Zune 3.0 offers a visually interesting spin on music recommendations, but you have to pay for the full experience.
Like Apple's iTunes 8, Microsoft's Zune software (now in version 3.0) offers new ways for listeners to discover new music via their software. Unfortunately, to get the full experience of its coolest new feature, MixView, you must spring for a US$15 per month Zune Pass subscription.
If you own one of Microsoft's Zune players, you can use the software for managing files and transferring them to your player. If you don't own a Zune, you can still use the free software to manage your PC's library of audio and video files.
Zune's MixView is Microsoft's answer to Apple iTunes' new Genius feature, which allows you to automatically generate playlists. Like Genius, MixView makes additional music recommendations based on songs within your library and based on the software's associated online music and video store, the Zune Marketplace. But Zune's algorithm engine includes an element that Genius lacks: It also draws from a social community. When you download Zune 3.0, you can create an individual username that identifies you in the Social community of Zune. Whether to participate actively in the community is up to you.
Pick an album or an artist in MixView, and images of related content — such as albums, individual tracks, and artists — blossom around it. Click on one of the surrounding images, and a new display appears. Double-clicking on the image lets you hear a 30-second clip of the associated song and gives you the option to purchase it. To hear the full version of the song, you must be a Zune Pass subscriber. (With a Zune Pass you can download and stream an unlimited number of songs from the Zune Marketplace, the online music and video store, at a flat rate of US$15 per month. You retain access to the songs as long as your Zune Pass is current.)
MixView is a lot of fun if you like to geek out on music history and learn about who influenced who. I could spend hours clicking through the MixView, and I found its recommendations right on target with my tastes. Aesthetically, it does a spectacular job of mapping out song, artist, and album relations graphically. And its multidirectional recommendations expand your universe of possibilities far more quickly than Pandora's linear suggestions do. For example, if you pick Willie Nelson in MixView, you immediately have the option of playing Waylon Jennings, the Smoking Popes, or Hank Williams. If you pick Willie Nelson in Pandora, the only suggestion you get is Waylon Jennings; and if you don't want to listen to Waylon Jennings, you have to skip to the next song.
Images of listeners from the Zune Social community will also automatically pop up along with the recommended music. You can view recent plays from their collection as well as favourites and top artists. Connecting music fans to one another is a nice touch, the feature wasn't especially useful in my case, as many supposedly "like-minded" listeners actually had very different music preferences from mine. As a result, I didn't spend much time looking at their music libraries.
A cool — and completely free — feature is the improved Now Playing screen. Even if you don't own a Zune and never intend to buy one, you can use this feature for your music collection on your PC. The full-screen interface shows various artist photos and displays facts and biographical information. If nothing else, it serves as a nice distraction from whatever you're doing on your computer. Just be careful not too zone out too much, because it can be quite hypnotic.
When I tested it, the software still had some bugs. I bought a Zune Pass so that I could test everything 3.0 had to offer, but I couldn't log into my account for about half an hour after buying it, due to a server error. The Marketplace wouldn't load for me a couple of times and the MixView and Social areas occasionally loaded very slowly.
I ran into errors in other areas as well, such as in the new Playlist feature. When you search for an artist in the Marketplace, you get a list of songs and albums by that artist, as well as preloaded playlists. One of my searches produced a playlist with the enticing title "Scandinavian Darkness Mixtape". Unfortunately, when I tried to access it, I got a 'Zune Marketplace Is Unavailable' notice multiple times.
If Microsoft wants Zune to be a strong contender in the MP3 player market, it should make the full MixView available for free. That feature, in my opinion, is the biggest draw of the software, and it is disappointing that you cannot access the full version of it without paying. iTunes 8's Genius similarly lets you preview only 30 seconds of a song, so making unrestricted MixView previews free would give Microsoft an advantage over Apple in one important respect.
In any case Zune 3.0 ups the ante on software interfaces for music players. iTunes looks pretty plain next to it, and Zune offers a greater array of opportunities for music discovery and social interaction. Will it cause a massive exodus from iTunes? Probably not, given that iPod currently holds 70 per cent of the MP3 player market.