The Microsoft Zune Portable Media Player | An In Depth Review Of The New ‘Zune 80’

6 min read

The Microsoft Zune Portable Media PlayerFor my hour long commute in to work every day, I couldn’t
imagine being without a media player to watch videos on, and listen to
songs and podcasts on, to keep me entertained on the journey.

Unfortunately, at the end of October my beloved Creative
Zen Vision:M
suddenly died on me in the middle of my commute. 

It was no great
surprise that
the media player finally gave up the ghost, as it has been with me every
workday for 2 or more
hours a day since I got it for Christmas 2006. 

It was a fine media
player and I would have gotten another one except Creative
making them any more. Besides, the new Microsoft Zune was out with
features at a much cheaper price. 

So naturally I decided to
“join the

The Zune’s Best Features

One of my favorite features of the Zune is how it keeps your
in the song or video after powering down. This makes it a breeze to
pick up where you left off without fuddling around with bookmarks and
now I don’t even hesitate listening to a podcast for a short

With my Creative
Vision:M I would spend more time loading and saving my place than
driving on short trips. 

This feature is not important if you listen to
music most of the time, but a podcast junkie like myself is always
starting and stopping episodes and it is a relief to have a player take
care of marking the place in my audio and video files for me.

Zune 80 1

The physical design of the Zune 80 is compact and simple. The
consists of two buttons, a large 3.5″ screen and a squircle

The squircle is a combination of a touch surface and button
interface. Using your thumb you can flick up or down to move through
list items just like an iPhone
or press up or down for more precise navigation. 

Holding one edge of
the squircle down will gradually speed up the seeking of a list when
you need to go through a lot of items. 

Ultra Easy To Use

To help you stay oriented as
songs scroll by, the player will show the first letter of the track in
a big, easy to read font so you know when to slow down. Basic
categorization like Artists and Genre is available along the top which
is accessed by moving left to right. 

To the right of the squircle is a
play/pause button which is also used as an on/off switch when held
down. On the other side is a back button. Navigating around the Zune is
a real pleasure and a big improvement over the Zen player I was
previously using.

The dimensions are pretty much like any other hard-drive based
player on the market. The Zune 80 is thinner than my Zen Vision:M and
is probably just as thin as an Apple iPod but I don’t notice the
during everyday use. 

The player fits in my backpack and in my jacket
pocket and that is all I really need to carry it

Zune 80’s Video Hardware

A Zune 30 would have been sufficient for my needs at the
price and with the newer Zune 2.0 interface, but the newer Zune 80
packs better video hardware. Formerly left to transcode MP4 files for
playback on my Zen, the Zune has no problem playing these processor
intensive video formats natively. 

Lots of podcasters offer their video
up in the iPod-friendly MP4 files and since I have a device that
supports the codec, a bigger selection of content is available to me.
With the latest firmware update, I can now unsubscribe from a podcast
feed right inside the player on the go making it easy to sample new
podcasts without the extra hassle of managing feeds. 

When I dock the
Zune with my host computer, the Zune software automatically adds the
new content and removes the media I watched or listened to as well as
updates any podcast feeds I have marked

Zune 80 2

Zune 2.0 Software

Speaking of the software, the Zune 2.0 software is good enough
syncing media to your device but falls short in a lot of areas. For
one, it is resource intensive causing my machine to slow down
considerably when using it. 

To be fair, my 4 year old computer
meet the recommended requirements but I still didn’t think
the software
would be a big resource hog. If you don’t use the official
Zune 2.0
syncing software then you are out of luck as any third party software
is locked out from managing the Zune hardware. 

I would prefer to use
the excellent Media

software for organizing and syncing my media but since the Zune uses
proprietary drivers, there looks to be little anyone can do to break
the tie with Microsoft.

Once you have your media set-up, the software isn’t
that difficult.
At first there were issues with duplicate podcast episodes showing up
but as I made my way through the unplayed media, the issue sorted
itself out. The Zune does a great job at staying synced with my

Wireless Capabilities

I just have to plug the Zune to the USB connector and off it
goes with little intervention for me. I haven’t tried using
wireless syncing yet. 

In fact I have turned the wireless capabilities
off for the time being because I have never found another Zune device
nearby and I would rather save the battery power than send out messages
to my non-existent Zune neighbors. 

But one powerful feature about the
wireless capabilities in the Zune has gone unnoticed. Wireless sync
only works when the player is charging. Since I only have the included
USB cable which connects to my computer, it doesn’t make
sense for me
to use wireless sync. 

But if I had a the Zune dock that connects to
your TV than what I basically have is an Apple TV that I can carry in
my pocket. Think about it. 

The Zune 80 will sync wirelessly with your
computer and can output video to a standard definition TV at full
resolution. Anything you can watch in your pocket, you can easily enjoy
on a larger TV parked in front of a comfy couch. What’s not
to love
about that?

How To Hold The Damn Thing?

My biggest complaint about the Zune is there is no obvious
to hold it, especially when watching videos. The rectangular design is
simple and makes great use of the space, but there is no place to put
your hands. 

The best way I found to handle the Zune 80 is to rest the
bottom corners in the web between your thumb and the index finger of
both hands. Similar to holding a book.

Zune 80 3

A must have accessory for the Zune is the leather case. Not
only does
it protect the player from outside abuse, but it gives you something to
hold on to while watching videos. 

The squircle pokes through but the
buttons are covered but usable through the brown leather case. A large
flap goes over the device to protect the screen when not in use and is
secured by a magnet. It’s easy to open and stays out of your
way while
using the Zune.

Zune 80 4

Wired Remore Control?

If Microsoft is listening, they really need an accessory that
you control the device while it is tucked away in a backpack. Creative
had a wired remote control that allowed you to play/pause, change
tracks, and adjust the volume all by a little dongle that goes between
your headphones and the player. 

This was a dream to have on morning
commutes with my Zen in my backpack and the remote clipped to my shirt.
A wireless version would be cool but dealing with a battery to keep it
charged sounds like a big hassle.


After a month of using the Zune 80 and putting it through
paces, I am really happy with my purchase. 

Every morning I wake up with
glee knowing that my commute will not be a dull, monotonous one-hour
train ride thanks to my slick media player to keep me informed and
entertained. If a digital media player is part of your daily life then
you will know how important it is to compare what is on the market and
find the best player for your needs. 

Apple vs. Microsoft politics
aside, the Zune is a fantastic device that I could enthusiastically
recommend to any media junkie I meet. Don’t let the trash
talking sway
you, as I truly believe the Zune 80 is the best portable media player
out on the market right now.

Update – Software Crash

On January 8th, after
writing the bulk of
this review, my Zune suffered a software crash as I was walking home
from work. 

The podcast that I was listening to suddenly stopped and the
screen read “Could not play track”. Thinking it was
a problem with just
the MP3 file itself, I tried to play a song from my music library. When
I selected play from an album view my player froze and became
unresponsive to any button mashing I attempted. 

When I got in front of
my computer I looked up the hard reset button combo which requires
holding the back button and the top of the squircle. 

Erase All Content

This Microsoft
knowledge base article

details everything you need to know. Upon reboot I was greeted with
this lovely message, “To recover from an error, Zune must
erase all
content.” The only option was to hit “OK”
by pressing the middle of the

The media player would then reboot and this process continued
forever in an endless loop.

After digging around on the net for a better solution, I
decided my
only course of action was to replace the firmware and completely wipe
out my nearly 40GB collection. 

Back To Default

Following these arcane directions, I
managed to get my Zune back to its factory default. It then took me all
night to reload all of the songs from my library back onto my fresh

I suspect this crash was due to a hard drive glitch and I
really blame Microsoft for the fragile nature of hard drive based
portable media players. 

Problems like this will eventually be a thing
of the past once solid state flash memory, which has no moving parts,
comes down in price. For now I thought it was important to add this
addendum to the review of what problems can happen after normal use out
in the wild.

Russell Heimlich is a digital media engineer and technology journalist. Catch his thoughts put into words at