Monday, November 26, 2007

Zune 2.0: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

I've been playing with my Zune 30 (aka, original zune) for a couple of weeks now. I'd like to go over what I like and don't like about the new Zune interface and software. But first of all, overall, it's not bad. I was thinking that I'd either keep my Sony PSP and give the Zune to my son, or keep the Zune and give my son the PSP. I have given the PSP to him.

First, the good. I absolutely love the podcast support. I tell the software what I want, how many I want to have on hand at a time, and it takes care of the rest. When I am done listening or viewing a podcast, it will automatically remove it from the Zune, and sync the next episode (if available) to the Zune. I listen to and watch several podcasts, and it was a chore to get everything synced to my PSP, and make sure I had enough room to store them. With the Zune, I have plenty of room, and it simply is no longer a chore.

The interface on the Zune is nice. It is faster than the previous firmware when scrolling through the list of albums or songs. It is easy to find what I'm looking for.

I like the idea of wireless sync. I have tried it, and for some reason it is not working. I want to move the Zune software to another computer because where I have it now doesn't have enough hard drive space to support it (more on that in a moment). I hope that I will be able to get it working on the new computer.

My list of good things don't seem like much, especially after you see my list of the bad things, but the list of bad things are not deal breakers. If I had a choice between a Zune and an iPod Video or Touch, I'd go with an iPod. But my choice was between a PSP and a Zune. And given that choice, I'd pick the Zune. The list of bad things is merely things I would like to see Microsoft do to enhance the product.

Now the bad. I mentioned earlier that I liked how the software would automatically remove played podcasts. For a while, I couldn't figure out how to tell if an episode had been played yet, or not. And then I noticed that an unplayed podcast was just a little brighter than a played one. The difference is so subtle that I missed it for the longest time. And even knowing that, I have to move the selector up and down just so I can try to see the difference. I think Microsoft would do well to make the distinction a little more evident. And, along the lines of played versus unplayed, it would be really nice to be able to tell the software, from the Zune, that something has been played. The idea being that sometimes I start a podcast and don't want to listen to it all. As it is now, I have to either go to the software and mark it as played, or fast forward to the end of the podcast on the Zune and let it finish it. Doing the latter will cause the Zune to mark it as being played. I would rather go into an options page and select "Mark as played" from the Zune. That way, when I get the wireless sync working, I won't have to touch the computer at all.

I don't like the new rating system. If it's on my Zune, I like it enough to listen to it. So the broken heart idea doesn't work too well for me. If I give something a broken heart, it doesn't get on my Zune. So, that leaves two options for me, like it, or really like it. I can't set it up with the levels I was used too. Some songs I like more than others. And some more songs I like even more. I'm really not buying the excuse given. It's interesting that they say that there was confusion for the 5 star system. How in the world can a 3 star rating be "I love this song"? What is higher than that? "I really love this song"? Well, if you "really" love a 4 star song, does that mean you really don't love the 3 star song? Makes no sense to me. They could have, in the Zune software, a label beside the rating giving what the rating means for whatever number of stars were selected. And so I can better rate my list of songs, I hope Microsoft will consider changing it back.

I don't like how the Zune card doesn't show ALL of the songs I listen too. You would think by looking at my card that I don't listen to much of anything, other than the few that are listed there. According to the FAQ, most of the songs I play should be showing up. However, I have just noticed the updates. I will try their suggestions and see if that works. It would also be nice if it would list the podcast I was listening to. I believe I read somewhere (can't find it now) that it was coming.

Now for the ugly. I know a lot of people will disagree, but I don't like the software. It's just plain ugly. I will admit that it's better than the last version. But it still isn't as intuitive as it should be. In the podcast section, how do I tell the software to check for updates to all podcasts? I can't find how to do that. Right now, I have to right click on each one and tell it to check individually. When adding a new podcast, you have to stop everything from downloading, if you have already played the older episodes and tell it where to start. The software assumes that a new podcast has not been played ever. It can't assume that. Then, I'm getting a lot of cryptic errors. There are a couple of podcasts that some episodes work just fine, but others tell me that the format is incorrect and doesn't work with the Zune. Which I find hard to believe. Also, I was getting other cryptic errors that ended up being that I was running out of hard drive space. The encoder was trying to transcode the video files for use on the Zune, but was running out of room. Instead of telling me that it ran out of room, it just says "Unknown error".

And that's not all. Over on the music side of things, the album art was messed up in the new software (it was fine in the previous version). I tried a couple of things the online FAQ suggested, which was a mistake since it made the software think it was a new installation. Still didn't fix it. I ended up having to download the cover art from a website and tell the software to use that file for the cover art. It was a lot of trouble for something that should have been easy.

I don't much like the marketplace either. It's not real easy to browse anything. I knew that it was supposed to now have videos available, but I couldn't find any. And when I did find them, they wanted too much for them. Why not some freebie videos?

The point system stinks too. Most songs are 79 points. Which at first glance makes you think you are getting a deal, since Apple charges 0.99 cents per song. But considering you can get 400 points for $5.00, that's 0.0125 cents per point (And there is no discount for buying more points. 4000 points costs $50.00, or 0.0125 cents per point). So, 79 points is 0.9875 cents. Practically the same price as iTunes. Here's the kicker, however. When you purchase an album, the point value ranges from 800 to 900 points, or more. At 800 points, you're looking at $10.00. 900 is $11.25, and 1000 points is $12.50. The 50 Cent album, Curtis, is 1000 points on the Zune Marketplace, whereas in iTunes, it's $10.99. You are paying $1.51 more for the same album. Not exactly fair, is it? (And no, 50 Cent is not a choice I would make, it just happened to be the easiest example)

To end on a positive note, I do like the idea of the Zune pass. Basically, you pay $14.95 a month and you can download just about any song in the Marketplace. I think that includes videos, but I can't find anything to confirm or deny that. When you stop paying, the songs become unplayable. It's a great plan. But I listen primarily to podcasts, so it won't be worth it to me. Maybe one day I'll try it for a month.

The Zune, overall, has a lot of potential. I wish I had more control on the Zune. I wish I could record songs off the radio. I wish the software was more userfriendly. I wish the songs themselves were cheaper in the Marketplace. But will I give up my Zune? Probably not. If someone where to say that they'd trade my Zune for an 80gb iPod video, or even an iPod Touch, I'd do it without thinking twice. I'll even throw in the new Belkin case I just got off of Woot for the Zune (more on that in the near future). But until then, I'll be happy with what I have.

What would you like to see changed? Or do you like it as is?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Perfect Paper Passwords

I have been listening to the Security Now podcast from the beginning. It is a really good podcast about computer or network security. It is hosted by Steve Gibson and Leo Laporte. Steve is the creator of Spinrite, a hard disk repair and maintenance utility. He is also the author of several free utilities that can be found at his website. The podcast is all about security. Sometimes I think they talk too much about Spinrite, or e-book readers and I also think Leo sometimes falls asleep during the taping because he'll ask Steve questions that Steve already addressed. But anyway, other than that, it's a really good podcast.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about one time use passwords. Steve had a need for his staff to securely log into the GRC network when they are away from their home. He wanted everything to be as impenetrable as possible. Sometimes I think Steve goes overboard. He would prefer NO risk of attack, whereas I understand that there will be some risk involved. I would rather it be easier than harder. The more hoops I have to jump, the more secure it is, but you're also increasing the frustration level if you already have a low risk of some one trying to break in. I mean, who really wants to read MY email? And there are some instances where the extra hoops aren't so frustrating, like my Paypal account. You can listen to episode 115 for all the details about why he came up with this, but he wanted something that couldn't be sniffed and used again later. I think what he has come up with is very good. And I think it will work for a few different websites or systems. For example, I think this would be perfect for Passpack or Clipperz. Websites like that have the potential of being targets, and this would give one more authentication factor that would be incredibly hard to attack.

The system Steve has come up with is called "Perfect Paper Passwords", or PPP. The website has all the information about it. Steve said that someone has already used his system to create a plug in for the Mac that will use this authentication system for logging into an OS X system. If someone comes up with something for Windows, I'd probably use it.

Also, I like my Paypal Security Key, but what Steve has come up with is better in a lot of ways. The biggest difference is cost. It doesn't cost anything to print out a card. And it will also have a low start up cost for websites too. It's just really cool. And I really hope Passpack and Clipperz will implement it, as I still use both of those sites and would enjoy the extra security.

And speaking of Passpack and Clipperz. I sent Steve feedback asking him about those two sites. He hasn't answered it yet, but he did answer someone else about a similar website called Passlet. I asked Steve what he thought of those sites, and based on his response to the Passlet question, he seems to think they are okay. But, Passlet is just plain ugly and doesn't provide nearly the same feature set as Passpack or Clipperz. Maybe Steve will still have a look at my question and answer it. I'm hoping he uses a tracker and will see this blog post. If not, I'll try again because I'd really like to know what he thinks of these sites, and maybe even compare it to Passlet.

(I realize I didn't say anything about Leo as an introduction. After all, who doesn't already know Leo?)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I fell for the Social

A year ago, I looked at a Zune and said to myself, "my that sure is ugly." I heard about $1.00 from every Zune sale was going to Universal Studios. Zune was being released from Microsoft. And did I mention that it was ugly? I could not see how this ugly MP3 player would be able to compete with the iPod. I didn't like the idea of Universal getting more money than they deserve. It would be a tough thing for them to do to try and take some market share from Apple. But Microsoft, being Microsoft, had to try. And they weren't that successful. People had trouble with it. And, well, it's ugly.

Move forward one year, and Microsoft has just released their second generation Zune. This time, they have an 80 gig version to replace the 30 gig original version. And they also have a flash based player in a 4 gig and 8 gig variety. The new Zune's include some nifty new features, like being able to wirelessly sync with the host computer. And they aren't quite as ugly as before.

One of the nice thing they are doing is allowing the original Zune's to take advantage of the new features. The original Zune has a firmware update that gives it most of the new features. The only thing missing has to do with video playback. Not a huge deal.

So, everything is looking up for Microsoft. They may actually give the iPod a run for its money. But only time will tell.

Why am I talking about this? Well, our good friends at Woot recently had a really good sale on refurbished brown original Zunes for $75.00. I just couldn't resist. Who ever heard of a 30 gig MP3 player for $80.00 (with shipping)? No one. So, I got it. But the thing that sold me the most is that, 1. Microsoft would be updating the firmware to allow the latest goodies to be included. Something Apple rarely does, if at all. And 2. podcasts are now supported. I listen/watch podcasts on my Sony PSP, and it's a pain to deal with the limited amount of memory. Having 30 gigs available was very tempting for that alone.

Now, I'm a Zune owner. (not quite ready to say that I'm a "proud" owner) And I'm happy that the latest software and firmware has finally been released. Over the next few days I'll go over some of the new features in more detail. But so far, I'm really impressed with the podcast aspects of the software. More on that in the next post.

If you are interested, my Zune card is

Monday, November 5, 2007

What?! No Gphone!?

The rumors of a Google branded cell phone have been all of the Internet for some time now. And today, we finally found out what all the rumors were about. I, personally, think this is the better way to go. Instead of a limited number of people switching carriers to own your phone, you can hit a larger audience by creating an OS that can span across many different phones from many different carriers. Brilliant!

What Google has done is develop an open platform that will run on Linux based phones. Of course, they will use Google mobile applications too. Google has also started an alliance called the Open Handset Alliance to develop the platform. The platform will also be called Android.

I really think this is going to be great. I have a Verizon phone right now, and I hate the interface they have put on my Razr. There has been buzz about Apple not allowing third party applications on the iPhone. With the platform by the Open Handset Alliance, all of that will be moot. The interface, I assume, will be better than anything we've seen so far. It will be open, hence the name. And because it will be open, we should see LOTS of applications for the devices.

There is already at least one possible prototype being revealed that will use Android. I'm sure as the days and months go by, we'll start seeing more and more. Apple's iPhone will have a run for it's money.

The ONLY bummer I see out of this is that Verizon is not listed as a partner in the Open Handset Alliance. Maybe it's time to start looking for another carrier???