Monday, November 20, 2006

Zune - First Look

I'm a gadget geek though that is a key part of what puts the geek in Duffergeek. I bought a Zune yesterday cuz I'm a sucker for a nice video screen that can do photos and music but also because there may be something to some of the key differences that Microsoft has against Apple's iPod.

Last year, Microsoft made a video parody of their own tendency to put too much crap on their packaging. It actually did a good job of pointing out how much Microsoft often missed the boat on both simple and elegant. Zune is an obvious opportunity to show that Microsoft can be cool, stylish, hip and... well... elegant.

The moment I looked at the box, it was clear this was a bit different from previous Microsoft products. The box is not covered with feature comparisons, disclaimers and marketing speak. It is a rather simple affair with a product logo on the front and a nice picture of the product on the back. The bottom of the box has a little bit of text but it is well done. The cool thing is how the box opens. The top part slides up like a hat revealing an inner box that simply says "Welcome to the social." The front part flips up for access to the Zune itself while the top of the box has an almost secret compartment containing the install disc and simple carrying case. Overall, very sweet packaging and presentation.

Installing the Zune software under Parallels was, in the end, completely unsuccessful but since most of the problems were related to the Windows environment in Parallels to even get to see the device, I have to chalk that all up to shortcomings in Parallels. When I booted into a real Windows XP environment (the Vista version won't be available until around the time Vista is publicly available) everything worked flawlessly.

The Zune feels very nice in my hand. It is somewhat smaller than my video iPod with it's protective case and the plastic of the Zune case feels like it is safer than the video iPod (time will tell if I'm wrong there). The main control looks like a wheel but it is actually a 5-way switch. It works well for navigating through media a lot like the Windows Vista version of Media Center. I was able to set one of my own pictures as the background which is a great way of personalizing the device.

I signed up for my 14 day free trial of the Zune Marketplace giving me "all you can eat" access most of the music available. I also copied many of my MP3 albums into the folder that Zune is watching but with the subscription, it was almost easier to get the music from the service than from my own CDs. It is liberating to be able to browse for artists you like, or that you think you will like, and be able to download all of their music with just one click. Fantastic.

The syncing worked just fine though there are places where Windows Media Player pops through (mostly in the configuration dialogs) and each time it does the client app feels a little less elegant. Too much flexibility adds complexity to the dialogs and it is easy to get overwhelmed. Most people never really need to get to those settings, though, because so much of it just works.

I synced a bunch of photos to the device along with the music and then headed to work. Listening to it in my car, the Zune did not clip as much as the iPod does on my cassette adapter which was nice. The screen is gorgeous and while it is a bit icky to see the album art stretched to fill the top part of the screen, it is nice to have it there and the controls work very well. Once I was at work, I set the Zune to display a random slideshow of photos as it sat below my monitor. This was a great addtion to my workspace (except that after a few hours, it ate all of the battery life -- guess I need to get an extra A/C adapter).

For photos, there is one thing I would like to see which is a mode for viewing photos where they are never rotate in the screen since it is so easy for me to rotate the device itself. It is nice that it defaults to landscape mode to reduce the black bars for those shots but it would be great if it could do the same thing when the picture is in a portrait aspect ratio. This would need to be an option, though, since otherwise slideshows would get weird and at least they got the slideshows right for a first release. Simple but nice.

Tonight I am converting a DVD to WMV format so I can see what watching a movie is like on it. I've done that many times on my iPod video and I think the Zune will be much better given it's nicer screen. I am looking forward to trying sending a song to someone else, I just need to find someone else with a Zune. :)

There are certainly downsides beyond the complexity of the player showing through. First, the Zune Marketplace doesn't have any video content yet which is a shame given how nice this device is for video. The other big shortfall is that the hard drive is only 30GB. Mine is already 2/3 full and I still haven't put any movies on it but that is more of a reason for me to get a second one once Microsoft has an 80 Gig edition than it is a reason for me to not get one yet. Other folks may not have that flexibility...

So in summary - for a first release, the Zune shows a huge amount of promise. I really like the feel of the device, the UI on the device and the subscription model for getting music. It is a particularly good sign that Microsoft went from concept to this release in such a short period of time. Hopefully, their next release will maintain the elegance gains and fill the missing holes and not turn into a gargantuan feature-laden release of complexity. If you're looking to get a taste of the future, go grab a Zune.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Deconstructing Bellevue

Kate and I were having dinner in Bellevue the other night. As we left, there were lots of police cars and fire trucks blocking the street back to the highway so we were detoured another block south. As we neared 108th, the buildings to our left had their fire alarms going off and people were being evacuated but we didn't see any fire. We didn't see anything except a lot of people looking at the buildings with their cell phone cameras held aloft and the news media reporting live.

Kate and I were sitting just 2 blocks away when it happened but we were totally unaware until Friday morning when saw on the news that one of the many giant cranes erected in Bellevue had fallen over, severely damaging three buildings and killing one person as it crashed into his apartment (man... would that suck!). The crane operator was still in it at the time of the fall and he "rode it down" 200 ft before being stuck 30 feet off the ground in the control cab.

More info on the incident here.