ExtremeTech: Technologies we wish had caught on

Recently, I was reading an article at ExtremeTech discussing technologies the site editors wish had caught on. For the most part, I can see why the article creators wish the technologies had caught on, but I confess that I am mostly indifferent to or mildly in disagreement with the items they listed. One mention, however, I felt I could respond to since I long ago mentioned it here on the Blahg. I wanted to remark on the text made in the article in regards to the Microsoft Zune. Rather than start with what I agree with, I’ll pop the negative portion of my rather long comment out first, just below the break, so we can end on the happy, let’s all hug agreement section at the close.

I got my brown, 30 gig Zune when the first generation product was shipped. I got a very good price on it. The large hard drive available for the low price ($99 shipped) made it appealing, and I heard that the screen quality was very good (it is), which appealed to me. When my Zune arrived, I was looking forward to hooking it up and loading audio, video, and podcasts, and trying it out. So I loaded the drivers, plugged the device in, and waited.

…and waited…

…and waited…

…and finally decided to go have dinner and figure out later why the player turned on, caused my system to give the Windows “you’ve got hardware” beep, then turned off. After the 10th or 11th on-and-off cycle, I figured I’d gotten bum hardware, but didn’t want to troubleshoot until I had eaten. I checked on dinner (pizza that night, as I had hardware to toy with), saw it wasn’t ready, so came back to my geek-cave to try again. The Zune was still taunting me by turning on, making Windows beep, and turning off. I waited for the pizza instead. After dinner and cleanup time, I returned to start debugging. The Zune was on, showing the charging icon, and the Zune software was loaded. Apparently, the device ships with a fully drained battery, and it turns on as soon as it is plugged in. Since the battery is drained, there isn’t enough juice to get the device running, and there’s no smarts or circuitry built in to keep it from booting until there is enough power to keep the thing on. Hmmmm. Not happy with my first impression.

I go through configuration, get a couple hundred songs loaded, and look for some video to try the screen out. Here comes problem number two – the software for the Zune won’t convert standard AVI files to a format the Zune will play. I can accept that, but it seems odd that this thing was pushed as a music and video player, but didn’t understand the most common video format I can recall seeing on the internets. Through the magic of search, I found the SUPER video converter, which I used (and still use) to convert from AVI to MP4 format that Zune kinda, sorta, maybe understands. I convert my videos, put them in the directory that the Zune software is monitoring, and wait almost 15 minutes each for my 22 minute, already converted MP4 videos to get converted in to whatever format the Zune uses. This takes place on a dual-core Windows system with 2 Gig of memory and nothing running except Firefox. Why does it take almost as long to convert as to watch, after I’ve already converted it once? I don’t know. And I’m not so forgiving of not having video conversion software if I have to two-step it.

And the above doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that when I do find a video podcast in the Zune marketplace that I want to view, the system still has to convert it after downloading it before putting it on the Zune.  Shouldn’t downloadable content already be in the right format, when the downloading service is the official marketplace for the device?

Music, video, and podcasts loaded, I take the sucker to work the next day, ready to glow with happiness in my audio-isolated listening Nerdvana. The Zune played music fine. Everything sounded great. I had no problems. Until I tried to stop listening to music and start watching video. I clicked down on the control wheel, intending to go from the “Music” to the “Video” option. About 1.5 seconds later, the display updated. I clicked the center button to get to my video listing, and another 1 to 1.5 seconds passed. I got to the videos list, tried to choose one, and every click to go down the screen was followed by a 1 to 1.5 second pause. I got annoyed with the interface. Once I started my video, it played fine, but it took me another day or two to figure out that leaving wireless turned on while working in an area without wireless networks caused massive interface lag. That problem no longer happens, but the fact that the Zune ships with wireless enabled and it slows down the interface by several seconds made me like the device just a little less.

Now, let’s turn to the first disagreement I have with ExtremeTech over the Zune: the Zune software interface (here compared to the iPod interfacing iTunes):

Zune desktop software, by comparison, is sleek and highly visual. It’s clean and well organized, fast, and makes browsing music and videos into entertainment by itself. Toss in the greatly enhanced social aspects (syncing friend’s recently played lists, browsing what they have been playing, messaging, checking out users with similar tastes) and the cool Mixview for discovering new music, and it’s actually hard to go back to the boring spreadsheet-like lists and boxes on iTunes. And yes, the Zune marketplace has all sorts of MP3 tracks available, podcasts and video podcasts, TV shows and movies, etc.

The desktop software interface, while indeed highly visual, is too busy. I’ll give them well organized, but there’s just so much ‘stuff” on display that it takes longer to see the “What” that you need to get around. It’s not worse than iTunes, but I don’t see it as being any better, either. And the stupid interface is lacking in some necessary basic user-friendliness that web browsers exhibit. Say I want to find a particular podcast, like the latest Countdown with Keith Olbermann which I enjoy watching. I go to Podcasts, choose News, choose Politics, then scroll through the list until I see Countdown. I click on that, realize I’m on the audio podcast, so I click the back button so I can find the video podcast. I’m back at the top of the list of political news podcasts. That’s a problem in some categories where there are 3 or 4 screens worth of choices to scroll through. Now I have to scroll again and find where I was, then continue on in hopes I finding where I want to be. While trying out a dozen or so podcasts recently, I got real tired of scrolling. And so far as I can see, there’s no bookmark option so I can return to that podcast’s listing in the future, should I want to easily download something to watch or listen to again.

The interface is perhaps one of the best Microsoft has ever developed, and easily on par with the click wheel on iPods.

No. It is not. Not even close. It’s slow, and much less precise.

(Here’s the happy-hug-time stuff) On the plus side, the Zune pass option, a $15 per month subscription, just got upgraded so you can get unlimited music downloads for listening, and you get to keep 10 songs per month. These songs can be moved to other computers, burned to CD, or put on other media players you have. That’s just cool, and I’ll be signing up for this feature next time I hit the Zune marketplace (tonight, after I get this posted, in fact). In addition, Microsoft does well by regularly updating the desktop experience and the device firmware, and the recent addition of games will go far for picking up more gadget geeks who have otherwise held off, I’m sure. It just needs to get easier for users to add games made for the Zune which are available for download elsewhere on the net.

I agree with ExtremeTech that Microsoft performs best when playing catch-up. I agree that the Zune most emphatically will be getting better and capture greater market share. And I fully expect that the Zune will be a strong contender for best media device if Microsoft keeps working and improving it like the company normally does when trying to break in to a market. But to praise the poor user interface and desktop experience at the present time I think is inaccurate. And had I an account on ExtremeTech, I would contribute some of these thoughts to the discussion, but the last thing I need is yet another website or discussion board account, so I’ll stick to putting my disagreement on my own site where only 2 other people will have to subject themselves to it.

[tags]Zune, Technology, ExtremeTech, Wrong[/tags]