With the release of the Zune 2.5 desktop software, I’m officially declaring Windows Media Player dead. It’s not, of course, you still need WMP to playback any of the PlaysForSure DRM stuff you’ve purchased in the past, like Amazon Unbox videos, but Windows Media Player might as well be dead because Microsoft has created something so much better with the Zune app. You can benefit without ever buying a Zune device or purchasing a single track from the Zune Marketplace. Starting with existing support for h.264 content that WMP only plays after installing additional codecs, Zune software only got better in the current release.
The Zune UI team has succeeded where both Windows Media Player and iTunes have failed, eliminating the confusing folder > sub-folder hierarchy that’s traditionally defined the desktop media player. The experience of browsing for music in the Zune software makes finding music in a large library relatively easy. Zune Marketplace integration is useful (for finding albums you may not own) without being invasive. The reason I consider this the real breakthrough release for the Zune software is because it adds back in some features that any media player needs to be useful. Key new features include advanced tag editing for correcting metadata on your tracks, a seemingly improved ability to identify tracks in compilation albums, and smart playlisting (this last feature still needs to re-add mood-based playlists, but most people won’t care). Some other new features are a bit more obvious – like integration with Live Messenger. If you have both apps open you can post recently listened to songs to your Messenger status.
Another important addition is the new video store is working toward achieving parity with iTunes. Zune did manage to score some NBC programs that aren’t available from iTunes, but I really see the Zune Marketplace video selection as the eventual replacement for (or merger with) the Xbox Live Video Marketplace. The Zune store has the key advantage of delivering videos that work on your PC, on a Zune and on the Xbox (streamed from the Zune software), while Xbox videos are trapped in your Xbox. I’m still more interested in what’s available from Amazon Unbox because I don’t watch much video on any portable device, but it’s nice to see another option.
If you do own a Zune device, another key reason to give the new Zune software a spin is that “The Social” Microsoft has marketed for ages finally makes sense. You can sample the listening tastes of your friends and get dynamically updated playlists based on what your friends are listening to. For me this is a highly interesting way to both discover new music and discover that my friends have lousy taste in music (sorry Andru, but Jordin Sparks?). As someone who already belongs to too many “social networks” I like the Zune experience because I can sample music from people with opinions I tend to trust without needing to go to a site and continuously interact with it. I’d like this feature to go farther so that I can see how many of my friends are all liking the same songs, but it’s off to a good start.
There’s a solid round-tripping feature for podcast listening in their too. If you start listening to a podcast on your computer and need to hit the road, you can pick up where you left off on the Zune – a feature I haven’t seen work on any other device.
With those last two features, I’m not trying to get you to throw out your iPod (or whatever you currently use), just pointing out some key advantages of the Zune experience. There are still things I don’t like. Microsoft really should make Amazon Unbox work with the Zune at a minimum. There’s no technical reason it can’t work, it’s intentionally broken. The other inexcusable oversight is Audible support. If Zune had a comparable alternative, I’d forgive them, but they don’t and there’s really no better library of downloadable audiobooks.