Categories: Zune Posted by Shawn Oster on 11/19/2006 8:44 AM | Comments

So, after being unable to get my pre-loaded content back I did what tech support would never suggest... I returned it.  I said goodbye black Zune, thanks for playing, I don't need your inflexibility.  Of course what will replace my old black Zune?  How about... a new black Zune!

That's right, I went to Target that same night and found they were running a promotion where you receive a $25 gift card when you buy a Zune AND sales tax in Louisville is much less than in Broomfield so in the end I got it for almost $30 cheaper.

After all my complaining why did I buy it again when I was free from it's clutches?  Here are a few reasons:

1. The hardware is rock solid.  Just from a hardware side of things it really is a pretty unit.  I love the rat rod feel of it, the large screen, how my fingers don't gum up the finish, the sound quality and screen animations.

2. Software is software.  9/10 of my complaints are about the software and I have a feeling that we'll be seeing some major updates to it before Christmas comes around.  They'll work through a lot of issues to make sure Christmas morning all the little Zunesters are rocking out instead of pulling their hair out.

3. Credible Bug Reports.  If I don't actually own a Zune how can I make suggestions for improvements or file bug reports?  Unless I actually own one and am invested in it's success it's pretty unlikely that I'll be as passionate about helping improving it.

4. Microsoft.  As a company they really want the Zune to succeed and you can tell they are fully committed to this product.  After watching the 360 grow up into a desirable consumer product I have hopes that while Microsoft may make mistakes they are smart enough to do course corrections.

5. Software is easier to update.  At the end of the day Microsoft is still a software company.  I hope this means we'll see more improvements via software and firmware than via next generation hardware units, a la Apple.

So, all in all I am pleased with my Zune.  When I point out issues it's always with the intention of trying to help a product be better than to trash it.

Categories: Zune Posted by Shawn Oster on 11/16/2006 2:57 PM | Comments

See how I played on the fact that it comes with "preloaded content" but instead I'm sarcastically saying "preloaded issues".  Yeah, I know, powerful stuff (see, even more sarcasm).

You could probably also call these "bugs", maybe "poor planning" or if you don't really care then you may downgrade them to "annoyances". 

Preloaded Content

#1 - Preloaded music doesn't show album art in software.

This software is supposed to be my one home for all music needs and yet it can't show me the album art of it's own preloaded music?  That doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

#2 - Preloaded playlist doesn't show up under "playlists" in software.

There is a "Zune Gems" playlist that comes preloaded on the Zune but you'd never know it just by looking at the software.  Open your Zune software, click on "playlists" and it'll only show you the ones you've imported.  What?  Where is my Zune Gems list?

#3 - You can't copy the preloaded content off of the Zune.

Like some of the preloaded videos or music but don't want to delete them forever?  Too bad, either you leave them on the Zune or you delete them, no chance of getting them back.  You can copy the pictures and few are pretty cool but most people will want those tracks and videos.

Finding Album Info

#4 - The "Find album information" dialog has this lovely bit of wonderfully worded text:

"Is This Your CD Tracks?"

I can't even think of a good accent where that sounds like proper English.  New York?  Southern?  Indian?  How about we change that to: "Are these your CD tracks" instead of just adding an "S" to the end of "Is This Your CD Track".

#5 - "Find album information" dialog can't make up it's mind

I have only tracks 2, 6, 7 and 13 off of Lady Sovereign's "Public Warning" CD because I have almost all the other tracks from her previous albums because I was listening to her months ago, way before The Express started using her songs in their stores (whew, my indie cred has been defended).  What I don't have is the album art so I hit "Find Album Info" and it finds it but decides that it's going to change the track numbers to 1, 2, 3, 4.  Why?  I just told it that it found the right album so shouldn't it look at the album's track numbers and use those instead?

#6 - "Find album information" is all or nothing

This is a continuation of #5.  When it shows you the new track names/numbers you should be able to edit the new information.  Maybe you liked how you named your tracks and you just wanted album art?  Maybe you don't like how the track uses brackets instead of parenthesis to wrap the "XXX Remix".  It either does everything or nothing.

#7 - Limited Ripped File Name Formats

How do you rip your files?  My current format is:

 \Artist\Album\01 - Track.mp3

Yet forget about getting that format in the Zune Software.  Want to use a dash as your separator?  Sure you can change it but then you *only* get a dash so its "01-Track".  What to change the folder structure it creates?  Too bad.  I think they decided that no one would actually use the Zune software to rip music so they invested almost no time into it. 

I'm sure I'll be posting more as time goes on...

Categories: Zune Posted by Shawn Oster on 11/15/2006 5:14 PM | Comments

I just bought a Zune.  Most everything that the reviews have mentioned is true: quick, sexy UI, nice tactile feel to the case, screen is crisp, software is easy to setup, music sounds good.  Of course like all the good there is the bad and here are a few things that have raised my temperature by a few degrees:

#1 - Can't Play Music Directly from the Zune

Perhaps I'm missing something and I'm happy to be proven wrong but you can't seem to play music directly off the Zune.  I fully expected to be able to browse my Zune, select a track and hit the big, lovely Play button.  Nope.  Nada.  This inability to play music directly from my Zune is such an annoyance I may actually take the thing back.

#2 - Sync Destroys Preloaded Content

I was so excited to buy a Zune I bought one during lunch and plugged it in directly at work to charge it and since I have a small music collection at work and it happily sync'd.  Next I come home and it tells me that I can either make my home computer a "Guest" or I can make it my new main sync PC.  Obviously my home computer should be the main computer so I picked that option and then watched as it formatted the Zune and sync'd it, thereby destroying all the preloaded content.

I actually liked the preloaded content and because my only options were to either connect as a Guest or format I had no way to preserve select items.  Again, if there isn't a good way to get the content back I'm returning it.

#3 - Sync Assumes You're Stupid

I have over 90GB of ripped music, the Zune holds 30GB, yet upon first install it happily indexes all my music and says it's "Synchronizing".  Well Gee, ain't that special, what do you think it's synching?  Do I get to pick?  Do I get to tell it that I really don't need all those old hip hop albums from the 80's?  Maybe I don't really want every trance album I've ever owned on the thing?  Nope, it just seems to chug away without asking for any of your feedback.

You can delete the unwanted items from your Zune and then next time it sync's it won't grab those items but what a wasteful, tedious process.

Is The Love Gone?

Even with these issues I like the Zune: it's hardware, software and the idea.  I like the concept of it integrating with the 360 ecosystem, I like the possibilities it holds.  Of course I'll never buy a single track from the Marketplace because I also own a Sonos music system and I don't buy music that I can't play on the equipment I own but I understand the evil of having an iTunes/Zune Marketplace concept.  I'll continue to support and even the Russians to get my music without DRM.

What I don't like is that they seem to have forgotten about the initial, out-of-box experience.  They've forgotten about the many users that swap between their personal laptop, their home computer and their work computer.  They've tried to make a simple solution but in the process have assumed a simple user.

I can only hope a patch/update fixes these issues.  If tech support can't help me I'm going to return mine and wait for these issues to be fixed.

Posted by Shawn Oster on 10/2/2006 4:38 PM | Comments
Just watched the pilot episode of "Heroes" and I'm giving it two thumbs up. Not only am I interested and caught up in the story already but my wife loves it as well, which in house doesn't always happen. Actually, this is probably a bad thing because the television shows we both really love together tend to have something go horribly wrong with them.

First there was the excellent "Firefly", which for those that have seen it know how entertaining it was and of course that it got yanked after only a season, and not even really a full season at that. Bastards.

Next there was the new version of "Doctor Who" and just as my wife was really getting into the story after much cajoling on my part they went and changed the actor that plays the Doctor, from Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant and while Mr. Tennant isn't doing a half-bad job Mr. Eccleston made an impression that leaves the show feeling just a little flat. We still watch it but we no longer look forward to new episodes in quite the same way.

So here's to hoping "Heroes" makes it!
Posted by Shawn Oster on 10/2/2006 11:36 AM | Comments
I'm in the market for a notebook and so I've been looking around at different models to see what's out there and of all the things to get hung up on I'm stuck on keyboards. Forget specs, forget memory or speed or hard drives or touchpads or any of that, it's the keyboards that have me stuck.

First, I'm looking for either a 15.4" or 17" notebook and very few computer makers seem to realize that you can also make the keyboard bigger, not just the monitor itself. It's for this reason that Dell dropped off my list first, and I'm a huge Dell user. Even on their 17" notebooks the Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys are located in the upper right-hand corner, *above* all the other keys. Seriously, with all that room and they can't even put keys along the right edge or off a full num pad? Horrible design.

Second, after typing on my wife's work ThinkPad I realize I can't own any notebook that places the Fn key where the Ctrl key is on a real keyboard. How daft was that decision? Did someone that hated the keyboard put it there? After typing for a few hours I realized I didn't once use the Fn key yet I tried to hit the Ctrl key probably once every 45 seconds.

Third, I need my Windows key. Yes, probably not as important as the Ctrl key but I realized after 5 minutes that I use that Windows key. The same key I thought was a silly little annoyance I now rely upon. I even got my wife to use it and now she goes crazy on her ThinkPad without it. The three most useful things are Windows+D which minimizes all windows instantly, Windows+R which brings up the run box and Windows+E which starts a new browser instance.

I can excuse the last one, the Windows key isn't really seen as many as important and space is limited on a notebook BUT #1 and #2? Forget it. In fact, I would really love to talk to someone in hardware design and find out why for the love of all that's holy the keys are placed where they are on over 60% of laptops. It might save someone's face actually because if I ever sit next to someone on a plane and they happen to mention they designed the ThinkPad keyboard layout I'm just going to sock 'em right in the kisser.
Categories: Music Posted by Shawn Oster on 9/29/2006 8:57 AM | Comments

One minor annoyance with Windows Media Player is that it assumes I don't own any of my music.  I usually use WinAmp but thought I'd see how well WMP11 Beta 2 was coming along and I noticed that in the List pane of Now Playing, when you hover your mouse over the blue arrow in the top-right it offers up a "Buy" button.  You know, for when you want to rebuy the same song over and over and over and over.

I already own the song, I do not wish to see a stupid "Buy" button cluttering up the UI.

Posted by Shawn Oster on 9/23/2006 8:37 AM | Comments

One of the software projects I work on involves printing color-coded, barcoded labels.  Yes, exactly, the height of fun.  Often I need to validate that a code change I just made hasn't completely messed up the rendering engine.  Because resolution is a huge issue in things like barcodes I need to actually print through a printer driver vs. just doing a screen preview.  Being a good recycling citizen I hate wasting paper, hence where Adobe's Acrobat Distiller and my cheap ass nature come into the picture.  I like the concept of Distiller, I don't like paying for it.

So, I took a bunch of freely available tools, namely GhostScript, RedMon, and a Xerox DocuColor40 printer driver and rolled them into a simple NSIS install to create a Distiller Knock-Off.  I did have to write a small Win32 Delphi application to do a little file management between RedMon and GhostScript but all it really does is shuffle files between the temp folder.  I picked a DocuColor40 simply because I wanted the option to print to a 11x17 sheet of paper and I needed a PostScript driver.

You can get it here: Distiller-KO

Posted by Shawn Oster on 9/23/2006 6:42 AM | Comments

I've been watching the EU's crusade against Microsoft over the last year and each new development makes me shake my head more.  The news that Adobe and Symantec have officially whined to Nellie Kroes, the EU competition commissioner, has propelled the whole issue into some kind of bizzaro fantasy land.

The issue already had one arm in the straight-jacket when Nellie Kroes accused Microsoft of engaging in a smear campaign to cast her in a negative light.  She was already doing that by herself as she displayed her tenuous grasp on the software industry and the actual concept of a free market.  At one time the EU Competition Commission had a few valid points but as time has gone on the entire issue has turned into a pissing match with the EU not wanting to lose any political face by backing down.

The news of Adobe and Symantic lodging official concerns to the EU takes the cake though.  Their big concern is that their business will be negatively impacted by Microsoft bundling their products and at one time I would have bought into that argument.  Now that Firefox has been on the scene though they've shown that you can still gain significant market share even if you're not a bundled product as long as you have a superior product, which Firefox vs. IE6 definitely is.

It must be a scary position for a company like Symantic to know that a large part of their business has been based on the weakness of another.  What's interesting is that they are accusing Microsoft of giving themselves an unfair advantage yet the Microsoft products don't have access to anything Symantic doesn't.  It's also interesting how many people I talk to that dislike Symantic's security products.  On top of all of this the consumers have been asking, either directly or indirectly, for much better security built into the OS and now that Microsoft has taken that seriously

What's so ironic about Adobe's issue is that PDF files are the Microsoft of formats, meaning 90% of portable documents are PDF-based.  Adobe is really saying they are concerned that Microsoft might topple their hold on the market and bring fixed file formats into a competitive phase.

The bottom line is that what the companies are really complaining about is that now they really have to start competing based on the merits of their products.

Categories: Zune Posted by Shawn Oster on 9/20/2006 6:46 PM | Comments

Ways the Zune could rock:

- Small/indie bands can embed info into the metadata so once the song gets locked people can still see things like their URL, so people can buy the music directly from the band.

- Show up at location X and get some unreleased tracks from Band Y.  Whether it's at a local gig or a promotional event (Warp Tour, X06, X-Games, etc.) 

-  My mother-in-law plays in a Blues band and people are always asking for her CD's at gigs and sometimes she runs out.  Instead she could share the tracks and keep the music fresh in their mind.  If they have the song still on their Zune, even if locked, it's a reminder that "Oh, yeah, I liked that, I should go buy their music off their site."

- Transfer XBox 360 music, videos and downloaded media content to the Zune.  I'd honestly never watch a movie on a 3" screen but I wouldn't mind showing off the "Gears of War" or "Mass Effect" trailer to my friends.

- Enable profile and game content transfers onto the Zune from the XBox 360.  I often go to a friend's house and want to play the latest demo of some game but some of these demo's weigh in at 500MB, meaning I don't want to wait for him to download it and it didn't fit on my small memory card.  I hate lugging my 360's HD around but if I could dump a game demo onto my Zune and play off of it instead that would rock.

- Wireless kiosk to get new XBox 360 exclusive content.  Really fold it into the Live ecosystem.

- Wireless connection in your car.  Forget the FM transmitter and its loss of quality or the special cup-holder dock or the dangling cable.  Just get in, rock out.

- Wireless streaming party mode.  Don't get it?  Imagine being at a party where *everyone's* Zune was being used in the party mix.  One wireless laptop in the corner pulling the music and randomly selecting songs off of anyone's Zune, or just those tracks that have been tagged with "party".  Imagine the cry's of "that song was HOT!  who was that?" or of course "Seriously? That song? Seriously?"

- 3rd Party Integration.  Imagine SlimPlayer, Sonos, anyone that already uses wireless putting out a firmware update that allows that system to pull directly from your Zune.

There are a ton more but I see too many people comparing the Zune to an iPod on little things like hard drive size, colors, lack of a scroll wheel, etc.  There is a *huge* amount of things that just the WiFi aspect could bring when wielded by Microsoft.  A lot of the suggestions I made can easily work with a cable but sometimes just that extra bit of effort to dock/cable your player is enough to make sure it never gets off the ground.  If you can walk into a room and things just *work* you have a winner.

Categories: Zune Posted by Shawn Oster on 9/20/2006 6:13 PM | Comments

I hate DRM.  It's one of the reasons I hate the whole iTunes + iPod + FairPlay trinity, that any music you purchase from iTunes can only be legally played back on an iPod.  Yes, you can burn that music to disc and then rip it back but at the loss of some quality, time and materials. 

As much as I hate DRM I've been kicking around this whole concept that any music you share between Zunes will be limited to 3 days or 3 playbacks, which ever comes first, and I have to admit that it makes sense.  Here's my reasoning:

- The ability to share music over WiFi is hot and while it would just be a gimmick in a smaller company's player Microsoft has deep enough pockets and the long tail endurance to make this a reality (the reality being getting enough units sold that you may actually bump into someone else with a Zune).  They want this feature to work, they want people to love it like it's the new digital crack and so if they have limited it to 3 days/plays they probably have a very good reason.

- Microsoft has realized that against all odds people actually are willing to lock their souls into a software/hardware pairing, a la iPod/iTunes.  Willing? Nah, people flock to it, love it, hoist it high on their shoulders and parade it around with the banner of "Easy of Use" flapping in the wind.

- In an attempt to create an iTunesesque creature they need content and since that content will be locked to the Zune their partners must be assured that any content they provide via Zune Marketplace is secure, which means the ability to willy-nilly share music unrestricted will block any type of major labels from sharing their catalog.

- This means that while Microsoft desperately wants to pimp their WiFi sharing concept they have to sooth their music partners, you know, with something like a 3 day, 3 listen lock-down.  No exceptions allowed because whatever flag you'd need to flip to tell a song that it can play beyond that limit would be discovered and exploited within 48 hours (and that's if the hackers were drunk).

- I'd say that 95%, maybe even higher, of the music that people will want to share is commercial music, meaning if you're listening to it you should have purchased it.  In that case while DRM is annoying it's serving it's purpose.

All of that being said Zune's 3 day DRM works.  There are of course edge cases, like when you're a band and you want everyone to have a copy of your latest track distributed via a Creative Common's license.  In that case I still believe you're better off than if you just had an iPod, without any sharing at all.  Some indie-inked-hottie share a copy of her art noise band's latest "song"?  You love it and you zipped through your 3 listens in 20 minutes and really want to hear it again but you can barely remember what website she said you could download it from.  Ahh, look, the site's URL is right there in the metadata for the song so you can zip over there and post your undying love for her as you download each track.

Some people seem to be thinking of the Zune sharing concept as an isolated form of communication yet it's really another layer to a bigger conversation.  Sure, it might be a little annoying that the "free" song is now locked but if you really liked it that much you'll be wanting to hit up the artist's webpage anyway to check out show dates, other tracks, media content, t-shirts, stickers, etc.

I'm not saying I love it, just that as far as striking a balance I'm actually pretty impressed and I hope it catches on, especially in the indie music scene.