Zune 3.0 Software

18 09 2008

Though Microsoft left their new Zune hardware relatively untouched, the firmware and corresponding software got a few nice upgrades that add a bit of functionality. In the firmware, Marketplace is now available over Wi-Fi, while FM Tagging lets you mark songs you hear on the FM Tuner, and have them added to your Marketplace cart automatically. On the software side, Picks compiles a list of songs for purchase in the Marketplace based on recent listening habits, Channels offer what amount to preselected podcasts based on your tastes, Zune DJs or selected partners. Meanwhile Mixview lets you visually explore new music by seeing an artist/album’s related works, influences and top listeners. Of these new features, the Wi-Fi Marketplace is a solid, necessary addition, and Mixview is a few tweaks away from being downright awesome.

Picks is basically a more personalized, less flashy, less functional version of Mixview. It’s not a new idea, by any means, as iTunes has done something similar for a long time, but it’s a feature that’s good to have anyway. Channels is another inclusion that’s cool, but is essentially a podcast with a bit of personalization. A Zune pass is also necessary to use Channels, which limits it’s reach a little bit. But one advantage it does have over a podcast, is that it can be auto-updated over the wi-fi, and switching from song to song is easier, finding a happy medium between preset and on-demand music content.

Zune quietly added Games functionality as well, but with only two basic preloaded games, and no downloadable content, it’s too early to judge this aspect of the Zune.

Zune Marketplace is a simple interface that highlights what it does best—letting you scroll through pre-compiled Top 10 lists. You can choose from top songs, top albums or new releases, and pick from genres within each menu. If there’s something you REALLY need to download while on the go, there is a search menu that goes through the entire store, but stringing together words on the Zune pad gets old…real fast. But for looking up quick music on the fly without a keyboard, this interface works pretty well.

FM Tagging is a feature that works pretty well most of the time, but runs into the occasional glitch and is limited by the Zune Marketplace. Most of the time, the name and artist comes up without a hitch on any given radio station, but sometimes the tags are formatted wrong and the Zune can’t interpret them. The other problem is finding songs in the market place. Even when the song info is correct, you just can’t find the song in the store, which negates the usefulness. This seems like a feature that’s best used with a Top 40 station as opposed to an obscure college show.

Mixview is probably the most significant of the new features, so I’ll devote some space to break down its pros and cons. Like Jesús said, Mixview is designed pretty well, and is really fun to use. You can view other works by the same artists, related artists, and artists who have either influenced or been influenced by the subject in question.

At its best, you can slide from Mixview cloud to Mixview cloud smoother than butter, learning about new artists and downloading new and related music on the fly without exiting the UI. You can also click on top users associated with an artist and browse their favorites and playlists. When you find a string of good Mixview clouds, I could see where using this with the all-you-can-eat Zune Pass would be more addictive than Oxycontin mixed with crack (think Wikipedia surfing).

At its worst, the recommendation service for Mixview can be a clusterfuck of randomness. When you click on a Mixview for an artist or album, the clusters will regularly include 3 or 4 entries to a related artist that come off as redundant. You will not only see a link to the related artist’s cloud, but also to his maxi-single, an out of print release,and maybe a downloadable album. It’s not always this bad, but it tends to get worse as the artist gets more obscure. Essential singles and EPs, I can understand. But listing greatest hits albums, forgettable EPs and singles already found in suggested albums is lame.

Compared to Genius, Mixview does some things better, some things worse, and some things completely different. Mixview’s interface easily trumps that of Genius, and goes deeper into what why it’s recommending certain songs. However, Genius seems to be more consistent with the quality of recommendations. Rarely am I blown away by Genius’ list of songs, compared to some Mixviews that are really awesome, but rarely am I left wondering “WTF?” or stuck filtering through crap with Genius.

As an example, I’ll use the difference between looking up rapper/produer El-P in Zune Mixview and iTunes Genius. Searching his latest album “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” in Mixview brings up ’80s prog-rockers Yes (cited as an influence), his maxi-single for “The Overly Dramatic Truth” (off the same album), DJ Shadow’s artist page, DJ Shadow’s album “Endtroducing,” Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” and Prefuse 73’s “Vocal Studies.” Granted, these suggestions change slightly every time you click, and the general selection is decent, but with the more limited list space, do we really need two entries for DJ shadow, and another entry for a song off El-P’s same album?

On Genius, searching the track “Tasmanian Pain Coaster” from El-P’s album not only brings up earlier works from El-P, but also songs from Cannibal Ox’s “The Cold Vein” (which he produced and released on his Def Jux label), Mr. Lif’s “I Phantom” (same), Cage’s “Hell’s Winter” (same). Plus there were also suggestions to rappers like Sole and Evidence, who both emerged out of the same wave of hip-hop as El-P (not to mention share the same skin color). But I digress. The point to this music nerdery is to show that it’s a little easier to follow the logic behind the recommendations behind choices on Genius. But that could be what Zune intended with Mixview — choices for the more enthusiastic music fan who is looking for more than the obvious links in music. It’s just sometimes it comes off as scattershot song picking than informed recommendations.

And of course, the two excel in very different things. Zune Pass makes Mixview amazing on the music discovery front, because you can get new music risk-free at will. It also has the social on it’s side, and the ability to connect with the tastes of other users. Genius has the ability to make playlists from music already in your collection — which can be very cool if there’s a certain sound you’re in the mood for. Stacked up against each other, it’s kind of a wash, and mostly depends on what features matter to you.

Overall, there’s more good than bad to be found in the Zune 3.0 Fall Update. Picks and FM Tagging are neat, but picks are not a new idea, and the Tagging is a bit rough around the edges. The addition of the Wi-Fi Marketplace further establishes Zune’s spot, in my opinion, as the best non-touchscreen media player in the market, and Mixview just needs to tighten up its suggestion engine a little bit to achieve greatness.




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