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Full Zune 2 coverage from Zunerama:
   Zune 80 review
   Zune 8 review
   Tour the new Zune user interface video
   Watch how wireless sync works video
Fun stuff:
   Unboxing Zune 80 video
   Unboxing Zune 8 video
   Zune gallery - close-ups and 360o views
More stuff:
   Zune software install
   Walk through Zune's PC software
   View Marketplace screenshots


Zune 8: Review

Zune 8 player

The Zune 2nd-generation player launch is almost upon us, and today we bring you Zunerama's pre-release review of the Zune 8GB player ("Zune 8").

The Zune 8 is part of a sweeping update by Microsoft of its digital media player offering. Along with Zune 8, a smaller 4GB player and an 80GB hard-drive player are being launched, as well as a significant firmware update, new PC software, an updated online Marketplace, and a new Zune Social community site.

Let's start this review by noting that the Zune 8 unboxing is a most pleasurable experience. Check out our unboxing video and pics.

zune 8 player

The installation of the new Zune software was much improved from the first-generation experience. Player setup and initial sync was painless.

zune 8 player

Now, on to our review of the 8GB player itself.

Body. The front of the player is plastic, with a warm, soft feel similar to the first-gen Zune 30GB. The plastic has a subtle double-shot, in which a darker shade of color is injected into the edges of the casing as a design accent.

My review unit is a green player. (I gave it the Zune Tag Gumby.) Other available colors include black, glossy red, and pink.

The backside of the player is a matte (i.e. dull-finished) aluminum. I had wondered how the two different materials would "go" together; now that I see the player in person I can say that it's a pleasing combination, to the hand and to the eye. The matte finish resists fingerprints and smudges.

zune 8 player

Size. The player weighs in at 1.7 ounces. Height and width are 3.6 x 1.6 inches. You can view more player specifications in our Zune flash-memory player spec table, and compare its features with the iPod nano.

ZunePad. A new feature in this generation is the touch-sensing ZunePad, which responds to light brushing of your fingertip (or, more likely, thumbtip).

For long lists, you can "flick" the ZunePad to scroll. The faster you flick, the faster the list rolls. You stop the scrolling with a light tap on the Pad. It's a natural-feeling action.

I particularly appreciate the ZunePad when navigating through detailed pages. For example, when browsing through a grid of photos, you can move your thumb continuously, in zig-zag or L-shapes to smoothly get to your desired picture. (You don't need to lift your thumb to switch from an up-or-down motion to a left-or-right motion.)

The ZunePad can be used as a directional button, similar to the Zune 30's control pad. If you prefer to use the buttons instead of the touch pad, you can turn off the player's touch-sensor in the Settings menu.

It's good that users get the option to "flick it" or "click it" - but I bet most will quickly find the touch pad the preferred way to go.

zune 8 player

Other Controls. The Back button and Play/Pause button are slightly raised - unlike the slightly recessed buttons on the Zune 30. They give a more satisfying tactile response and I prefer them to the Zune 30.

Screen. The bright little screen is glass and measures 1.8-inches. The glass is harder to scratch than plastic screens (although I haven't mustered the courage to do a scratch test yet.) It does reflect glare, mirror-like, when the player is turned off - but less so when the screen is on. As with other players, you will probably have to adjust the viewing angle if you're near bright lights.

Screen resolution is 320x240 pixels.

zune 8 player

See more Zune 8 pictures, fresh from our pre-release review, in our Zune Gallery.

User Interface. The graphical UI of the first-generation Zune player was impressive, setting it apart from many other players. Now the user interface has been further improved with completely rebuilt firmware. (First-generation Zune 30s will also receive the new UI, through a firmware update on November 13.)

One notable new feature is wireless sync. I'm pleasantly surprised by how simple it is to set up my home wireless network for the player. Wireless sync can be initiated from the Settings menu, anytime you're within range of your network. Wireless sync also happens automatically when the player is plugged into a power source.

As the video of our wireless sync testing shows, it's a straightforward and fun process. I think wireless sync will quickly be viewed as an essential and useful feature by Zune owners.

zune 8 player

Podcast support has been nicely implemented on the player, which organizes and plays audio and video podcasts from the several hundred that are available at no charge on Zune Marketplace.

zune 8 player

As with the first-gen Zune player, the Zune 8 (and 4) includes a built-in FM tuner, and the ability to share songs and pictures wirelessly from one Zune to another. You can listen to full-length tracks sent to you up to three times. There is no longer a three-day limit for listening to the tracks. Also, you can now wirelessly send another Zune a track that you yourself received wirelessly.

The player is satisfying to use, and even more intuitive than the first-generation user interface. Amidst the delights of the new firmware and software, there are changes that may cause consternation for some. Those include:

No TV-out capability. The Zune 8 and 4 do not have video-out capability. The headphone jack can be used for audio-out to your stereo, but - unlike the Zune 30 and Zune 80 - there is no video-out to your television.

No equalizer. In a design decision that surprised me, the Zune team did not include EQ capability in this release. I queried Microsoft about this and got some insight into this decision. The Zune team evidently went to great lengths to ensure top quality throughout the signal path - delivering 32 ohms of signal to the headsets. (Indeed, the first-gen' player was favorably-viewed for its sound quality.) EQ obviously modifies the sound content, which can have a significant battery impact. And, while some users clearly make extensive use of EQ, it is apparently not considered a "must-have" feature by many. The decision came down to an attempt to balance performance, quality and price.

New rating system. The one-to-five-star rating system has been replaced with a simpler "heart"-"broken-heart" rating to indicate songs you like, don't like, and that remain unrated. This has made for some controversy in our forums, and some will no doubt be loathe to lose the work they've put into their detailed ratings. Personally, I'm starting to like the new rating system. I think it will be fine for new users, and for those who aren't heavily invested in using the more detailed rating method.

Playlists. Auto-playlists are not supported in the new firmware or PC software. These were supported in the first-gen Zune software, and I was surprised to find that my auto-playlists were not converted when I installed the new software. The Zune team has indicated to me that this was a design trade-off, made based on their survey data that indicated a small percentage of people use auto-playlists (a.k.a. "smart playlists").

I think their ears are open to us, though... if we as a group feel that this is an important feature. (I do - although I am also aware that many users simply don't use it.)

I've dwelled a bit here on the changed or missing features, that I know will be important to some of you. Overall, the user interface and features are much improved and beautifully designed. You can view the user interface in our video walkthrough, which tours through every menu and feature on the player.

Integration with Zune software. You can't separate the player experience from its integration with Zune software and Marketplace - both of which have been expanded and re-engineered. Clean, intuitive... it just makes sense, and is a model of simplicity. Props to Microsoft for designing such a rich, functional, and compelling software experience.

zune 8 player

See our Zune software walkthrough for a look at the revamped and greatly improved software.

The re-built and re-stocked Zune Marketplace is also full of new features and content. Check them out in our Marketplace review.

Summary. In the year since the first-generation Zune was released, we've been surprised at the paucity of firmware and software updates from the Zune team. It is now eminently clear why that was. In that time, the team has defined all-new hardware for this second-generation player, developed firmware and PC software from the ground up, and re-stocked and re-defined the online Marketplace. That's a lot of activity, and the final results show the Zune team's solid strategy.

The flash memory market is very competitive, with players including the extraordinarily popular iPod nano, and the many variations of the Sandisk Sansa. The Zune 8 seems to have the right stuff to compete in that market. The inclusion of wireless capabilities, and its internal FM tuner, help differentiate it somewhat in the crowded ultracompact flash player world. A downsize competitively is that the screen is 0.2" smaller than the nano's 2-inch screen - although some may prefer the Zune's slimmer profile to the nano's squatty shape.

The success of the flash-based Zune players may hinge on the success of the overall Zune experience. The impressive Zune software makes for a great user experience, and is more noobie-friendly than the previous version. The Zune ecosystem seems poised to further wedge its way in to a position of strength in the digital player market - and solid, well-designed flash players like Zune 8 and Zune 4 are an essential part of that strategy.

All in all, the Zune 8 and Zune 4 models are a competent first step for Zune into the flash player market.


Full Zune 2 coverage from Zunerama:
   Zune 80 review
   Zune 8 review
   Tour the new Zune user interface video
   Watch how wireless sync works video
Fun stuff:
   Unboxing Zune 80 video
   Unboxing Zune 8 video
   Zune gallery - close-ups and 360o views
More stuff:
   Zune software install
   Walk through Zune's PC software
   View Marketplace screenshots


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