

Did I find a new keeper, or did I kick it to the curb?

I’m going to preface this review with full disclosure: 

I don’t like Apple products.I will NOT have iTunes installed on any of my machines, and I will NOT buy an iPod. I won’t be comparing the Zune to Apple hardware, simply because the iPod was never a viable purchase option for me, and I therefore I have no idea of it’s capabilities. I have my reasons.

Just being clear about where I’m coming from. I don’t know the full spec list for the iPod Touch… and I don’t care. Since I can’t make a fair comparison, I won’t be making that comparison at all. Although, I have to admit the iPod Touch looks dead sexy from an aesthetic perspective.

Moving on…

I’m probably not the typical MP3 consumer. Bear in mind that I have thousands of CD’s (not an exaggeration), listen to 30+ hours of podcasts each week, and produce my own video material.

I also like to keep a virtual ‘demo reel’ of my video work with me… ALL of my work… around a hundred hours of video.

My first priority was to find a player that supports a wide array of video and audio formats, and has an astounding amount of storage space.

For video, the Zune supports Microsoft’s WMV format, H.264, MPEG-4, and if you’re running a Windows Media Center PC, your recorded programs (DVR-MS). Although I’d love to find a player that supports MPEG-2 and DV format AVI… I can live with that list. I don’t see anyone else supporting those formats either.

Supported audio formats include AAC (Apple iTunes), MP3, WMA (Microsoft’s format), and WMA Lossless. I have to ask, can ANYONE bother to support OGG? Probably not, it’s primarily a Linux thing, and this IS a Microsoft platform, in a Windows world.

Storage space is definitely not an issue, with 120GB I managed to get my music, my video, and my podcasts loaded… and still had 20GB of space left. Very nice. The drawback to having that much storage is the form factor. Because it uses an actual hard drive instead of flash memory to achieve that ridiculous capacity, it’s a little on the chunky side.

The interface is intuitive, but the text in some of the main menus is a little large. Context sensitive menus for songs have smaller text, and it’s still readable, so I’m curious why other menus are FRIGGIN’ HUGE. I’d rather not have to scroll just to read the whole list. Small quibble though, everything is pretty much where you’d expect it to be… when in doubt, guess what you should be clicking. In almost every case, you’re going to be hitting the right thing.

And maybe that’s a good thing, because the Zune doesn’t come with a manual. It doesn’t come with software either, even though software is required. Essentially, the box includes a card with a URL on it… you need to go to this website to get software and drivers. For support, there is a knowledge base on the web. This is not only annoying, but strikes me as a bit underhanded. Nowhere on the box does it indicate that you need an internet connection to load ANY music on the device. Not to DOWNLOAD music, but just to get the drivers installed so you can load your EXISTING music collection. Massive fail guys.

And that’s the jumping off point for my other two complaints about the device.

You can’t LOAD anything and you can’t DELETE anything off the device without hooking it up to a PC with their software installed.

While most people don’t delete their music, I frequently delete podcasts after I’ve listened to them (okay, I was doing it with my old Zen), and now I can’t… unless I plug it in. I’d also frequently use my Zen to move media from one machine to another (off the network). I can’t do that with the Zune. You’re essentially locked down to one machine.

These minor annoyances aside, I’m pretty happy with the Zune.

Going back to the ‘relationship’ analogy, this isn’t a one night stand… it’s a long term relationship, and I’m happy with it.

But I can assure you, she ain’t getting a ring. I’m pretty sure something sexier will come along eventually, and I don’t want to be tied down.

I’m such a pig.

Matt says BUY IT.

Buy Zune 120 GB Video MP3 Player

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