Microsoft's underappreciated Zune PC software has come a long way since its first 1.0 incarnation, a bastardized version of Windows Media Player that lacked some of its inspiration's best features. Starting with Zune 2.0 in 2007, however, something wonderful happened. The Zune PC software was rewritten from scratch and became a beautiful if incomplete media player. But most of the functional holes in 2.0 were fixed throughout the 2.5 and 3.x releases. In Zune 3.0, Microsoft fleshed out the software with Mix View, Channels, Picks, a gorgeous new Now Playing screen, and other features. Now, in version 4.0, things get even better. And the software that began as a sad also-ran is now vastly superior to its only real competition, Apple's iTunes.

Looked at generally, Zune 4.0 is another evolution of the software that began with Zune 2.0. (And seriously, let's all just pretend that the Zune 1.0 PC software never happened.) It features the same basic interface, the same basic media views, the same Zune Marketplace and Zune Social integration, and the same basic device sync, playlist, and disc burning functionality. But as with Windows 7, what Microsoft has done in Zune 4.0 is take something that was good to begin with and just make it better by rethinking the details and getting the fit and finish right. Where Zune 3.x was good or even excellent, Zune 4.0 is superior.

Zune 4.0 PC software
The Zune 4.0 PC software.

In this part of the review, I'll focus on the Zune 4.0 features that are specific to media management and playback, device sync, playlist creation, and so on. We'll examine the Zune services--Zune Marketplace, Zune Pass, and Zune Social--in a future part of the review.

 

General changes

While Zune 4.0 closely resembles Zune 3.0, there are numerous small UI changes that make the new version an even better player. The graphical treatment has been updated to more closely resemble the device UI, which is much more obvious in the Now Playing view. And you'll see little button widgets all over the UI, and new links in the right click menus, that support the new features we look at below.

Zune 4.0 PC software
Now Playing in the Zune 4.0 PC software.

One appreciated change, given my complaints over the past two years: Now, when you watch a video in full-screen mode, the Zune application window actually takes up the whole screen. In the previous two versions, you could still see the taskbar, which I found distracting. (The taskbar is still visible if music is playing full screen view though.)

Zune 4.0 PC software
Finally, a true full screen view.

One thing that hasn't changed, curiously, is that the thumbnail sizes are still fixed in each view in your collection. So if you go into Music, Artists, you'll see a grid of medium-sized album art thumbnails. Go into Genres and you'll see stacks of medium-sized album art thumbnails. Meanwhile, Music, Albums displays large icons in a grid. But in any of these views, it's impossible to resize the thumbnails or change the basic view style, both of which are quite easy in iTunes. I can't imagine why Microsoft hasn't fixed this, since the medium-sized thumbnails are too small on high-res displays. This is just an obvious customization feature.

Zune 4.0 PC software
Nice, but why can't we customize the view style?

In Settings, the basics are all the same but there are a few changes, some good, some not so good. You can customize the Startup view (see below) and have more background pattern choices than before, but it's still not fully customizable, and there still aren't enough choices. And there is one alarming change: Whereas before I always recommended that users not let Zune replace any media information, now you must enable this functionality if you want to use new features like Smart DJ (or the existing Mixview feature). That's too bad.

Quickplay

By default, when you launch the Zune 4.0 software, you'll be presented with a new Quickplay environment instead of the normal media collection view. (Another new Zune 4.0 feature: You can choose between Quickplay, collection, Marketplace, and Social for the startup view, so no worries if you're not a fan of Quickplay.) Quickplay is immediately obvious as something different. First of all, it's presented in pure black instead of white, which I actually find quite attractive. (Oddly enough, there's no way to configure the normal media collection view to be black, so as you switch back and forth it's somewhat jarring.)

Zune 4.0 PC software
Quickplay view.

But Quickplay is meant to emulate a similar environment on the Zune HD devices, and as you become familiar with this new generation of Zune solutions, you'll come to appreciate that the same user experience is available in both places. It makes the whole thing more seamless. (Think, for a second, of how utterly different iTunes on the PC is when compared to the music and video experiences on the iPhone or iPod.)

Zune 4.0 PC software
Quickplay view on the Zune HD device also offers quick access to pinned items, history, and new content.

As its name suggests, Quickplay provides you with quick access to the media you play the most frequently. And rather than simply occupy the entire Zune PC application window, the Quickplay elements are artfully arranged in two rows. In the default row, from left to right, you'll see pinned items (similar to how you can pin shortcuts to the taskbar and Start Menu in Windows 7), links to new content, and content you've access most recently. On the second row are five user-configurable Smart DJ mixes. (I'll describe these below.)

Zune 4.0 PC software
Smart DJ mixes come to the forefront when clicked.

Quickplay makes a lot of sense, and since I've found myself accessing the same content frequently--such as when you acquire a new CD and want to listen to it repeatedly, I've found the Quickplay view to be quite handy indeed. The software also makes it very easy to add and remove items from Quickplay using a simple right-click menu. So it should always have at least some content that you actually want to access regularly.

The one exception I've found is rented movies. After the rental period for the movie "Spy Game" expired, the item still appeared in the "New" section on Quickplay, and there is no way to remove it by right-clicking the item. That's silly, and it's taking up a valuable slot. (Manually deleting the content solved this issue.)

Smart DJ

While Zune 3 had MixView and Channels features that made it easier than ever to discover new music, Zune 4 advances things with a feature called Smart DJ that creates intelligent smart playlists of content that are already in your collection. As with Genius Mixes in iTunes, a Smart DJ mix is created by selecting a single song, album, or artist in your collection. The Zune PC software then creates a playlist of similar songs.

Zune 4.0 PC software
A Smart DJ mix, ready for editing.

Similarities aside, Smart DJ is a lot smarter than Apple's Genius feature or Channels. First, unlike with Genius Mixes, you're welcome to edit Smart DJ mixes, and they can be easily saved to disc as smart (or "dumb") playlists. Secondly, if you have a Zune Pass subscription, Smart DJ gets about a million times better because these playlists can include songs from Zune Marketplace, not just your own collection. If Genius Mix is like have a handful of free radio stations, Smart DJ with Zune Pass is like having an infinite number of radio stations at your disposal. They're not even close.

Microsoft also allows subscribers to create Smart DJ mixes that include only content from the Zune Marketplace. That makes this feature the ultimate tool for finding new music that's similar to music you already know you like. You can also configure Smart DJ mixes to auto-refresh every so many days.

Zune 4.0 PC software
A Smart DJ mixes can include music only from your collection, only from Zune Marketplace, or from both.

Mini player

While other digital media players have had mini-player modes for some time, Zune finally picks up this feature in the 4.0 release and it's nicely done. It visually resembles the Now Playing screen on the Zune HD devices, which is another nice bit of work, and it provides access to all the usual playback controls you'd expect as well as a Zune rating heart. (Remember that Zune provides three rating types: Like it, hate it, and not rated).

Zune 4.0 PC software
The Zune 4.0 mini-player.

Overall, the mini player mode is nice. But if you make the mistake of dragging the window's resizing corner while in the mode, you'll be rewarded with a much smaller than usual normal Zune window, thus blowing away whatever window size and placement you were previously using. Not a big deal, but it's dumb.

Show filter

For those users that have subscribed to Zune Pass, the Zune software now offers a view filtering option so you can optionally display only that content that you own, only the content from Zune Pass, or both. I'm guessing this was a huge customer request, and it's a nice toggle to have.

Zune 4.0 PC software
If you subscribe to Zune Pass, you can filter your collection view to only show subscribed content ... or not.

Windows 7 integration pieces

If you're using Windows 7, you may appreciate a handful of small concessions to the new environment. Zune 4.0 supports Windows 7 Jump Lists, for example, providing quick access to Quickplay and Smart DJ mixes as well as generic tasks like "shuffle all music."

Zune 4.0 PC software
Zune 4.0 Jump List support.

It also supports Windows Media Player-like basic playback controls in the taskbar preview window, as well as a handy Zune rating heart, which is a nice touch. And even though the Zune application window is as non-standard as they come, it now supports the Windows 7 Aero Snaps window management functionality. (To be fair, so does iTunes 9.) Nothing major, but nice for those on the leading edge.

Zune 4.0 PC software
Taskbar preview support in Zune 4.0.

Finally, if you've been missing the taskbar-based toolbar media player controls from Windows Media Player, well here's another reason to switch: Zune 4.0 comes with a taskbar toolbar, which can optionally appear when you minimize the main application window.

Zune 4.0 PC software
Zune 4 supports a taskbar-based toolbar player.

Final thoughts

While Zune 4.0 is hardly a major new Zune software release, it is a nice evolution of what was already the best Windows-based media player. Comparing this software to iTunes is almost laughable. Where iTunes is big and heavy, Zune 4.0 feels light and airy, and it features both a better design and better usability. And for music lovers especially, there's no contest: Zune is all about discovering new music, and it makes that easier than ever, whether you have a Zune Pass or not. (It's much better with a Zune Pass, however.) I've said it before, and I'll say it again: You should be using this software to manage your music collection even if you have no intention to ever buy a Zune device or subscribe to the Zune Pass. It's just the superior player, and if all goes as I expect it to, we should be seeing it pop up in more and more places going forward, including Windows Mobile and the next desktop version of Windows. That is a future I can get excited about.