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:
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂 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.
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.” 😛 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.
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)?