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Zune adds Quickplay, Smart DJ, movies, apps… and more reasons to get a Zune Pass

15 September, 2009 (00:01) | zune news | By: Harvey Chute

Zune software 4.0 becomes available today, in a significant update timed to coincide with today’s release of the new Zune HD player.

Among the new features: Quickplay (an up-front graphical display of content you’re likely to want to play), Smart DJ (creates playlists based on an artist, track, or album in your collection or in Marketplace), Movies (rentals and download-to-own) from Marketplace, along with an assortment of welcome new advances in content management.

And, taking its first baby steps towards a full-fledged Apps Store, Zune Marketplace now sports an Apps section. A handful of free apps are available, including a weather app, calculator, and a small assortment of games.

Read on for more details and screenshots on these new Zune software and Zune Marketplace features! Click on any screenshot to see it full-size.

Quickplay displays a convenient graphical menu of the content you’re most likely to want to play. This includes any content that you’ve “pinned”, as well as your new, favorite, and recently-played content. This is not just for music but for all content including podcasts, videos, radio stations, pictures, or playlists. Quickplay also displays recommended Zune Marketplace content.

Quickplay appears as one of the new, simplified menu options from the Zune software main screen. Quickplay is also available on the Zune HD player. It’s designed as a quick way for users to be one touch away from accessing the content they care most about when they turn on their Zune HD.

Smart DJ creates auto-playlists based on a given artist, album, or track.  From your collection or from Zune Marketplace, you can right-click an artist, album, or track, then select Play Smart DJ mix, and a playlist of related music will begin streaming. You can also choose to create a Smart DJ playlist that’s saved in your collection. The Smart DJ selections come from any content in your collection, and for Zune Pass holders it includes tracks from Marketplace.

It strikes me as a progression from Pandora’s web streaming music service and the Apple Genius feature. Smart DJ is able to use actual playcount information from all users to determine an appropriate mix of related music.

But it’s the integration of Zune Pass with Smart DJ that really sets it apart. While Genius will make iTunes music recommendations outside of your collection, Smart DJ takes it a step further for Zune Pass holders - those recommendations are directly playable in your Smart DJ playlist. And, with a single mouseclick you can download all songs in a Smart DJ playlist to add them to your local collection.

If you don’t have a Zune Pass, Smart DJ still works with your personal collection; additional Marketplace tracks are viewable but grayed-out. (If you prefer, you can unselect a radio button, to filter the tracks down to only those from your personal collection.)

Now Playing, the popular graphical animations feature in Zune software, is now on the Zune HD player itself. While playing music, a moving background of text, artist photos, and album art is displayed on the player.

MiniPlayer mode is now available, which collapses the Zune software window to a small music/video player on the desktop. From the MiniPlayer you can click on the artist title to see tracks, quickly access Smart DJ playlists or jump to music pinned in the Quickplay menu.

Movies are now available from Zune Marketplace. You can either download-to-own or rent movies. You can choose standard definition or high-def, and movies are viewable on PC, Zune HD, and Xbox LIVE.

Meanwhile, the download-to-own TV show collection continues to grow and is now at over 40 networks. You can purchase TV shows and download them to Zune PC software, Zune HD, or Xbox. There’s no extra charge for re-downloading to a different platform among those three.

Note: when renting or purchasing video, the downloaded file is optimized for the platform you select: 1080p for HDTV, 720p for Zune HD video out, or standard definition on the PC.

For rentals, you have 14 days to start watching your video, and 24 hours in which to watch the video (as many times as you want) once it starts playing.

Apps (games and utilities) are now available through Marketplace, with a small set that we have to assume is the first steps toward something much larger. Earlier releases of Zune software provided a testbed of sort for games and apps development, but no organized store or collection of downloads existed. Now Zune moves closer to a full-fledged apps store, by offering a handful of free games and utilities from Zune Marketplace.

Microsoft indicates that more apps are on the way, saying that “later this year” we can expect Twitter for Zune, Facebook for Zune, and 3-D games including “Project Gotham Racing: Ferrari Edition,” “Vans Sk8: Pool Service” and “Audiosurf™ Tilt.”

While it hasn’t been announced yet, it seems inevitable that apps for Zune will be opened up to developer submissions.

Games can be downloaded to Zune HD via Zune Marketplace, either directly through a Wi-Fi connection or by connecting the Zune HD to the Zune PC software. Sad news for owners of earlier Zune players: apps will only be supported for Zune HD, not for earlier Zune players.

Zune Pass users will be pleased to see some thoughtful tweaks to the Zune Pass “10 to keep forever” feature. Version 4.0 introduces a Zune Pass song credits reminder message. Appearing in the upper right hand of the PC software, it displays how many free song credits you have and the expiration date.

Having indecision about which songs to use your credits on? Now you can click the song credit text, and the PC software will calculate a suggested song list based on the music you have listened to the most and that are among your highest rated tracks. A simple click andyou can add these tracks to your permanent collection.

Zune Pass subscription works on three PCs, three Zune devices, and now enables streaming of music through a web browser from Zune.net. (The web browser must support SilverLight; both Internet Explorer and Firefox do.)

Personal Recommendations have been improved through an updated Picks algorithm. We’re told that the new algorithm pays closer attention to your listening habits and those of the entire Zune music community. And, you can now give feedback on recommendations, by hovering over a recommendation and clicking ‘Show me something else’.

Collection filtering: You can now filter the display of your collection, to display all of your content, your Zune Pass content only, or your unprotected content.

Firmware updates: I haven’t had a chance to preview the 4.0 firmware update, as it was not made available to reviewers prior to its public release today. Here are a couple of items of note, though:

  • I do know that Unicode is now supported by Zune HD, for display of foreign language character sets. I presume it’ll be available for earlier models as well in this firmware update, but that’s my speculation.
  • Equalizer settings are available for Zune HD. I do not expect that this will be available for earlier Zune players; again, that’s my speculation.
  • For owners of earlier-generation Zune players, you’ll get a firmware update today. As far as I know, the update will not provide new functionality but will enable your player to sync with the new Zune PC software.
  • While most of the Zune software updates listed above will benefit all Zune owners (HD as well as earlier models), some new Zune features will not work with older players. Apps from Marketplace won’t run on older-generation Zunes, for example. Curiously, older Zunes won’t be able to have rented movies synced to them, although they will be able to download and playback download-to-own files. Other features intrinsic to the touchscreen user interface of Zune HD, including the web browser and Quickplay, are available on Zune HD but not on earlier Zune models.