Microsoft, seeing the futility in polishing turds, went back to the drawing board to design the second rev of the Zune. (If only they’d do the same for Vista!) Fortunately for early adopters, many of the new features and desktop software will be made available for the first-gen Zune via a firmware update.
The new player features a much-improved control mechanism consisting of a touch-sensitive pad atop four buttons. You can navigate menus by either dragging your thumb up and down (or back and forth, depending on the screen’s current orientation) or pushing down on the pad to depress the buttons. Depressing the center of the pad selects whatever menu item is highlighted. If you don’t like the touchpad, you can turn this feature off and rely solely on the buttons.
The Zune’s wireless features have undergone significant improvements, including the ability to manually sync your Zune to your PC when in range of a wireless network (the Zune must be connected to an optional AC adapter or charging dock to sync automatically). The much-touted but virtually useless wireless song-sharing feature remains just as useless, but at least the three-day play-it-or-lose-it limitation has been eliminated (the recipient, however, remains limited to three plays).
The Zune Marketplace has also undergone a much-needed retooling, adding podcast support, one million DRM-free MP3s, and a $15-per-month all-you-can-eat subscription model called Zune Pass. This compensates for the fact that the hardware ties you exclusively to Microsoft’s service (there’s no support for Rhapsody or other subscription services). The notion of buying music with points instead of dollars and cents (which you, of course, use to buy points in order to buy music), on the other hand, still leaves us cold.
The Zune 8GB sounds every bit as good as the first Zune, and Microsoft has added support for tracks encoded in WMA Lossless. The 1.8-inch glass screen looks very sharp, but it’s also very small—especially when you’re watching videos—and the flash player can’t be connected to your TV (both new and previous hard-drive models do support this feature).