Friends, internet commenters, music lovers, lend me your short attention spans. I come to praise Zune AND to bury it. As of August 2011 all social features, marketplace support, and future updates were no longer supported by Microsoft. The plug was pulled on an underappreciated piece of hardware and software that, fairly or not, never received the support and appeal of the market or Microsoft. While Zune iterations had a lot of good things going for them, what could have been a contender and occupied a niche in the market was crippled by design flaws and some very bad decisions by Microsoft. Now, nearly a decade later, it’s time to say goodbye. I will be a Speaker for the Dead for the Zune and remember it, good and bad, for what it was.
The Zune had a painful birth experience, with a terrible design that tried to copy the iPod in all the wrong ways. Having skid mark brown as your trademark color also wasn’t a good look. There was also the problem of all the first-gen devices freezing on Dec. 31st 2008 due to a clock driver error which couldn’t handle leap years. After the mini-Y2k and the near universal panning, the second generation was released a year later and are what most people think of – on the rare occasion Zune comes to mind. Featuring the trademark squircle touch pad, sleek black design, and a redesigned user interface and software – this is where the Zune left its awkward pubescent period and came into it’s own.
This is where my history with the dearly departed begins. It was the first MP3 player I ever had, and was a birthday gift. If popular culture is to be believed, this was because my parents hated me, which I don’t think they do. Interestingly enough, a Wired article on the head to head battle the Christmas season between the Zune 2 and the iPod classic made Zune the clear winner across Hardware, Network, and Pricing. It didn’t have the white headphones or the commercials with the shadow dancers, but it played my music and could plug into my stereo and that was all I needed. It was faithfully used for 5 years until the device, battered and scratched from years of use, was stolen when my car was broken into. Having a lifetime of collected music suddenly be gone overnight was deafening. The radio and some old CDs were fine for a while, but I missed having music at my fingertips.
This was 2009, and Microsoft had just released the Zune HD. They were trying to compete with the iPod Touches which had been around for 2 years already. Late to the game, they still made an impressive device. The screen was crisp and clear with an OLED screen which could play HD video with ease as well as listen to music. The interface, which seems now to be a less boxy progenitor of the Windows Phone OS, was incredibly user friendly. The fantastic radio tuner that was built into the older Zune was back and could now pick up HD radio, which I didn’t even know existed, but actually picked up a couple extra stations!
It was an amazing device for music playing… but it didn’t do much else. Apps and games were promised, but never delivered. In the new realm of smart phones, tablets, and all-in-one devices there simply wasn’t room for a device which focused almost solely on playing music.
Let’s look back at what this strange little device did so right.. and so wrong.
Little details like the sliding when scrolling through the menus and the cool zoom in and out effect always looked and felt better than the static iPod screen.
This was a great feature, allowing you to sync your Zune over Wi-Fi without having to connect via USB. A small time saver, but neat.
Looking at pictures and videos on the Zune was a beautiful experience that the iPod couldn’t match. It’s similar to using an Android phone for a while and switching back to an iPhone. The screen and the whole thing feels so tiny.
Another small but useful feature. The crisp radio tuner with the added ability to save stations as presets and purchase songs from the Zune Marketplace was ahead of its time. Radio functionality was only introduced with the iPod Nano in 2009. Plus HD radio! It’s like regular radio, but HD! Expect 4K 3D radio next.
The Zune software for managing your music did a lot of things right, not least of which was by not being iTunes. It didn’t slowdown your computer, it wasn’t a hideously blinding blast of blue and white, and cool features I didn’t even know I wanted like pinning your favorite items and the Smart DJ feature in the quick view.
Even though I’ve written the word Zune a dozen times in this article – it still feels stupid. Every time I write it.
On paper, it sounded like a good idea. Your Zune could scan the area for other Zunes and share songs back and forth with all your Zune buddies. Or the random people on the bus with their Zunes. Imagine all the fun you’ll have at parties, swapping Zune tunes to make a playlist. Unfortunately, no one had a Zune and when the planets aligned and you managed to find one in the wild, the connection was spotty and the functionality nearly useless.
Games and Apps
Don’t prominently display Games in your main menu when the best you can come up with are the Texas Hold Em’, Sudoku, and Checkers. There was hardly any developer support beyond a fun mobile port of Audiosurf, and the barren wasteland of the Marketplace led to a Mad Max style black market through which could actually play Pokemon on the Zune HD. Apps weren’t much better. At the end of it’s lifespan in 2011, the Zune HD had a whopping 62 official apps in the store. Oh and you had to use Microsoft Points to do anything.
Late to the Game
The original iPod was released in 2001. The Zune was released in 2006. iPod touch was released in 2007. The Zune HD in 2009. By then the iPod was the defacto music player of the generation. It’s hard to imagining something having as much of a cultural impact the iPod had when it was released. It was almost unimaginable.
Windows love affair with boxes has been going on for nearly a decade now. While the trackpad on the original and the touchscreen interface of the HD were both functional and a solid design, the boxy nature of the device just couldn’t compete with Apple’s sleek futuristic design.
Limited Video Formats
WMVs only means a lot of converting. The software did this for you, but it could take a while.
My struggles with making my music mobile have already been chronicled on this site as I attempted to find the best way to bring my music down from the ethereal plane of the internet. While there are some great options available, I was having some issues. My phone carrier doesn’t offer unlimited data , I’m not rich (surprising for an internet writer I know), and Wi-Fi is for some unknown reason not yet a public utility. Recently I broke down and started looking for a cheap mp3 player online with a large storage capacity. A 1st gen iPod with 160 GBs at Best Buy was $250!! For reference, I can buy a 160 GB flash drive for $40 on amazon right now. With a little digging, I was able to find a 120 GB Zune for $100 online.
Zune, you were a dear friend for many years to me. Your light didn’t last long. The brightest flames burn the quickest, and it’s a shame your light was hidden under a bushel of failed support and lack of apps. A device that hit one note perfectly in a world of others playing a lesser chorus. Your spirit lives on in the Xbox Music marketplace, Windows Phone, and in the hearts and minds of all you played music too over the years.