Zune


Zune (1st gen) sometimes not starting when charged

My 1st generation Zune has been acting oddly for the past couple of months. It sometimes refuses to start (light the LCD) when it is charged (sometimes fully charged). Plugging the Zune into a power source (AC adapter in my case) lights the LCD and lets me use the Zune. But, still, it is annoying. It is a good thing I never take the Zune out? Otherwise, I might be faced with a temporary brick.

Zune

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Bizarre Zune 2.5 Errors


I fired up the Zune 2.5 software on my PC running XP for the first time in over a month and kept getting this window popping up again and again. It pops up regardless of whether my first generation Zune is synced or not.

I really want to like the Zune. But, it keeps throwing barriers to prevent that from happening. I stopped syncing video podcasts because it took so long to convert the video formats and complete the sync (I understand this is NOT an issue with 2nd generation Zune hardware). I stopped syncing music because it seems to lose track of synced music. Some appear on the Zune, some do not. So, I’m trying to use the Zune to sample podcast subscriptions (keepers go to my iPod). But, the multiple error windows are pretty darn annoying. Something to do with XP SP3, perhaps???

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ActiveSync/WMDC and Zune Sync: Birds of a Sync Feather

The Zune 2 firmware upgrade turned my 1st generation Zune from a moderately useful MP3/video player to a decent media player with a screen I prefer to my iPod video’s screen (though nothing can touch the iPod touch’s display – pun intended). With its 30GB hard drive (compared to my iPod touch’s 16GB) and the new firmware’s ability to deal with podcasts, I thought it would make a great device to store and watch a bunch of video podcasts. Viewing video podcasts on the Zune (1st generation) is a good experience. The problem lies in actually getting those video podcasts from a PC to the Zune. From what I can tell video podcasts are store in a hodge-podge of file formats in the Zune marketplace. However, it looks like many (maybe most) of these file formats are not Zune ready video formats and requires transcoding that takes place during the sync process with the Zune. A half-dozen or so video podcasts can sometimes take up to an hour for this transcoding process. This is a far cry from the few minutes it takes for a similar batch of video podcasts to be synced to an iPod using iTunes.

So, after trying this idea (using the Zune as my main video podcast device) for a number of months (since the 2.0 firmware came out), I deleted the video podcasts feeds for the Zune. This is really too bad since it really does have a good LCD display and is a good video playback device.

The Zune’s awful video sync process ruined an otherwise good user experience like Windows Mobile’s ActiveSync/WMDC sync process often ruins a good WiMo experience. With the iPhone gaining a lot of traction and entering the enterprise space with its own Exchange Server ActiveSync and Google’s Android arriving soon, one can only hope that Microsoft will take pity on its existing customers and fix their awful sync experience for the Zune and Windows Mobile.

Mobile Devices
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iFrogz Vibez: The Little Speaker That Could

iFrogz Vibez

I bought this little Vibez speaker from iFrogz on a whim during their post-holiday sale period. It listed for $34.99. I bought it for $19.99. And, it currently lists on their site for $24.95. This thing is not going to give your high-end or even decent portable speakers any competition. However, despite its relatively low-fidelity, it sounds ok for what it is: A tiny speaker that works with anything that has a mini-plug headphone jack. I often use it to listen to podcasts when I am roaming around a room (I hate wearing headphones or earphones). The USB plug is used to charge the integrated rechargeable batteries. The charge seems to last darn near forever. I think the last time I charged it was sometime in mid-January. You can squeeze it down in size for carrying around. But, I don’t want to stress that plastic pleated mid-area. And, it is small enough to easily carry around even in the expanded state you see in the photo. Personally, I think music sounds ok on it too. It obviously has no bass range to speak of. But, it is fine for un-nuanced music. A mobile thumbs up for this little speaker.

Apple
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Mobile Devices
Windows Mobile
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Instructions for Submitting Podcasts for the Zune

From what I’ve been reading the Zune has been picking up its pace as a podcasting device. So, if you are a podcaster and want it to be available on the Zune, head over to this Zune.net web page that provides the information need to know about submitting Podcast content for the Zune.

Provide Content for Zune

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Zune

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Zune Oddities… Also 2.3 Firmware Upgrade

Microsoft seems to have been busy providing point upgrade releases since they released the Zune 2.0 firmware upgrade a few months ago with the introduction of the 2nd generation of Zune devices. The 2.3 upgrade came out in mid-December. But, I only recently plugged in my 1st generation Zune to the PC to upgrade it. I’m not really sure what the upgrade since I don’t see release notes area on the Zune.net Support page.

I wanted to note a couple of Zune oddities (some good, some not so good) that are probably NOT related to the upgrade though.

Video files for the iPod need to be more-or-less prepared to meet the iPod’s supported video formats (screen size, etc.). The iPod wouldn’t, for example, deal with the MacBreak video podcast high def video format. So, I was surprised to see that the Zune Podcast webpage provided the CommandN video podcast in the H.264 video format that, I think, even the iPod doesn’t accept. I had forgotten that the Zune attempts to convert video files into a format it can accept during the sync process. This conversion process is very very flow. I think it took something like a half-hour to convert the three CommandN video podcast files.

I mentioned recently that I tried out the Amazon MP3 DRM-free service by buying an EP release (6 songs). The Zune PC software saw it fine but only synced 5 of the 6 files to the Zune. Like the awful Windows Mobile Device Center for Windows Mobile smartphones, the Zune software provides no options to try to fix problems. In its effort to be user friendly, both the WMDC and Zune software are actually user hostile. I tried to force an update by moving the missing MP3 file to another directly, update the Zune client’s file sync with the hard disk, move the MP3 file back to its original director, and then force a sync again. This time the file appeared, BUT a file that had synced with the Zune originally disappeared. Weird… Microsoft really needs to take a look at iTunes on the Mac.

That said, the Zune 2.x firmware is an improvement on the Zune device itself. I’ll be playing with it a bit more.

Mobile Devices
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Zune Diagnostics Tool? What About an ActiveSync/WMDC Tool?

Microsoft released a Zune Diagnostics tool yesterday and a Zune media collection reset tool earlier this month. That’s great. But, what about a Windows Mobile ActiveSync/WMDC diagnostics tool? Windows Mobile users (including me) having been asking for one for years. In my case, I’ve asked various generations of ActiveSync product team members face to face with nothing to show for it after 11 years of groveling. Sheesh.

Mobile Devices
Windows Mobile
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Zune 2.2 Firmware Upgrade

I upgraded my first generation 30GB Zune from the 1.4 firmware to the 2.2 upgrade. The desktop software upgrade took quite a while. The actual Zune firmware upgrade was relatively fast. It was a busy night that included the previously mentioned iPod touch firmware upgrade, more PC RAM failure (ordered replacement RAM), and debating and then finally participating in the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) G1G1 (Give One Get One) program (more on this tomorrow evening).

If you want to gory details of the Zune 2.2 firmware upgrade and the new Zune devices, head over to my friend Jason Dunn’s ZuneThoughts website. He has lots and lots of information and video demonstations.

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Video Viewing Experience on Windows Mobile, Zune, and iPods

Viewings videos on ultra portable devices is nothing new. However, perhaps surprisingly, the oldest of the device families, Windows Mobile, falls far short of a good end-user experience. This is especially true for the under-powered (processor-wise) Smartphone (Standard Edition) where viewing anything except a video specially prepared for it results in a disappointing experience. For example try viewing a video podcast NOT specially prepared for a Smartphone. You will probably see what amounts to still images with a sound track.

The Pocket PC (Professional Edition) video experience is a bit better but still not good. Since Windows Mobile is not designed as a media device, you will find it does things like dim or blank the screen after a timeout period. Normally, this is fine since it is a battery saving feature. However, it is annoying to have to remember to change this setting everytime you watch a video and then set it back when you are done. On the other hand, the faster processors on the Pocket PC (compared to the Smartphones) lets you watch a wider variety of video files (including video podcasts). And, it is not often that you see someone showing a video on an external device connected to a Smartphone or Pocket PC. Despite what Microsoft might claim, these are not real media devices (see any WM5 or WM6 Playlists for example?).
The Zune does a better job since it is designed as media device. However, its non-intuitive user interface (navigation pad) makes something as simple as scrolling and selecting from a list tedious. Once a video gets rolling, it is a pretty good experience though and optional docks make it easy to connect to an external display.

The iPod touch has the best video and user interface I’ve seen so far. Its one drawback is that Apple decided that all 6th generation iPods require docks with a special chip for video playback on external devices. So, previous video docking solutions do not work with the latest iPod models.

The 5th (previous) generation iPods only had one model that provided video playback. But, it has a huge existing accessory infrastructure that lets you easily and relatively cheaply purchase devices to provide a larger video screen. For example, there are several portable DVD players with integrated LCD screens that also have iPod docs built-in. This lets you use the player to show and listen to videos on a larger screen.

For the moment, it is a toss-up between the 5th and 6th generation iPods. As soon as the 3rd party accessory market catches up (probably this holiday season or early 2008), the 6th generation will be the device of choice. It will be interesting to see what the Zune 2.0 delivers. And, unfortunately, my favorite overall mobile device family (Windows Mobile) is down for the count when it comes to Media playback.

Apple
iPod
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Windows Mobile
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Zune vs. iPod Language Handling Differences

iPod touch and Microsoft Zune

An odd confluence of events took place over the past few days. First, my Mac mini died suddenly and without warning last week (which left me Mac media-less since I don’t keep media on my Macbook). My iPod touch arrived on Monday. Then, Microsoft announced the new Zunes yesterday. My 1st generation Zune doesn’t have the 2.0 update yet. But, it got me thinking about the Zune again. So, I decided to put music from the same CD on both devices to see if my non-golden ears could hear any difference. I used a CD that my daughter and I have been listening to lately… Utada Hikaru’s Single Collection, Vol I (an import).

However, before I could get to the audio comparison I ran into some interesting differences in the way the Zune desktop software and iTunes dealt with the disc’s contents. Apple’s iTunes brought in the CD exactly as shown on the jacket. Title parts that were in English (roman letters) remained in English. Title characters in Katakana (phonetic Japanese characters) stayed that way. The Zune software, on the other hand, decided to, um, transliterate from Katakana characters to roman alphabet. The Zune software couldn’t figure out one of the titles at all though. So, it is listed as “[Untranslated]”.
The other difference that amused me was how the Zune software and iTunes decided to deal with the artist’s name. iTunes left it Japanese characters and sorted it out of range (after “Z”). The Zune decided to transliterate it to “Hikaru Utada”. And, this confused me when I tried to search alphabetically by artist. You see it reversed the expected Surname/Given-Name order (Utada Hikaru) to the western Given-Name/Surname order (Hikaru Utada). So, I was doubly confused. It was not listed in the “U” section or out of range (after Z).

It will be interesting to see what the Zune 2.0 firmware update and, presumably, new Zune desktop software does when it becomes available.

Apple
iPod
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Zune Phone? A Blog Dialog with Frank McPherson

My old friend and author of How to Do Everything with Windows Mobile, Frank McPherson, has an interesting take on the much rumored Zune Phone on his blog: What’s With the Zune Phone? It is kind of amusing that Frank and I may have arrived at a similar conclusion but are taking different paths to get there. So, I’ll pick out what I see as his main points and discuss them one by one. BTW, I’m not saying I am right and Frank is wrong. It is just a different point of view. So, here we go. I’ll highlight Frank’s points in italics.

  • The Zune Phone is not a reaction to the iPhone. It is an internal competition with Windows Mobile devices. I think the Zune itself is a reaction to the iPod (and the failure of the various WMA/MP3 players to challenge the iPod). The Zune Phone (if it exists) is not so much a reaction to the iPhone as announced at MacWorld but the rumor of the iPhone before it was announced. It takes a long time to design a phone, get it through the FCC, and strike a deal with a carrier. If a Zune Phone is announced soon, it was in the works many months before the iPhone was announced. Quite honestly, I don’t think the Zune group cares about anything produced by other Microsoft groups. The Zune group looks a like a rogue group to we outsiders. They didn’t support Plays for Sure. They don’t appear to work with Vista’s Windows Mobile Device Center. They don’t appear to have anything to do with the very similar Portable Media Center devices.
  • The Windows Mobile secret weapon is Voice Command for the Pocket PC Phone Edition and Smartphone. Voice recognition (not full continuous speech recognition) is pretty cool indeed. And Microsoft Voice Command is also pretty cool. But, there is one problem… Even though voice command/voice dialing is available on many many phones, and has been for years, hardly anyone uses it. When was the last time you saw/heard any of the thousands of people you’ve seen using a phone use voice dialing? Generally speaking, most people don’t bother to check if their phone can do it. If it can, it is often a pain to set it up. And, if you set it up, it generally only works in a relatively quiet environment (even with a headset on). And, if you are running down a street, your voice sounds different enough to it that voice dialing usually doesn’t work. Even handwriting recognition has essentially lost the race. That is why most popular devices now have a thumb QWERTY keyboard. Voice and handwriting recognition is a lot harder than most of us think. And, neither one has reached the point where they are truly useful on small somewhat underpowered mobile device.
  • Microsoft doesn’t need to create a Zune Phone. It just needs to improve Windows Mobile. I agree with Frank completely. But, it not only won’t happen, it has actually lost functions with each new version. Check out my earlier blog item: Windows Mobile Loses Features With Each Upgrade??? Microsoft is only responding to carrier and enterprise customer feature requests. And, that is, in fact, why I think the Zune group will create a consumer focused Zune Phone that needs to answer to carrier needs but not enterprise needs. As an aside, try this experiment if you have both an iPod and some Windows Mobile Pocket PC or Smartphone: Close your eyes. Then, take the iPod and navigate through various features such as volume control or going through a playlist (forward, backwards, pause, restart). Now, try the same thing with whatever Windows Mobile device using only one hand and, again, not looking. Pretty difficult, if not impossible, right? BTW, try creating a playlist on the Windows Mobile device? If your device is within two generations old, it is impossible. This feature was removed a while back. Now, try creating a playlist on your desktop/notebook and get it to your WM device. Cough cough. Done yet? Try it on your iPod using iTunes. Windows Mobile lost the race as a media device long ago. And, removing features didn’t help it over the past couple of upgrades.

It should be interesting to see if the Zune Phone arrives. Here are a couple of predictions (and I’m pretty bad at predictions, so don’t put much weight on what I say. This is just for fun :-):

  1. It will be sold exclusively through Verizon Wireless. It wouldn’t make sense to give AT&T Wireless (Cingular) the exclusive and compete head-to-head with the iPhone in the same retail store. It may be available as a GSM phone outside of the US.
  2. Like the iPhone it will not allow 3rd party applications to be installed.
  3. It will have basic email, sms, and PIM functions (like most phones these days) but will not sync with Outlook. It may have its own little desktop PIM for Vista-only.
  4. It may have some VoIP features. Perhaps through a Live Messenger interface.
  5. There will be a horrid looking brown colored version :-)
  6. I will stick with Windows Mobile based devices and not buy a Zune Phone :-)

Mobile Devices
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Microsoft 10 (on10.net) Adds Zune Video Format Downloads

I’m not sure when they added this, but the Microsoft 10 consumer video blogging site (sort of a consumer version of Microsoft’s Channel9 site for developers) added the option to download video in the Zune format.  It also provides versions for the Apple iPod, Sony PSP, as well as WMV (Windows Media Video).

Mobile Devices
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