Wireless synching, good sound quality, and a nice touch control finally make Microsoft's affordable player a good choice. Indeed, for some users the wireless synching will make the 80GB Zune a better bet than the iPod classic.
Although the old 30GB Zune didn't go down too well, Microsoft's kept at it and managed to produce an impressive pair of players in its second-generation Zunes. The 80GB hard-drive model we tested would make a capable alternative to an 80GB iPod cassic if wireless synching or built-in radio interest you. It isn't available in the UK just yet, but can be pre-ordered from some online stores, and will set you back around £185.
The 80GB Zune is just about the same size as Apple's 160GB iPod Classic, which makes it a bit thicker than the 80GB model it's competing with. In our objective audio tests and our listening tests, the Zune performed well, producing clean sound with little distortion. One tiny annoyance, though: the player's 20-step digital volume control doesn't provide much granularity. Occasionally, we'd reach points where one step was too low and the next too high.
The 80GB Zune comes with premium in-ear headphones that are easily better than the standard earbuds you'll find with most players. While most included headphones we test get tossed after a brief listen, this model would actually be worth keeping - a nice addition.
The Zune supports MP3, WMA, WMA lossless, AAC, and its own DRM format for Zune Pass subscriptions. If you'd rather listen to radio, the Zune includes a built-in FM tuner. It also plays back video and displays photos on its 3.2in 320-by-240-pixel screen, and the Zune now supports h.264 and Mpeg4 encoding in addition to WMV.
Video playback looked nice on the Zune's screen, though compared with other players the screen's low dots per inch (dpi) stood out as a negative. Pixels are very noticeable.
All of the new Zunes centre on a rounded touch-sensitive control that also doubles as a clickable D-pad-style controller, much like the Click Wheel on Apple's iPods. Flick your thumb up or down the pad repeatedly, and you begin to build up momentum while scrolling through long lists.
At any time, you can tap to stop the scrolling, though it will eventually come to a halt naturally. In my experience, it's a very fun way to navigate through a music collection, even in a long view of artists on the 80GB player.
As you browse through the interface, you'll find that you can often scroll left and right as well. So if you've selected an artist and an album, scrolling up and down will take you through songs on that album, while scrolling left and right will switch to other albums by that artist.
Although the touch control is the highlight of the interface, you can also click your way up and down through lists using the hard buttons of the D-pad. (The Zune is still very responsive in scrolling through lists, too.)
That allows for simple blind navigation, such as adjusting volume or fast-forwarding a track or two without taking the player from your pocket--always a nice option.
Unfortunately, the player's lock switch doesn't include a way to lock out the touch control but not the physical buttons. That's not much of a problem with upward and downward swipes that simply adjust the volume, but it can be annoying when an inadvertent horizontal swipe fast-forwards you out of the song you're playing.