Zune 3.0 Offers More Media Player Features

When Microsoft's Zune team released the Spring 2008 Zune 2.5 software update, I touted it as the natural upgrade to Windows Media Player 11. Zune 3.0 further extends my recommendation to dump WMP 11 for the Zune software because it adds still more features over the now languishing Windows Media Player offering.

The software updates are interesting even if you have no interest in ever owning a Zune device, but many of the benefits are more meaningful if you also own a Zune. Mixview is a new feature with Pandora like characteristics. When you're listening to an song and switch to Mixview in the Zune software, you get a visual map of artists related to the current artist, artists influenced by the current artist, and top listeners to the current artist (who have given permission to show up in Mixview). This is an interesting way to find new music you might have forgotten or never heard of before.

Channels is one of the features anyone can benefit from. As the name suggests, this feature is pre-programmed selections of music, sorted by genre. So if you want to listen to popular tracks in a given style of music, with reasonable confidence the songs will all be good, channels are the way to go. I've already found several artists I like simply by listening to some of the channel offerings.

One of the new features with the biggest potential is Picks, which is essentially recommendations based on what you listen to. Picks get more accurate the more you listen to music and really make having a Zune Pass worth it because you can download and sample hundreds or thousands of songs without spending any extra money. In some cases, I'm reminded of old favorites not currently in my Zune collection, while other recommendations are for artists I'm not familiar with. The potential weak link here is sharing you music collection with other people in your household because the recommendations can get radically skewed by the person who listens most. I certainly don't tend to listen to anything that would cause Britney Spears to show up in my recommendations and yet there she was in the list when I first tried out the feature. I'm hoping rating her songs with a broken heart (which means I dislike them) helps avoid a similar experience in the future.

The buy-from-FM feature is really handy for the Zune Pass subscriber too. Since Zune hardware has FM radio built-in, I frequently use my Zune to listen to KEXP. When they feature a new band, I can now simply mark the track for download as I'm listening and have it show up in my collection later.

One of my biggest gripes about Zune is finally addressed - both the software and the Zune hardware now support Audible audiobooks. I have an Audible subscription going back many years and found this to be a key reason not to buy a Zune. I'm happy they finally listened. This signals that Zune is no longer targeting the 18-25 crowd, who are a tiny fraction of the audiobook market.

If you like toting around games on your portable player, Zune 3.0 adds Hexic and a poker game to the device. It will be interesting to see if more games start showing up in the next release. I'm also seeing more download-to-own tracks available as MP3, which means if you spend money on a song it will work anywhere, not just on a Zune.

I hesitate to suggest Zune (or anything) will dent the iPod's dominance in the portable player market. I will go so far as suggesting Microsoft is doing many things right with the Zune software, focusing more on making the music experience better, rather than focusing on trying to sell you more tracks. Apple's iTunes software feels like a commerce platform. Zune software feels like a solution for managing your music library and finding more music to listen to. The net result will likely be selling more music to Zune owners, but I don't feel like I'm being sold anything each time I launch the Zune software. It will never happen, but Zune would make a big dent in market share simply by adding support for iPod sync in the desktop software. Once again, I highly recommend replacing Windows Media Player by downloading Zune 3.0. If you're an iTunes user, this might be the time to check out Zune as a possible alternative.