Zune HD and iPod: an objective Comparison


Many news sites have been comparing the new Zune HD and the iPod lines. I will not argue that they have their own opinions, yet the thing that bothers me is that almost all of them have a review unit so they did not necessarily spend their own money on the Zune HD. I’m calling this an objective comparison because I did take my own money to purchase a new 16GB Zune HD.

I have owned an iPod since March of 2005 and over that time I have owned seven different iPod devices. They list includes: One 1st Generation 4GB iPod Mini, two 4GB 1st Generation iPod Nanos, one 4GB 2nd Generation iPod Nano, One 30GB iPod with Video (5.5 Generation), one 4GB iPhone, one 16GB iPhone 3G, and my current 32GB iPhone 3GS. With all of these purchases I am heavily invested in iTunes and the Apple Store with quite a few purchases of DRMed content, so moving MP3 Players is not something most would readily do. Me being the odd one out, moving MP3 players is something I don’t mind doing.

Since I have invested so much into music, whether it be purchased digitally or using old analog CDs, my media library has grown to quite a collection. In order to save space, and since it seemed logical, I decided to use the same media for both iTunes and the Zune 4.0 software. Using the same media library is great on space, however there are two downsides to using this method. The first is that the Zune HD does not support already embedded artwork. This means if you’ve spent hours upon hours finding and putting album artwork into your iTunes library (like I have) it will be stripped out. This only happens if you allow the Zune soft to update the meta data within your media files.

On the subject of MP3s the other item that can potentially be an issue is the amount of time you spend having to move your music around. The beauty with iTunes is that you can store your music absolutely anywhere and just drag and drop. The Zune software works in the exact same way. However, when you’re going from one platform to another permissions can become an issue so storing all of your iTunes content in your /users/username/Music/iTunes Music/ folder may not be accessible from Windows without some finagling. There is one feature within the Zune 4.0 software that iTunes does not currently have. The Zune Software will monitor a folder and automatically add new music copied to that folder to your Zune Library. This is a definite plus if you are ripping your CDs to MP3s.

Over the past year iTunes growth has exploded with the addition of Applications. This is a definite win for the iPod, however it’s not every iPod that is capable of running the Applications, only the iPhone OS based devices the iPod Touch and iPhone. As of right now there are only a handful of applications available on the Zune HD. They are currently available for free but might include some advertisements. There are also many more to come in the future. Despite the obvious market for applications on hand held devices, Microsoft has stated that they are not going to do a third party application store.

One of the biggest hurdles in moving over from the iPod to the Zune is exporting your playlists. If you’re moving from an iPod to a Zune on a windows computer this is not too terribly bad. There is some software to do just this task. It was developed by Eric Daughtery and can be downloaded from his website. It is an application that will export your current playlists to .zpl Files. There are only three steps to this process. The screenshots are shown below.

The hard part comes if you have music all over the place that is not necessarily local. If you’re running music off of your local computer you should not have to change anything. All you should have to do is copy the playlist to your user directory. For Vista or Windows 7 the path should be C:\users\username\music\zune\playlists Folder. If you’re still running Windows XP the path should be C:\documents and settings\username\My Music\Zune\Playlists. The playlist should show up in the Zune Software automatically.

If you are running a Mac and a Windows computer be prepared for updating the playlists before putting them into the Zune Playlists folder. Since I have my mp3s running off of my iMac I had to map to the folder that the MP3s are located. If you put all of your mp3s into one folder this is not difficult. The ZPL files are just standard XML file that can be edited with TextEdit or notepad. I recommend using the Find & Replace options when replacing text.

There are a couple of features that the Zune HD has that none of the iPods have. The first is a subscription music service called Zune Pass. With Zune Pass a user is able to go ahead and download almost any content they want for a monthly fee. This fee in the US is $14.99 per month. With the Zune Pass you get to also keep ten of the songs each month, which effectively reduces the price of the subscription to $4.99 per month.

The second feature that the iPods lack is the ability to sync your device with your music library wirelessly. You can connect the Zune to the internet if you want. The browsing experience is no where near the iPhone OS browsing experience. The only way that the Zune HD could get something similar is by putting a full fledged web browser on the device. You can browse the Internet using a computer provided that you are connected via USB and have the Zune software closed. Obviously the Zune device driver has support for creating a proxy of some sort. This is quite convenient if you need to browse the internet yet cannot connect to wireless for some reason.

The third feature that the Zune HD has that the iPod line is missing is the ability to individually select how many podcasts to keep for each individual podcast feed. For instance, let us *say* you listen to a daily podcast but do not necessarily have time to catch up except one a week. You can set that podcast to retain anywhere from one to ten to all the previous episodes. Also, let’s assume you have the Apple Keynote podcast feed you can keep only the latest one automatically. This is a definite plus in terms of overall media management.

Another feature, we’ll call this feature 3.1, is that you can have the podcasts retain partially listened to podcasts instead of having an all or nothing setup like on the iPod. This type of setup means you will have more space on your device should you finish listening to a podcast.

The final feature that the Zune has, that the iPods do not, is the ability to automatically transcode files upon syncing. Let’s postulate that you subscribe to a video podcast that is 720p. The Zune cannot do 720P video. But you, as the user, have the option to go ahead and allow the Zune software to transcode the file to a format the the Zune can understand. This works quite well, however the only downside is that the syncing process takes quite a bit longer to finish because of this transcoding.

There are some very similar features between the Zune HD and the iPod line. One of these differentiated implementations is song ratings. Within the iPod / iTunes world a user can rank a song between zero (unrated) and five stars. Within the Zune planet there are only three states a song can be within; blank (unrated), full heart (like), broken heart (dislike). I’m not sure if I would want more, although it would be nice if you could put a ‘somewhat like’ but not totally like option.

Despite the benefits of the Zune there are definitely some issues. The first and thing that almost made me return the Zune was the fact that neither the Zune HD nor the Zune 4.0 software supports already embedded artwork within media. What this means is that if you spent several hours embedding all of your artwork in iTunes when you go to put it into the Zune the artwork disappeared from your music. This is absolutely ridiculous and should never be allowed. I can see updating artwork for items that are not there but re-doing all of my work is not something I want to do. With that, he Zune HD cannot support individual track artwork. I subscribe to a couple podcasts that update their track artwork to the current item that they are discussing, so instead of getting that artwork, I just gee the generic artwork for the podcast. This isn’t a deal breaker. It would be nice to see this feature added since when I listen to a gadget podcast I generally want to see what gadget they are discussing.

The second annoying item is the inability of the Zune to support lyrics on music. I have yet to be able to find a way to display the lyrics of a song on the Zune HD even if they are embedded within the MP3. I hope this gets fixed in the future.

Wireless on the Zune is lacking. While it can connect to a wireless network you better hope it’s an 802.11B or G network because you want to connect to an 802.11N network you’re out of luck. The Zune HD only support 802.11B/G networks. While there is no chipset for 802.11N I cannot see why it shouldn’t be able to connect to the 802.11N network since N is supposed to be backwards compatible, per the specifications. My iPhones can all connect to both 802.11B/G/N networks without any issue. This is purely a bad decision on Microsoft’s part.

One of my biggest peeves with the Zune 4.0 Software lies in its lack to re-establish a connection if one is lost. I run the Zune 4.0 software within Parallels and instead of shutting down my MacBook I just put the whole laptop to sleep, thereby not having to spend several minutes booting both the MacBook and subsequently Microsoft Windows.

The Zune Software works wonderfully for media management. When you search you receive results for both items within your own collection (already owned or downloaded Zune pass items) as well as Zune Marketplace items. This way if you already have an item in your collection you will be able to find out quickly, versus having to do multiple searches within different places to be able to locate the same information.

Some of the features that the iPod and iTunes possess, but are not in the Zune HD or the Zune 4.0 area, include the ability to have the iPod halt playing a song if you only want to listen to a particular section. By this, I mean let’s say an artist has a hidden track appended to one of their other songs and you only like the first song. iTunes allows you to set the playback and end times for that song. The Zune software does not have this option in anyway shape or form.

There are some hardware concerns that I have in regards to the Zune HD player. The first of these concerns is that the controls for volume are all virtual, and cannot be modified without looking at the screen; or having a really good sense of judgement. This is unlike the iPhone OS based devices which will adjust the volume up or down without having to look at the screen.

Overall the Zune HD is not a bad music player. Yes, you have to have Microsoft Windows, but the Zune Pass is entirely worth it. I’ve been finding songs left and right that I want to hear again but do not warrant purchase. Of course, some of the songs definitely do get the purchase consideration. But we will see which ones actually win out in the end. If you know anybody who doesn’t like Apple or doesn’t want to pay the ‘Apple Tax’ the Zune is a good alternative, as long as they want music.

I'm into everything technology related, particularly anything Apple related. I enjoy programming and tend to lean towards server-based technologies over client-based. You can contact me on twitter, via e-mail, or follow me on friendfeed.