Zune interface, features detailed

If you’ve been wondering how the Zune’s user interface will compare with the iPod’s, we have some real answers for you this morning: the similarities are significant, but Microsoft has made a number of changes that range from cool to not so cool.

That Wheel Thing: Not so cool. Turns out that there’s no touch-sensitive scrolling feature here – it’s shaped like a wheel, but it’s really just buttons. Zune has a menu button on the left of the circle, scroll buttons within the circle, and a play/pause button to the right of the circle. There’s also a hold switch just like Apple’s on the unit’s top, near the headphone port. You press up and down on the “Wheel” to scroll up and down through menus.

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(Photo from Gizmodo)

General UI: Cool-ish. Think iPod, but in reverse: white text on black screens, but with a very iPod-like menu hierarchy. A white and gray gradient highlight bar fades in and out as you transition from level to level of the menus – a slightly futuristic and definitely nice visual effect. There’s also user-customizable wallpaper, which could compensate for the fact that the screens otherwise look pretty boring – there aren’t any dividers for top, bottom, or side interface elements, just text.

Scrolling UI: Cool-ish. When holding the scroll button to run through a huge list of songs, the screen superimposes the current alphabet letter over the right side of the song list to let you know quickly how far you’ve moved (right).
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Album Art: Cool. Zune displays album art in a full-screen-width cube at the top of its screen, leaving room for an MTV-style black track details bar at the bottom, along with a battery life indicator. The album art is significantly larger and more detailed than the iPod’s largest such display, thanks to the size of Zune’s screen.

Integrated FM Radio: Cool-ish. Yes, like virtually every other iPod wannabe out there, it has one. Like the fading gradient highlight bar, however, this one is stylish in a minimalist way – large numbers on the screen, with a fast-moving bar and numbers representing the FM dial. Think Apple’s iPod Radio Remote interface, but with more motion, no background art, and no preset details at the bottom – you can pick North American, European, and Japanese frequencies.

Wi-Fi: Eh. Apparently you can use the Wi-fi feature to “loan” other Zune owners music for some short period (a day), giving them the opportunity to buy the tracks themselves from the Zune music store. While this is a cool idea, and could work well for ubiquitous iPods, it gets an “eh” here because you’re unlikely to randomly bump into other people who have Zunes, and unless Microsoft actually gives away music, you’re even more unlikely to find people who are willing to purchase tracks from its latest music store. You may also be able to spool Zune music to a Wi-Fi-enabled Xbox 360, which again is a cool idea, but requires a $100 wireless adapter and the $300-400 console. (It’s unclear as to whether the hard disk – part of the pricier $400 package – is required.)

Other Details: Not so cool. Zune is a bit bigger than a standard 30GB iPod, and apparently made entirely of plastic. In addition to the Music menus, there are Videos and Pictures playback interfaces, which aren’t as simple as Apple’s. Rather than using the iPod’s single-line Rolls of Film + (#) display, photos can be shown in a list of individually-named folders with a second line indicating the number of pictures per folder, which unnecessarily uses up screen space. Other views are available. Videos also use two display lines a piece. An Extras menu provides access to the Radio feature, and presumably features added by future attachments or firmware. Settings lets you adjust the menus, the internal LCD screen, sound effects, the radio’s frequency tuning, and more.

The big question being asked around these parts right now is whether Zune has any feature so compelling that it can really rival the iPod juggernaut. Right now, the feeling is that Microsoft may have gotten a few things closer to right than normal, but neither any individual part of the package nor the complete experience will truly rival the iPod’s super-simple, mainstream experience. At best, we’ve heard predictions that Zune will fight for the same fraction of “tech geek” market share (15%) that Apple hasn’t yet taken; at a $300 entry point with a 30GB hard drive, it’s hard to imagine that Zune gains traction in the iPod’s strongest market, the iPod mini- and nano-loving $250-and-under tiny device buyers. We’ll just have to see.