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Click to viewMicrosoft was kind enough to get us some hands-on time with the Zune, not batting an eye as we eagerly slided the player down our pants, enjoying the material it was made out of. Our thoughts first, then a gallery later.

The outside is made out of a rubberized plastic, which goes through an interesting process where they paint the inside a different color than the case—this gives the Zune a two-toned look which both looks and feels great. The corners (meticulously selected down from hundreds of minutely different corners) look like they glow, which is called the "doubleshot effect". This comes from the inside radius being different from the outside radius.


So the big news: The Zune will be upgradeable. How? Let us explain...

Microsoft's put in WiFi on the Zune, which even though it doesn't seem to be a big draw to consumers now. The hardware paves the road for them to do various other "scenarios" with the Zune. In the future, via software update, the Zune should be able to possibly do stuff like share songs over the internet, wirelessly sync with the computer, stream music/video to other devices, and much more. The hardware is there, but it just needs to be activated by software. Microsoft's decided to focus (wisely) on making the Zune simple to use and intuitive for people to pick up. Something that we think they've achieved.

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The UI is snappy and has lots of zooming, sliding and various cool effects when you're navigating. Luckily, the eye candy doesn't get in the way of usability. The click-pad isn't too bad to use, but it's not touch sensitive like the iPod wheels. The community menu options like sending files and pictures are all over the place. If you hit the middle button to get the context menu, you'll most likely notice an entry called "send", where you can send what you're currently listening to to nearby Zunes. Overall the UI is pretty well designed, and iPod users shouldn't be lost if they decide to migrate.

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The Zune's screen was bright even outside, and had pretty much zero glare. Movies and pictures played back smoothly, and the display transitioned automatically to landscape mode when you start a slideshow/movie. Pictures are auto-cropped to display large on the screen, and will be auto-resized down from the original whenever you send them to your friends over WiFi. The Zune was easy to hold in both landscape and regular modes—no problems at all.

There are also two new concepts: inbox and flagging. The Inbox is an area separate from your library where pictures and songs come in from other Zunes. You play your received songs from here, and once you sync, the songs will be uploaded to the Inbox on your PC. Flagging is similar—whenever you flag a song, the song will show up flagged on your PC after syncing for later reference. What was the 5th song I heard in that big random shuffle I listened to on the train? Oh right, I flagged it. It's useful because you can't go on your Zune Marketplace after you sync your songs and see your "recently played" list like you can on iTunes.

We also spent a good amount of time going over the Zune Marketplace, which is what you're going to be using to buy and sync up music. The Zune is designed only to work with the Marketplace—which confirms that it will not work with Napster, Rhapsody, and other third-party subscription music services. But, ZM itself is really clean, with only enough icons and links to do what you need and no more. You can get the sense that iTunes was the benchmark they compared themselves to.

Another not-published or seldom-talked-about feature is guesting. A friend can take his Zune over to your computer, set up a "guest" relationship with your Zune Marketplace software (as opposed to a regular owner relationship), and you're free to drag songs and pictures from your library onto her device. These songs do not have the 3 play 3 day limit on them. Depending on whether you purchased or you're leasing these songs, you can do this with either 5 or 2 Zunes, respectively. So in essence, if your wife wants to grab a few songs off your library for listening to, she can—there's no "wife" relationship yet, but engineers are probably working on that. As soon as they get wives.

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Pricing is going to be the same as Microsoft's Xbox 360 Marketplace points. I saw songs go for 79 points ($1), and it will be $15 for monthly subscriptions where you lease content. Microsoft's not going to be advertising the subscription plan very much. You're still going to have to convert real money into points, something they decided on because "points were so well received" on the 360. My response was: "really? They were well received? Because we heard quite a few complaints about having to switch money before you buy stuff." To which they responded "well, 4 million people bought it, so to each his own." I was thinking, "yeah, because what are they gonna do, NOT buy stuff? They have no choice," but didn't want to be an ass.

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A cool feature that iTunes doesn't have is pre-rated, or community rankings. When you buy songs from the store, you'll notice that they already come pre-ranked on a scale of 5 blue stars. When you rank a song, it'll rank it in orange stars. What's the deal? Well, these blue stars are decided based on an algorithm combining other people's rankings, the song's popularity, and editorial rankings. If your library is bigger than the total space on the Zune, the Zune suite will auto-sync your library to your player based on these auto-rankings. Pretty great, because as much fun as it is to rank songs (one of my favorite things to do on iTunes for using them in smart playlists), most people don't have the time to go and rate 3,000 songs. Pre-ratings are great for this. Which is good, because there's no concept of "smart playlists" just yet. Bummer.

Speaking of editorials, Microsoft's partnered with and hired a bunch of knowledgeable music folks who are going to be providing original text content for the marketplace. Whether it's album reviews, song rankings (see above), artist descriptions, and editorials, you'll see some cool text there.

Searching is also pretty snappy, and they've provided a consistent interface on both your own library and on the store, which they called the community. If you're searching your library for an artist you don't have, it'll come back with a link to the marketplace for the correct artist/song. Another neat feature is the way albums/folders are displayed. There's this nice spiral/stack of CDs under each item so you can quickly gauge how many items are under it visually without having a number or something else.

Miscellaneous stuff: no movie store (for now), can't talk about how many major labels they have on, Zune Marketplace will never fully integrate into Windows Media Player for an all-in-one package like iTunes. You can easily stream stuff to the Xbox 360 from the Zune software (there's even a setting in one of the options menus), or hook up your Zune to the 360 via USB. A phone may be one of the things upcoming, but as usual, they can't confirm upcoming projects whether they exist or not.

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Overall, this seems pretty promising. I can't find any mis-steps or anything where I have to ask "wait, this is dumb, why did you do this?" in both the player and the software. The Zune itself is very sexy, and feels nice to the touch—not too heavy. We can't wait to do another hands on as the launch date approaches. Oh, and I still can't decide which color is my favorite.