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Review: Hands On With Zune HD

Update: Accompanying Software, a Standalone Miracle

Zune software for the PC not only manages and synchronizes media with the Zune HD, but it is built from the ground up to help you find the music you want to listen to. It does this in several different ways, all which are best accomplished for Zunepass subscribers.

What is Zunepass? Zunepass is a paid subscription of $15 a month to listen to all the music you like from the Zune player, as well as ten free downloadable tracks to keep monthly. If you planned to download 10 $1 tracks per month anyhow, then it is almost like Zunepass costs only $5. If you are unsure of the service, the first 14 days are free, so take advantage of it and take the subscription for a spin.

First, Zunepass allows users to stream all the music they’d like to listen to, so they don’t need to download any music. However, Zune HD owners are allowed to download as many songs as they like and pile them into a player (Zune HD or previous Zune models). Users who like trying out new music, album by album or artist by artist, will be able to do so easily. Simply select the albums or artists to download, drag and drop their music into the Zune folder, and they’ll automatically sync with your player.

If you know the type of music you like but don’t have specific artists to search, the Zune software will search through your music and set up “picks” for you. These picks are individual artists which users can say they like or dislike to help the software discover new artists for you. As a subscriber, all of these picks are available for instant streaming or download.

"Channels" are yet another way to find new music. Less controlled than picks, channels are an assortment of created playlists featuring many different artists of the same genre. We’ve found channels to be the best way to find and play new music in tandem with the Zune HD, since channels can be downloaded directly to the music player. It’s proven to be an excellent way to find new music when not listening at your computer or near an internet connection.

But downloading channels to the Zune HD is not as easy as it seems. Dropping the channel to the Zune HD when it’s plugged in should download all tracks and place them on the device, but this does not happen. The only way we’ve found to ensure all the music gets to the Zune HD is to connect it to a Wi-Fi network, go to settings, sync, and to sync the channels manually. Alternatively, users can opt to just download the entire channel on their PC’s manually.

The last method for finding new music is available on the Zune player only, and that’s "Smart DJ." In the new Quickplay tab, a stylish addition to the 4.0 update, Quickplay offers a similar interface to the Zune HD’s secondary menu system. Under it is the Smart DJ bar, which allows users to put in artist names, like Pandora or Last.fm, and based on musical tastes, a random playlist will be compiled for you to listen to, based around the given artist.

As a Zunepass subscriber, all of these options make finding new music a cinch. So far, it’s proven to be a stronger media streaming service than any free web application (ie Pandora, Last.fm), and for Zune HD owners, it makes the device a must-have.

The current Zune 4.0 software is very powerful and stylish, and through the last week of testing, we’ve found that it’s an excellent player, easily more user friendly than iTunes. It won’t stream music between computers and refuses to play some file-types (.WAV and most video formats in particular), but it is simple and intuitive. It is graphically intensive, so users with older PC’s will want to turn off the graphical settings. There is no support for Macs, which is to be expected.

The video marketplace, which is small but growing, gives users access to hundreds of TV shows and movies. Movies are currently not available for purchase, only rent, though Microsoft will change that in the near future. TV shows are available for purchase in either SD or HD quality. SD quality is slightly less expensive than HD quality.