Having abandoned satellite radio and requiring a new form of audio entertainment for my automobile, I decided to finally invest in a sizeable MP3 player. While I had owned a number of 2 gigabyte and smaller devices over the years, I knew that in order to match the depth and breadth of music that XM used to provide me with I would require something with a high capacity hard drive. I briefly investigated in-car storage options, thinking that they would be a more elegant solution than a portable unit, but I quickly discovered that this is one sector of the automotive audio market that seems to have died on the vine.
My remaining big-gig choices were either an iPod, a rather expensive and somewhat sketchy beta-version 100 gig no-name unit or a Microsoft Zune. As I didn’t trust the no-name brand in terms of support and have never been impressed with either iTunes or the interface that comes with an iPod, I made a deal with the corporate devil and embraced the Zune. As an aside, I find it vaguely unsettling that in order to usurp the iPod hegemony it is necessary to go with an ‘outsider’ device produced by probably the most faceless super-corporation of all time. How quickly rebellion has become commoditized, on both sides.
I chose the 120 gig version of the Zune, which came in black monolithic form from my local Best Buy, along with a charger and a docking kit. The screen is sufficiently large – 3.2 inches – and it weighs just under 5 ounces. I have no trouble slipping the unit in my pocket at the gym or placing it on a no-slip mat on the console of my car. The Zune uses a small, circular up / down / left / right pad at its base in order to navigate through onscreen menus, and a back and play / pause button are provided on either side.
For someone like me, one of the most crucial aspects of an mp3 player is just how easy it is to load music onto it. I would have preferred a simple drag-and-drop interface from Windows Explorer, similar to a portable hard drive. Unfortunately, Microsoft has not enabled the Zune with this type of functionality and forces users to go through their proprietary software interface. Basically, you configure it to look at where your mp3’s are stored on your hard drive and it loads them into its music manager. From there you can add albums and tracks from their online store and transfer all of your music to the device itself.
I quickly discovered that even loading a list of your tracks into the Zune software would alter the files on your hard drive, most irritatingly their ‘last modified on’ date, making them impossible to sort chronologically in Explorer from that point onward. To get around this, I created a specific folder where I kept the music I intended to transfer to the device, resulting in a temporary duplication of my music collection but keeping the source files safe from MS tampering.