Anybody who's ever been over my house knew that this was going to happen, and it wasn't going to take long. Given that I have a week here of laid-back-ness here in my hometown of Medina, Ohio, it seemed like a perfect time to graduate to joining the hoard of other Microsofties that have been reviewing the Zune. I purchased a black Zune at my local Office Max right before I left town. The first thing that was interesting is that although the employees there knew that they had Zunes in stock, they couldn't really explain to me why I would want one. I explained that I was a Microsoftie, and then chatted with the salesperson in the store for a few minutes, trying to outline the key reasons why somebody would want to buy a Zune over an iPod (in my words: bigger screen, subscription music, wireless beaming of songs, and a commitment from the team to continue to add new cool things to the player.) He then asked why this wasn't on the homepage of http://www.zune.net, and how all he saw when he was there was a bunch of indie bands and not much on what they were trying to sell. I agreed, and mentioned how I had to go to Engadget to figure out that his store was even selling Zunes. Hey, marketing--I know we want to sell "cool"--but we are also trying to sell 30 GB MP3 players with wireless on them. Some people might want to know where to buy them... 🙂
Anyways, I think you've seen plenty of articles about the player itself, so I'm not going to get into it. I love the interface, and the screen is a pleasure to use. I haven't beamed any songs (surprise, surprise), but I'm loving having album art taking up the whole screen and having a *very* responsive UI (the Gigabeat was prone to little 3 second freezes.) My major qualm right now is that the album art is all fuzzy and ugly--it's downloading and upscaling a 200x200 image in a 240x240 space, and it's not a pretty result. Hopefully we'll see this fixed with a software update in the next month or so.
What I want to concentrate on is the client-side, desktop Zune software. It's very obviously a skinned version of Windows Media Player 11, but it feels much more responsive. When I click the Zune icon on my desktop, the Zune app shoots up in a couple of seconds. Windows Media Player was notorious for making me wait 15-20 seconds on my Core Duo iMac (inside of Windows XP), so this was a welcome change. The software works as advertised, supporting "Auto-Playlists", rating, and album art surfing. Sweet! The real beauty in the software is that this is the first time I've used a subscription service and had it work 100% reliably, out-of-the-box, with my player. Maybe this whole closed-ecosystem thing isn't so bad after all. I signed up for my two-week Zune pass trial, and downloaded a bunch of playlists from the Zune marketplace. Damn, this was awesome. Hey--here's a custom "Ella Fitzgerald" playlist...click "Download", and voila--it's in my library, as a playlist. Done. End of story. The next time I plug in my Zune, that playlist is sitting there waiting for me. Wow. If you've never experienced this all-you-can-eat style of listening to music, you really ought to try it. It's like being given the keys to a Virgin Megastore (yea, it's still missing some more obscure indie stuff), and being told--the CDs are all yours--have fun! For $15 a month, this is a no-brainer.
After playing with the store and the player, I still echo Josh's comments--the "Welcome to the Social" Zune, should, well, have more social features that even iTunes supports. The most obvious one is that we need a way for users to upload their own playlists, collaboratively weight them, and have the ability to subscribe to RSS-style feeds of your "music network" playlists. Maybe I want to be kept up-to-date on what Sara is listening to down the hall. I want that feature. Maybe I want to find Joe Morel number 2, somebody on the other side of the world that just happens to like the same stuff as me--I want to know when he finds a new album he thinks is sweet. Coupled with a $15 Zune Pass, these features are super-compelling, and in my opinion, more social than beaming a song at a time to other users on the bus.
Another social feature that would be great is the ability to add commentary to songs inside of the Zune Marketplace. When I'm listening to a song, one of my "Now Playing" views, instead of trippy visualizations (does anybody use those?) would be the ability to view reviews and commentary that other Zune users have uploaded about the songs, like blog comments or a forum thread. You could then post yourself, and be further drawn into the community of Zune users. (For example, Jeremy makes a very insightful post about the newest Ben Folds album that I really identify with. I then click on Jeremy's name, and can browse his playlists, and, boom--I've found a new music influencer.)
The possibilities of these features are really limitless, and I truly believe that the Zune is the first device that's truly going to allow this to happen, given the fact that it's the first player to have a reliable subscription service attached to it. So, to the Zune team--I'm assuming we can expect all of these community features implemented by Christmas, right? 🙂 Maybe you could call Santa and see if any elves are any good at C++...