MS did build a fan base with the 30 GB Zune, but not enough to make a huge dent into Apple’s iPod empire. Let’s fast forward to a year later and looking at what Microsoft has delivered, it looks like they could be a generation or two away from making a big splash. Before MS could even consider being serious competition for Apple, they first need to trump Sandisk and Creative which have built a strong following of their own over the last few years.

It is apparent that Microsoft listened to their fans on making certain features better than 1st gen, but then they have taken out some features in the software and firmware that has some of their fans upset. I am surprised by a few of the changes which are for the better, and my biggest beefs with the clunky software last year have been fixed but there are a few new ones that I hope are fixed with future versions.

One thing that I want to get out right off the bat is that many reviews that I have read the last few weeks on the Zune 2 have done nothing but complain that Microsoft didn’t come out with an iPhone/iTouch like product to compete in those markets. I don’t feel like Microsoft is ready yet here in 2007 for that kind of competition. Some have even gone the lengths of comparing the Zune 2 80 to the iTouch, which is crazy since their 2 different products. I would expect something in 2008 or even 2009 especially with Flash prices having gone down in price at that point. These HDD’s are great, but if they move the technology to flash medium, less moving parts, less troubles for all involved.

Design of the Zune 2 – the Zune 80 gets an extra 2” of screen size this year going up to 3.2” from the 1st gen 3” screen. Even if MS is a year or two from a touch screen device, I think they could get a few more inches with the 3rd gen Zune if they create a smaller Zune Pad. With the current resolution at 320×240 pixels, MS really needs to consider getting the resolution up higher next generation. The current resolution looks nice on the screen, but this baby would pop with a bit higher resolution. Pictures and videos look very nice on here and the extra screen size helps greatly, especially when compared to Apple’s Classic screen which is half the size. Watching movies on the go is even better now due to the extra 2” on the screen. It’s great that the Zune actually resizes your images when their sent through the software to your Zune, I had a problem with my Classic where it wouldn’t resize the pictures because of the high resolution.

Yes another new addition for Zune 2 is the glass LCD screen. It is a very nice addition and was a surprise to my eyes that MS included that. The glass LCD screen is scratch resistant too, and I have already read up on stories on many Zune boards where people have accidentally dropped this thing face down and the screen had no scratches or gashes at all. I don’t recommend being careless with this though.

When compared to last years Zune which was using the Toshiba Gigabeat S technology, MS took their design and casing upgrading it to the next degree. MS licensed the Gigabeat tech for Zune 1 so they could deliver a player to compete in this market, but with the Zune 2 they have designed the hardware from the ground up. The front black casing of the Zune 2 looks similar to the Zune 1, expect now it has more of that matte look to it very similar to the new Classic iPod. The backside of the Zune 2 is a painted aluminum which is also very scratch resistant when compared to the iPod aluminum which gets all scratched to hell if you ask me.

The newer design is also a lot less thin than 1st gen Zune; I believe it to be around 25% thinner. That is quite a bit of a difference opposed to the original, so it helps give it that smaller/sleek modern look. The back button and play/pause are still in the same spot as before, except they have been lowered on the Zune 2. The next newest design feature which I really like, but others have complained about is the new Zune Pad. The Zune pad allows for multiple functionality; such as a touch sensitive and click pad. If you brush the pad in an up and down motion, it allows you to scroll vertically through the menus and lowering/raising the volume when in a song. If you brush your thumb fast enough on the pad, it is amazing how fast it scrolls through the list of songs, menus. If your dissatisfied by the Zune pad, go ahead and turn it off in the menu, but I think this thing is a nice new addition when compared to the iPod’s click wheel.

Another new feature in the firmware involving the Zune Pad is that the Zune offers their version of Apple’s Cover Flow, but is done in such a smart way that it gives Apple a food for thought. I search my music by Artist, once by Artist it breaks it down by album, and once you select your album you are taken to the track listing page of that album. One thing that some may not notice is that at the top of that track listing is the album cover of the album you have selected, but if you look to the left and right side of that album cover you will see the other album covers from that same artist you have on your Zune. This will allow you to scroll through each album, but you will also get the track listing below it as you scroll through. I like this better since right now there is a problem with album covers catching up with Cover Flow when scrolling through. One recommendation, if you like to load your own album art, I recommend loading hi-res images as they will look better.

The Zune 2 also allows for 3 sets of Brightness – low, medium, or high. I always keep it on low and my eyes have adjusted to it, one reason I do this is to help conserve on battery. Same thing goes with the back light, you have a few settings – 1 second, 1 minute, Always On. Again, I just keep it to 1 second.

Welcome to the Social Part 2 – Wi-Fi makes a return with Zune 2, but even better than before. Before Wi-Fi was only used for exchanging songs with other Zune owners. Once you had the song on your Zune, you had the song for either 3 plays or 3 days and then it evaporated into thin air. Now this year they eliminated the 3 days, and you have the song to listen to for up to 3 plays. Much better idea, but the community is still not happy about this as I think people wish they could share music with others as long as the tunes didn’t disappear. I finally tried syncing the Zune 2 to my wireless network last night, this works well for syncing a few songs but don’t recommend it if you have a huge library you want to wirelessly sync. Wireless sync doesn’t compare to going wired if you’re syncing large amounts of music, but for a handful of songs it’s worth it.

Calling all sound technicians – the verdict is still out on the sound quality of the Zune 2 because of one missing feature from 1st gen. Which feature is that? There is no EQ in the firmware for Zune 2, which has caused many upset fans. Microsoft claims that they took this out because it has allowed them to save money on this device so it keeps the costs down, but that is no excuse for me or others. At the end of the day, the Zune 2 sounds great without the EQ especially if you are hooking this thing up to a car stereo or stereo receiver which has EQ’s already built-in to help amplify the sound. Hopefully with a future firmware upgrade we will see the return of EQ to help satisfy everyone.

The Zune 80 comes with premium ear phones like with Zune 1, so the quality sounds great through the ear phones. I have also read that if you have high quality headphones, you can hear some hissing due to no EQ present, so that piece I can’t confirm. Zune Media Software, Upgrade or Still Horrible? – With Zune 1, the Zune Media software was horrible and created many headaches for end users including myself. The previous software was horrible to navigate, clunky, just plain ugly, and a whole plethora of problems. Finally, Microsoft learned their lesson from the previous software in terms of chunkiness. I can’t believe the amount of problems I had with the Zune 1 software, especially getting it installed on a VISTA machine which took me calling their tech support and being on the line for a good 2 hours. That has all been fixed this year, the software loads very quickly unlike the previous version, and it appears not to be taking up many resources like before. This is a very nice, clean look to the software and allows you to use different skins from the selection menu if you don’t like the default style.

All of your navigation now is in the upper left hand corner, while everything underneath has been split out to 3 tables or frames. On the left hand side of the screen you have your artists, middle contains the album covers, and to the right we have the listing of songs that appear as you click on each album cover. Navigation has been made better, but there are a few things that are an issue for me and many Zune users such as proper song/album tagging, album art not loading right, and editing issues. These things could be enough to turn someone away and just baffles me as to why Microsoft let these slip through the way that they did. I’m not saying that these are bugs either; these were design decisions that hopefully they go back and change. For those that want to edit, tag, and change album art with ease I have had many recommend some free software: mp3tag, etc.

Podcasts are another new feature for Zune 2 that was missing in the original Zune. You can also subscribe for podcasts through the Zune Marketplace. It is cool; you can also pause and bookmark the podcasts if you want to return at a later date. This is a nice little feature.

Is the Battery Life any better? – With the new Zune 80, battery life is set at 24 hours before needing a full recharge. When comparing this to the iPod Classic which gets 30 hours, it is a little bit underwhelming. It is much better battery life than the previous Zune which you could stretch out about 12-13 hours depending on what options you turned off. Now that I have had the Zune 80 for about a few days, I can say that I have gotten anywhere from 18-22 hours worth of battery life with all features turned on and running mainly music, a few podcasts, movies, and viewing pictures. My next test will involve turning off the wireless sync, lowering the brightness to low, and then reducing the background light to just 5 seconds. Making similar changes on Zune 1 helped stretch out the battery life a tad bit.

By Microsoft’s specs, you should have up to 24 hours worth of music playback, and about 4 hours on video only playback. Considering that this has a 3.2” screen, I can see the battery draining a bit faster than their specs state.

FM Radio returns – One final feature that I like talking about for the Zune 2 is the FM Radio. Something that was introduced in last years Zune 1 is back and better than ever. This was one of the reasons why I bought the Zune 1, but this time around now the Zune will try to sync the song name that is playing on the radio. Another nice thing is being able to set the presets with the FM radio by holding down the Zune Pad at the center. I’m hoping that one day we will get AM radio on these MP3 players, but from what I have heard it is not possible on any MP3 player.

You also get a USB cable with the Zune that allows you to charge the Zune via USB 2.0. I like the length of the cable which is about 3-4 feet long, but boy is it a long cable.

Tips from Zunerama – There are some special button combinations that some people may not know about, some important tips to get you started. These work with the new players as well as the updated 30GB. One reason why I have these tips in my review is that I want to point out that it is important to shutdown the Zune properly or else when it goes to sleep mode the battery is still going to drain. I would recommend completely shutting it down after use, unless you love recharging the battery every so often.

By default, Zune goes to “sleep” after a few minutes of inactivity, and then turns itself off. You can save a few mill joules of battery life by turning your player completely off when you’re finished with it. How? Press and hold “down” on the Zune Pad, and press and hold the Back button.

No matter what player function you’re using, you can always quickly go back to the main menu. Just press and hold the Back button. To reset your player – also known as a “reboot” – press and hold the Back button, while pressing “up” on the

Zune Pad.
To reformat your player’s drive, reset it as noted above. When it starts to reset, hold down the Back button, Center button, and Play button at the same time. Your player will inform you that it is deleting all media on device, and your Zune should revert to the “way it was” when you first pulled it out of the box. Careful! This will erase your player contents and you should rarely if ever need to do it.

The new Zune 2 80 GB model is well worth the upgrade for 1st gen users and even those that have an older mp3 player or even iPod that want something different with more functionality. At 80 GB with the plethora of features, the Zune 2 offers the best bang for your buck. Microsoft can’t sit back and take it easy hoping that the new Zune line will sell itself, they really need to update the firmware and software with some of the missing features from the Zune 1 if they expect to not only draw in new users, but it could be the straw to chase some of your current users away.

Microsoft was also smart in providing the new 2.0 firmware to Zune 1 owners also; this is something that Apple hasn’t done for past customers causing some frustration. I like this strategy as it shows their previous customers that they don’t have an outdated machine and we will help support you too. I would recommend the new Zune 2 80 GB to anyone looking to replace an existing mp3 player. Is this worth it for Zune 1 owners? It all depends on if you need more HDD space and want a slimmer Zune, then I would say go for it by a mile.

One minor complaint, where is the cloth pouch to help protect this thing until some cases arrive? Both Microsoft and Apple are at fault with skimping down on extras; please in the future include some kind of pouch.