This past Tuesday (May 6, 2008), Microsoft quietly updated its Zune PC software and device firmware to version 2.5 while providing updates to Zune Marketplace and Zune Social as well. This is the first major update to the company's new digital media platform since version 2.0 shipped last year as is sometimes referred to as the Zune Spring 2008 Update, in keeping with the naming scheme for major Xbox 360 updates (which typically occur twice a year).

This time around, Zune picks up a couple of features that were lost in the transition to the 2.x software, including smart playlists. And it adds some long-awaited functionality, such as the ability to purchase TV shows online. These features are positive and certainly welcome. What's unclear is how whether they change the Zune value proposition.

As a quick reminder, the original Zune 1.0 platform was a disaster by even the kindest of estimates (see my review). Zune 2.0, released in late 2007, was dramatically better. So much better, in fact, that I awarded the PC software a 4/5 rating and the Zune firmware a perfect 5/5 in my review. But the Zune still has issues, of course, and it falls short of market leader Apple in some important ways. In January, I spelled out what I feel were (and largely still are) the Zune's biggest failings in an article titled Can Microsoft Save the Zune?.

Zune 2.5 is all about fixing some of the more obvious shortcomings. It doesn't go far enough in my opinion, and I wish the Zune team were a lot more transparent about what it was doing and when we can expect updates. This is the first major update to the Zune software since November 2007, for example, and there was not one iota of a clue that it was on the way. I'm a bit disturbed by how easily the Zune team sinks into silence about this stuff. And I fully expect to not hear from them at all over the next several months. Again.

What's new in Zune 2.5?

There are plenty of improvements big and small this time around.

Smart playlists are back

When Microsoft re-wrote its Zune PC software from scratch, many applauded the move, and certainly the new software is light-years ahead of its Windows Media Player-based predecessor in terms of elegance and attractiveness. However, sometimes it's possible to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and when you start over as the Zune team did, you invariably lose a few features that users expected to see. Most of what was lost in the transition from Zune 1.x to 2.x was unimportant except to a tiny range of users. But at one major feature was lost: The ability to make smart playlists, automated playlists that change over time as your media library changes. (Zune 2 also provided a mind-numblingly dumb sync system, but that was fixed in 2.5 as well; see below.)

In Zune 2.5, smart playlists are back, though they're called autoplaylists (as opposed to the more grammatically correct "auto playlists" created by WMP). Zune being Zune, we get yet another completely new UI for creating these playlists, and while the AUTOPLAYLIST dialog is simple enough, I don't feel it's as usable, ultimately, as the auto playlist functionality in WMP or even the iTunes smart playlist functionality.

Part of the reason autoplaylists in Zune are less useful has to do with other Zune limitations. For example, I previously complained that the Zune's overly-simplistic ratings system would make smart playlists less valuable. And now that smart playlists have arrived, my contention has been borne out. Consider the following: I want to create a smart playlist of just my very favorite Def Leppard songs. In iTunes, these are the songs that I've rated with 4 or 5 stars, so creating such a playlist is simple. In Zune, where there are only two ratings ("Like it" and "Don't like it") such a playlist is impossible to make because Zune includes what are essentially 3, 4, and 5 star songs, not just my very favorites. To put some numbers to this theory, my favorite Def Leppard songs smart playlist in iTunes has 56 songs in it. But the Zune version has 111. Guess which one represents my actual favorite songs?

That said, what Microsoft has added here is certainly appreciated. It's a lot better than no smart playlists at all.

Browse by genre ... and more

Another complaint I had about the Zune 2 PC software concerned its limited filtering choices while browsing. More specifically, I noted that there was no way to browse your music collection by genre.

In Zune 2.5, this has been fixed by adding an additional level of filtering to the default music and videos views only. In music, you can now sort by genre in addition to sorting by artist or album. And while browsing by genre, you can further sort music by album/date added, album/alphabetical, album/release year, or album/artist. This very much answers my previous complaint.

On the video end, Microsoft has also change the interface to support browsing by genre and series, a change that is more meaningful now that Zune supports commercial TV show content (see below). Previously, the only videos you'd typically see in the Zune interface were those that you ripped yourself (a tiny percentage of Zune users, I'd imagine), short videos you might have taken with a digital camera, or perhaps some music videos that you might have purchased from Zune Marketplace. (And honestly, I'd like to meet the one guy that actually purchased music videos from the Zune Marketplace.)

Anyway, video content filtering is now very logical, with separate browsing options for all video, TV, music, movies, and "other." Typically, every video you have on your PC will go in the other category since you have to define the videos as being of the category type TV/Series, TV/Specials, TV/News, Music, or Movies for them to show up elsewhere. This seems to be Zune-specific in that video content I've correctly tagged in iTunes isn't filtered properly in Zune. No biggie, but if digital video ever does take off in a big way, this kind of thing is going to need to be standardized in some way, along the lines of the ID3 tags used to identify the contents of MP3 files.

Advanced meta-data editing

Microsoft says that Zune 2.5 supports the editing of track and album information "quickly via multi-select and drag-and-drop. The advanced metadata editing features make it easy to edit multiple tracks or survey albums and artist information."

Fair enough. But when you right-click a track in Zune 2.5, you'll see two options in the pop-up menu that, in my mind, are a bit too similar. The first, Edit, brings up an Edit dialog where, sure enough, you can change meta-data such as the track title, album title, song artist, album artist, and so on. But there's also a choice called Properties. This brings up a read-only dialog, similar to what you'd see in the file system, which includes some of the same information from Edit along with more technical information like length, bit rate, media type, and the link. (If you right-click an album, you can see a third choice that arguably confuses things even more; it's called More about this album and links to the Zune Marketplace.)

What you don't get, in either case, is "advanced metadata editing" like what's available in iTunes or, to a lesser extent, in WMP11 via the more logically and honestly named Advanced Tag Editor.

Drag and drop meta-data editing sounds scary to me, frankly, though this is a decent way to fix album art especially. Regardless, the Zune's ability to edit meta-data is still second rate and nothing like what's available in other players.

Gapless song playback

Microsoft tells me that Zune 2.5 adds support for gapless playback--"a must-have for live-concert recordings and compilation albums." Sounds great. But I don't see a way to "tell" Zune that I want a particular album or group of songs to playback in a gapless manner. Is this feature automatic? I have no idea.

Better device syncing

I previously described Zune sync as "sync for dummies" because there was no obvious way to view and change your overall sync settings, especially after you had set up syncing with one or more objects via drag and drop. Microsoft's attempt to fix this glaring issue is called sync groups and it appears to answer my complaint quite nicely.

Now (and retroactively), any time you drag an item onto the Zune device icon or otherwise set up content to sync with the device, that entity is saved as sync group. And sync groups are listed in the new Device/Sync Groups section of the UI, as they should be, so you can easily view and edit them as needed. You know, just like you can with any other media player software on earth.

Furthermore, sync groups work "offline" in the sense that they're viewable and editable even when the Zune device isn't connected, which is a nice touch. Another nice touch is that the same sync groups can be configured to sync content between two or more Zunes. (Rhetorical question: Does anyone on earth besides reviewers like myself and Microsoft employees own two or more Zunes?). You can custom sync groups for music, pictures and videos.

TV shows for sale

When I spoke to Microsoft last year about the potential for TV show and movie support, I was told that TV show support was coming, but that Microsoft had "a different idea about what that model can look like" and needed more time to get it worked out. This suggested to me that the company was pursuing a subscription model of some kind that would break the bonds of the $1.99 per episode fee charged by services like iTunes Store and Amazon Unbox.

I guess I was setting my sites too high. What we get with Zune 2.5's new support for commercial television shows is indeed a bit of a different model, though it doesn't appear that way to consumers. That is, TV shows cost $1.99 per episode on Zune Marketplace, just like they do elsewhere. (Well, sort of. They cost 160 Microsoft Points, which is basically $1.99 after the conversion.) But behind the scenes, Microsoft is in fact allowing TV content providers to charge different amounts for different shows, something that NBC, in particular, had demanded of Apple but never received. Right now, Microsoft is evening out the end price to consumers so that it's always the same. But that may change when more content is added, and older shows are brought online and offered for less money. (On the flipside, perhaps brand new shows will temporarily be more expensive too. Who can say?)

The Zune Marketplace TV show store is pretty stark right now. Microsoft says that it is offering over 800 episodes of popular television series from companies like Comedy Central, FUNimation, MTV, NBC Universal, Nickelodeon, Starz Media, Turner Broadcasting, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and VH1. But there are only 40 individual series offered and some of them are pretty weak. (Ultimate Fighting Championship? Come on.) Apple offers several hundred different series from an ever-growing list of channel providers.

One thing Microsoft did get right off the bat, however, is the buying experience. And the quality of purchased TV shows is excellent, easily on par with what Apple offers. More content is needed, however. It's been two years since the iTunes TV show selection has looked this grim.

More DRM-free MP3 music for sale

When Zune 2 launched last fall, Microsoft offered over 3 million song tracks for sale, one million of which were "pure" MP3 tracks, devoid of any kind of digital rights management (DFM) hoo-had. Today, that number has risen to over 3.5 million tracks overall, while the number of MP3 tracks has grown significantly to two-thirds of the total, or about 2.3 million tracks.

That's great. But it's still too hard to find MP3 tracks on Zune Marketplace, and Microsoft offers no way to browse just the MP3 tracks. Until it does, I'll continue doing my music shopping on Amazon MP3.

Zune Social (finally) integrated into Zune PC Software

While most of the Zune platform is a complete rip-off of Apple's iPod/iTunes model, we should at least give credit to Microsoft for trying to innovate in this market in one important way. The company is very serious about trying to build up a community of music lovers in a way that is, yes, perhaps a bit to similar to Xbox Live. With Zune 2, Microsoft launched something called Zune Social, which at the time was basically a Web site where you could create your own Zune Card (analogous to your Xbox Gamertag) that would optionally display to the world your music tastes and current playlists.

"Consumers want more than the traditional transactional model of an online music store plus portable device," claims Zune general manager of global marketing Chris Stephenson. "Zune is putting the strong combination of an online music community together with subscription to deliver a new experience centered on music discovery that's good for consumers, artists and the industry. This approach exposes consumers to music they might not have otherwise tried, keeps them coming back, and gives them purchasing options that suit their preferences."

I guess we'll see if that ever pans out. But with Zune 2.5, Microsoft has advanced Zune Social and the other community aspects of the Zune platform in important ways. Most important, perhaps, it has finally added Zune Social to the Zune PC software, as expected. Unexpectedly, it has also added Zune Social to the Zune device.

The device support for Zune Social is interesting. Basically, you can sync the Zune Cards of any of your friends to your Zune device, after first linking that device to your own Zune Card (which is really just a front-end to your Windows Live ID).

So that's interesting, I guess. But if you have a Zune Pass Subscription--Microsoft's monthly "all you can eat" music subscription service--you will also automatically receive all of the music in all of the playlists attached to your friend's synced Zune Card. (Assuming those songs are available on Zune Marketplace.) If you hear something you like, you can opt to purchase it from the device, though the actual purchase won't occur until the next time you sync. (And you'll be asked to confirm.)

On the device itself, this functionality is provided by the Social top-level menu item, which gains a new Friends sub-menu. Under this menu, you'll see the name(s) of the friend(s) to which you've synced. Click a friend's name and you can browse through their favorite albums, most-often played artists, and recent plays. Drill deeper and you can choose to buy individual songs (or you'll be told, more often than not, that the song is not available.)

Back in the PC software, Zune Social is now a first-class citizen. Whereas you could only access your Zune Inbox in version 2.0, 2.5 adds your Zune Card with detailed play info as well as a graphical (Card-based) list of your friends. You can also send messages to friends from this interface and invite people to become your friends. It's all so social, assuming you can find people who own a Zune device, or more likely, who have chosen just to use the Zune software. (Remember: You don't need a Zune device to use any of this stuff.)

In the Zune Marketplace, a new Listeners link shows you which Zune users are listening to that particular album or group. You'll see your friends on top, followed by top listeners. And of course, you can dive into any of these Cards and see what else they're up to.

Finally, Microsoft has added back the ability to have content played from Zune 2.5 appear in the Windows Live Messenger "what I'm listening to" list.

It's coming to Canada

This isn't specifically related to Zune 2.5, but it's worth noting. Back in January, Microsoft promised that it would begin selling Zune devices in Canada sometime this year. Now, we have a date: Canada will get access to the Zune 4, Zune 8, and Zune 80 devices starting on June 13. (The older Zune 30 model will not be offered there.)

Final thoughts

If you're using the Zune PC software and/or a Zune device, Zune 2.5 is a major improvement over the original 2.x software, but then you pretty much have to upgrade so it's not like my recommendation here is going to mean much. If you've been sitting on the fence when it comes to the Zune, understand that Zune 2.5 adds some impressive functionality and, with the addition of TV show support, the first signs that Microsoft is really willing to take on Apple in a meaningful way. It's a great update.

All that said, it's unclear whether this changes the Zune value proposition in a meaningful way. There is still so much missing from the Zune platform, including obvious big ticket items like movie rental and purchase and smaller but equally important functional issues (like the lack of playlist importing and exporting and the broken ratings systems). The Zune's biggest advantage over the iPod--the community stuff--won't amount to much in the real world unless a significant number of people use the Zune Social services and share their information with others. There's evidence that's happening, but the Zune world is so much smaller than the iPod/iTunes ecosystem that they're not even comparable in any meaningful way.

In any event, Zune 2.5 is a positive change. I'd like to see more. And I'd like to know what we can expect from Zune in the months ahead.