Damn you, Indecision!

Microsoft Zune == Toshiba Gigabeat S 2.0

Earlier over my lunch break I stopped at Target to pick up some antacids and while I was browsing around, I happened upon an employee putting together a Zune display.  He was still getting things hooked up to speakers and such, so I decided to come back later after work to check it out more.  Insert obligatory bad cameraphone picture here:

zunedisp1.png

Impressions of the hardware design, menus, and media playback

The Zunes were pretty locked down, unfortunately, so you couldn’t see the “double shot” effect of the main color of the case and the secondary color showing through the translucent plastic.  There was no way to judge the size or weight of the player, either. 

Menus

I played around with the menus and for all intents and purposes, the menus are pretty much the same as the Gigabeat S’s menus.  The fonts, progress/volume bars, and menu animations have been upgraded, but essentially I was able to easily navigate the device because of my familiarity with the Gigabeat S menus.  This isn’t to say the Zune menus aren’t intuitive; they are intuitive.  I’m just saying they’re even more familiar to me because of my experience with the Gigabeat S.  The fonts and animations are pretty slick.  Very smooth and modern looking.  The 3″ screen looks very big and provides a nice canvas for the album art displayed during playback.  Pretty flashy compared to the iPod’s menus.  Oh yeah, instead of a small square of album art as on the Gigabeat S, the album art fills the screen, and the progress bar and song information are overlaid in white text.  Can’t remember if there were any readability issues of light text over light album art.

Controls

One very big improvement the Zune has over the Gigabeat S (besides WiFi) is the consolidation of the playback controls to the front of the device.  The d-pad circle controls volume (up/down) rew/ff or prev/next track (left/right), and select (center button).  A separate button to the right of the d-pad is for play/pause, and the button to the left of the d-pad is for navigating back to a previous menu.  Having all of the controls on the front of the device is a lot more user-friendly than having a d-pad on the front and playback/volume controls on the side, as the Gigabeat S did. 

The main difference from the Gigabeat S was during music playback.  On the Gigabeat, you could press the left and right directional buttons to switch among different playback display modes — album art; playlist view; a minimalist view with just the progress bar and song info without album art; and then a playback options screen to rate the song, set the playlist to shuffle, repeat the current song, or mark the current song for purchase (if you have a music subscription and want to purchase a track).  On the Zune, since left/right was for rew/ff or prev/next track, you would have to hit the center button to bring up the options screen for shuffle, repeat, song rating, or flagging a song.  There were no other playback screen modes on the Zune, which is fine, because the current implementation of the album art as background looks really nice.

The buttons seemed responsive and had decent tactile feedback.  Yes, it’s a circle that seems like it should work like the scroll wheel on an iPod, but in my opinion it isn’t as big a deal as people make it out to be.  It’s probably just as easy to scroll through thousands of songs with this d-pad as it would be with an iPod scroll wheel, especially with the feature that pops up the first letter of titles/albums that you’re currently scrolling through.  Helps you keep track of where you are when you’re scrolling very quickly through a song list.

zunedisp2.png

Videos, pictures, etc.

Video and picture playback are as you’d expect.  The large 3″ screen is very nice for viewing slideshows and videos.  The videos playback in landscape, so it was a bit difficult to watch through a video with my head tilted. πŸ™‚  Overall I like the polish to the menus and playback.  The options to change themes and customize your “wallpaper” is a nice feature that most users will appreciate.  I expect that soon we’ll see plenty of Zune themes and wallpaper floating around Zune fan sites.  If it isn’t already part of the Zune marketplace, there should be a section where you can buy different themes and wallpaper (and get some freebies, of course).  Sure, lots of users will probably just make their own themes and wallpaper whenever people have figured out how, but just as many, if not more users would be willing to drop a little money on customizations, similar to the ringtone business.  There are lots of ways to make your own for free, but the ringtone business is still stong, if I’m not mistaken.

WiFi

Lastly, I couldn’t find the way to share songs or pictures with another Zune over WiFi.  I couldn’t find any settings to configure to enable the feature.  I may have just missed it, or perhaps the option doesn’t become available until you turn on the wireless capability with a hardware switch that was hidden by the Zune’s “cage”.  No matter, since there wasn’t another working Zune to beam content to.

Lessons to be learned from the Gigabeat S

I’ve said this many times, but I’ll say it again: the Gigabeat S is a really good piece of hardware that was severly limited by lack of firmware updates and mediocre media management software (Windows Media Player).  If the Gigabeat S had an iTunes equivalent, it would be a lot bigger contender in the media player arena than it is now.  Yes, Toshiba also had some quality control issues with battery life, but I think the Gigabeat’s biggest crutch was Windows Media Player, version 10 or 11. 

Windows Media Player and other woes

Syncing was not foolproof.  A lot of people had issues getting all of their album art and ID3 tag information to sync properly onto the Gigabeat S, which made it hard to keep the media organized on the device.  Even though WMP11 was improved over WMP10, it still was not as simple as the iTunes/iPod combination.  There are always exceptions to the generalization, but many people sought other programs to sync their media onto the Gigabeat S, like MediaMonkey and Winamp.  The lack of an iTunes equivalent, lack of an accessory “ecosystem”, quality control issues, and lack of real customer support from Toshiba hurt the Gigabeat S’s adoption rate very badly.  The Zune is going to have to overcome these issues if it is to really compete against the iPod.  The Zune is going to have to “just work”.

No netcast management features at launch?  Bah.

I know that netcasts (podcasts for the uninitiated) aren’t mainstream, but they are a great source of audio and video media, well-suited for consumption for mobile devices.  So besides offering a well-stocked Zune Marketplace, the Zune should also be updated to have netcast support as the iPod does. 

Video conversion nightmares?

The Zune should also have drop-dead simple video conversion.  It was such a chore to get videos to play back correctly on the Gigabeat S.  It claimed to support DivX and MPEG-2/4 (I think?), but really it was a case of, “if WMP can convert it to WMV, the Gigabeat S supports it.” πŸ˜›  Most people who buy the Zune aren’t going to have the patience to go through all the trouble to convert videos into WMV, so if Microsoft or a third party doesn’t develop a simple conversion/syncing solution, a la PSPWare (PSP video conversion freeware) or Podtube (software to capture and convert YouTube videos to iPod format) or similar, a lot of people are going to be very vocal about their troubles getting content onto the Zune.

The Gigabeat S wasn’t all bad…

Even though I have had many complaints about the Gigabeat S, I still admire its hardware and design.  It is smaller overall than a current 5th-gen iPod, and it feels pretty good when you’re holding it, fairly ergonomic, slightly slippery on the back.  The portrait-oriented screen and the cross-shaped d-pad made the Gigabeat a more interesting-looking device than most of the cookie-cutter mp3 players out there.  I did not like the playback buttons on the side of the Gigabeat S.

For listening to music, it was pretty decent.  The easy access to repeat and shuffle functions without having to exit all the way back to the main menu was very useful.  On-the-go playlist creation wasn’t quite as simple as on the iPod, but it was alright.  The menus and animations were a lot more interesting than the tried-and-true iPod menus.  However, since I am primarily listening to netcasts right now, the Gigabeat S didn’t work out for me, since it took more work to get netcasts synced to the device.  Not so much more work than iTunes+iPod, but enough that it was frustrating that there wasn’t a simpler solution.  And the absolute lack of accessories, save for a few cases, was pretty irritating. 

Zune already on better footing than Gigabeat S at launch

I don’t think Zune will suffer exactly the same fate as the Gigabeat S.  For one thing, there is already a healthy set of accessories slated for the Zune from big companies like Griffin, Belkin, and Microsoft.  Roll your eyes all you want; the availability of accessories is important to a lot of consumers, including myself.  Not only is it nice to have ways to customize and/or protect your media player, but the availability of accessories is a good indicator of how successful and well-supported the media player could be.  

Microsoft seems to be putting a lot of resources into making the Zune as successful as possible, so I’m going to watch its progress with interest.  However, until the Zune gets some netcast support features similar to the iPod, and until the WiFi sharing feature has been expanded to WiFi syncing or direct downloading of content (especially netcasts), I’m not really going to consider buying one.  I’m pretty happy with my MDA as my mobile media device for now, despite its Flash memory limitations (direct downloading is awesome).  Some of the DRM restrictions on the Zune are something to be concerned about.  And the deal Microsoft made with Universal Music Group to give them royalties for every Zune sold is a pretty awful precedent to set.

Apple’s response?

I’m quite interested to see how Apple’s going to answer the Zune.  You know Steve Jobs isn’t going to let the Zune hog the stage for very long.  Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple announces a new iPod before the end of the year, just to hit back at the Zune hard, not to sound Apple fangirlish (because I’m not!).  The persistent rumors about the 6th-gen iPods — touchscreen, wireless capabilities, iPhones (??) — are beginning to take on a more realistic form, it seems.  The upcoming announcements at MacWorld will be pretty interesting, I’ll bet. 

All in all, it seems that the next phase of portable media player competition is upon us.  Hopefully this results in better choices for consumers, and hopefully the draconian DRM restrictions are kept to a minimum (yeah, right).  Is a Zune on your holiday wishlist?  Are you going to buy a Zune on launch day (today)?

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5 responses

  1. Rob

    I’m currently doing ALOT of research since I am in the market right now for a pmc. I think some of your facts are a little screwed up on the Zune and the Gigabeat or maybe I just disagree to an extent. The Zune is just a shame at this point. Don’t get me wrong I am actually pulling for Microsoft because well I’m just not a fan of the Ipod and Apple in general. I have generally found that most people that love Apple and Ipod just simply can’t work the devices or programs. This leads to one of the reasons Zune was developed the way it was. Essentially the Zune and Marketplace put up against the Video Ipod and Itunes are just about the exact same scenerio. Itunes has its own “drm” rights security that makes Ipod only work with Itunes. Zune will only work with Marketplace because MS developed a different “drm” to work with Zune rather then just using the one they license to other content providers. One small hitch is that Zune can play all Itunes stuff as well as Podcasts as you mentioned while Ipod can’t do anything but what Itunes provides. I personally think its silly to lock down a device on a specific service when you can create far competion across all media providers. This makes me want to lean toward the Gigabeat S for that reason. Plus the Gigabeat uses Portable Media Center as its OS so it will sync nicely with my Media Center PC at home and pull over Recorded Tv content if I choose as well as music. In general there are much better options on the market then the two giants and people are just being lemmings instead of using their brains. Getting back to the Zune/Ipod thing. Zune also provides subscription which frankly will probably become a larger standard of providing media then Pay per Track. depends if you are a Music junkie and love variety. itunes will probably match that soon. The Wireless on the Zune is useless so dont worry about not turning it on. All you can do is shoot someone a limited piece of music. Now if it connectd to Hotspots and could update playlists and other content on the fly from marketplace then you have something. the lack of a tv out also hurts the Zune a little as well as not being able to use it as a harddrive. When you really factor everything into how MS does business and who they do business with….then the way they launched Zune w/ Marketplace is really the only way they could on a business level. Its part targeting the Ipod audience and trying to pull back the Windows users from Apple but more over its because they would be stepping on all of their partners that they license “DRM” to. I prefer to go the other path toward the Irivers and the Gigabeats simply because of the Portable Media Center interface (which doesnt makes since the Zune doesnt use) and using Urge (again doesnt make since because MS built it) and I have everything with tons of flexibility and lots of places to get content from. you can have the Zune and certainly the Ipod. They are both set up eactly the same so ipod people wake up. Itunes is just as draconian if not more so than the Zune Marketplace. The only freedom lies in devices like the gigabeat and iriver which where developed to work with wmp10-11. As a side note…whats so hard about wmp10? If you use it right which requires no thought at all it will find all the music and catalog it for you and you just tell it what playlist you want to sync and thats it. Nothing else to it. It will automatically sync when you hook up the device unless you tell it not to. Its incredibly easy. I think people need to really look at what MS has done with Media Center 2005 and then with gigabeat and iriver using Portable Media Center. Its Rocks! and it works flawlessly. My final words to all the Apple people in the world…..If MS didn’t step up and standardize the business world then you wouldn’t be able to sit in your little specialized corner of the world. Apple would have been the one to standardize the business world and you would just be MS in the end. Apple basically owes their current existance to MS in many ways the least of which is standing on their shoulders of all the work they’ve done and benefitted.

    December 1, 2006 at 12:54 am

  2. 1. You’re all over the place, but in general it seems that your post is mainly about bashing Apple and iPod users. While I am not an Apple fangirl, I’ve used both iPods and the Gigabeat S (which I think is more than you can say), so I am familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of both players/systems. I can say that the Gigabeat S + WMP11 is not as good as an experience as iPod + iTunes. And I’m not a typical user. I’m more of an advanced user with specific needs in a portable media device. I don’t completely like iTunes because it has its own restrictions and is a little dumbed down in features than I would like, but the iPod + iTunes integration is pretty solid, while Gigabeat S + WMP11 is not.

    2. DRM sucks, period. I’m intrigued by the music subscription system, but ultimately if I want to buy music, I want to OWN it, not rent it. It’s nice to be able to have a huge variety of music to sample from, but if I want to be able to port this music to another device, it’s just as bad as with iTunes. I’d have to pay to buy the music and then burn the tracks to CD and re-rip into mp3 to strip the DRM. Just let us buy the music DRM-free!

    I disagree with your point that the only “freedom lies in devices like the gigabeat and iriver which where [sic] developed to work with wmp10-11”. The only truly free devices are those that allow you to drag and drop DRM-free mp3s onto your device and completely bypass any syncing program.

    Also, you can use the Gigabeat S and Zune as external hard drives, but only on PCs Windows XP SP2 and up, because of the reliance on MTP. Stupid move on MS’s part.

    3. I agree that the Portable Media Center 2.0 interface is awesome. I love it. It’s what made me buy the Gigabeat S in the first place. Very intuitive, nice eye candy. Love the fonts and swooping menu transitions. Navigation is great, even if you don’t have the famous iPod clickwheel. Again, the Gigabeat S’s downfall is the WMP software. It’s not that WMP is hard. It’s that it’s way clunkier than iTunes. I’m not going to go into every issue that I’ve encountered; there are plenty of people on the Gigabeat S forums at mygigabeat.com that have experienced the same issues with album art, no podcatching support, weirdness and slowness in syncing, etc. I’m not a typical user, but I also don’t like excessive fiddling to get videos converted, and netcasts onto my media player.

    Currently I’m using my PDA phone for listening to netcasts. I don’t have to do any conversion because the open source player I’m using directly supports the formats most netcasters use when publishing their shows, including MP4 and M4V, iTunes/Quicktime formats. Can’t say that about the Zune or the Gigabeat S. But it’s also annoying that some shows that use WMV format aren’t easily portable to an iPod, so the sword cuts both ways. And I’m able to download my content directly to my player, without a PC. Can’t say that about the Zune (yet) or the iPod (again, yet).

    4. Yes, it’s stupid that Zune’s WiFi is very crippled, but I am hoping MS will open it up to support wireless syncing and direct downloads to the device. And remove or loosen up the 3 plays/3 days restriction already! Enough said.

    5. Even though the Gigabeat S works well with Windows Media Center computers, it doesn’t work well enough. And the Gigabeat S’s support of video download services isn’t flawless, either. Again, reference the many discussion threads online of people having problems with syncing videos bought online from Vongo or other movie download services.

    6. Eventually MS will (or at least they should) fix the problems with WiFi, the lame lack of DVR-MS files (or whatever the WMC file types are), and the really lame integration with XBox 360 and XBox Live video downloads. But to simply dismiss Apple’s dominance as a result of sheep mentality is to be blinded to how well their system really works.

    While it’s true that some people with devices like the Gigabeat S have had an absolutely flawless experience, I believe there are more users who’ve had to wrestle with a lot of problems, both with hardware (i.e. battery life issues) and software (syncing problems, lack of video codec support). And I think it’s kind of safe to say that more people have had “flawless” experiences with iPod+iTunes than those who’ve had “flawless” experiences with “insert PlaysForSure device or Zune here”+WMP/Zune software. It doesn’t mean MS can’t improve, or that Apple’s invincible. It just means that right now, whether you like it or not, Apple has a really good system that pretty much “just works”, and MS has to catch up. But consumers would really benefit from systems without DRM at all.

    December 1, 2006 at 2:14 am

  3. Thanks for all the info, all over the place or not!

    January 7, 2007 at 1:42 am

  4. Very inrteresting,

    Makes me think of switching from my iPod

    April 5, 2007 at 10:39 pm

  5. beau

    you couldn’t find the wifi because it not in the original firmware version

    July 10, 2007 at 2:14 pm

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