Zune software review: Syncing in Zune
Shopping at the Marketplace
The Marketplace is a key component of the Zune experience – from here you can buy anything from songs through TV shows to Windows Phone 7 apps.
Finding new music with Zune is easy – it’s not just the social side of things or even the Channels functionality. For 15 US dollars a month, you can get what is known as a “Zune Pass”.
With a Zune Pass you can listen to all the music you want – you can stream songs or download them and there’s no limit to how much. You can download songs to your computer and phone and even stream them if you’re in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The downside of the Zune Pass is that once your subscription ends you won’t be able to listen to those songs anymore. Still, each month you get 10 “credits” – that is you can pick 10 songs you get to keep forever, even if your Pass expires. Make sure you use up your credits as they don’t carry over to the next month.
Zune Pass songs can be downloaded to up to three computers and synced with up to three Zune devices. With your Pass you don’t even need the Zune software to stream music – you can do that from your browser on the Zune.net site. You get a free 14 day trial, to see if Zune Pass is worth that $15/month.
Songs you’ve kept using credits can be synced to an unlimited number of Zune devices and you can burn a song on up to 7 CDs. Zune Pass songs on the other hand cannot be recorded to CDs.
Two other sections are Podcasts and channels – we’ll cover that in the next section. The Picks section is interesting because it’s customized just for you. Based on your listening history, Picks will automatically prepare a selection or artists, albums and songs that you might like. The more stuff you listen to, the better Picks gets at finding good music.
This is also one of the places where having a Zune Pass is great – you can listen to all the albums that Picks has offered and add the ones you like to your collection, all at no extra cost. So, if you can’t decide whether you like a song or not based on just a 30 second preview, Pass is the thing you need.
Finally, there’s the Apps section – the place where you shop for Windows Phone 7 applications. The shopping experience is similar to shopping on the phone itself – except you do it in the comfort of your computer.
For each app (or game) you get published info and price, a short description and screenshots along with user rating and reviews. You can write your own review of course.
When you buy an app, it will be installed on the phone the next time you sync it with the computer or the next time the phone checks for updates. Apps that are 30MB or over, can only be downloaded via the computer or on the device when connected to a Wi-Fi network – there are no big apps downloads over 3G.
Podcasts and channels
Zune of course has support for podcasts. The Podcast tab in the Marketplace offers many podcasts (both audio and video) organized into categories and you can use search if you’re looking for something specific.
When you subscribe to a podcast, Zune will start downloading several episodes (3 by default, you can change that).
You can also set the order in which podcasts are displayed (newest episodes first for news or oldest first for serialized programs) and how they are synced to the device all downloaded, all unplayed, just the first unplayed or none at all.
Channels are a sort of playlists – they are song lists you can subscribe to, which are updated weekly. There are a variety of channels in every genre and subscribing to one will take the effort out of looking for new music.
Videos, conversions for mobile
Videos in your collection are separated into TV, Movies, Music, Personal and Other categories. Adding videos to the Collection takes a couple of seconds, but after that they start and play very smoothly.
Zune handles DivX, XviD, AVC and H.264 codecs problem-free – unlike your Windows Phone 7 mobile. Which is why the Zune software re-encodes videos before sending them to your device.
Videos are converted to a .WMV encoded with WMV3 with WVGA maximum resolution (which matches the screen resolution of all current WP7 phones.
Videos using the MP4 container and codec are re-encoded to the same format, while all others are converted to a .WMV file using the WMV3 codec. The resolution for videos is preserved if they are up to 800x600 pixels in resolution, otherwise they are downscaled to fit that resolution.
We tried a 2 minute DivX video, which took around a minute and a half to convert on a dual-core AMD Athlon processor at 2.4GHz and 2GB RAM. On the same machine, a 2 minute AVC-encoded MP4 video with 720p resolution took 3 minutes to convert and resulted in a video with resolution 800x450 pixels (to preserve the ratio). If you do your math, that means transferring full-featured movies to your WP7 smartphone will take a while.
And you have no say about the conversion settings – resolution, framerate and so on are picked automatically.
But the TV shows and movies you get from the Zune Marketplace are already properly encoded for your device, so you’ll only have to re-encode “your other” videos.