Zune is the rather bizarre brand name given to Microsoft's answer to Apple's iTunes/iPod/iWhateverThatCanPlayMusicThisWeek. The brand includes a variety of MP3 players, plus an online music store and PC music player similar to iTunes. The MP3 players are widely unnoteworthy - they'd be impressive five years ago, but now they're just yet another set of iPod clones. What caught my attention was the announcement of the Zune HD coming later in the year - 720p to TV, touchscreen, web browsing, wireless sync, and even an HD radio!
So I figured, now would be a good time to try the 'iTunes' end of the experience while I wait for Zune HD, and installed the Zune application on my computers at work and home.
Now Zune does things a bit differently than iTunes. Sure, you can still buy individual songs for 99 points (about $1.24 for a US user) just like iTunes. But the service is really optimized for the Zune Pass - a $14.99/month subscription which allows you to download just about any song in their collection, and keep it for as long as you're subscribed. You also get ten "free" songs a month to keep regardless of whether you keep paying or not. Thankfully, they have a two week free trial, so I gave it a try.
It was incredible! Free access to their entire catalog - and they have pretty much anything I could think of - minus the few money grubbing bands that insist that you can only buy full albums (Metallica, Seether, I'm talking to you). You can download any song to your collection, but there's really no need [when you don't have a Zune to copy them to], since on a Zune pass you can also just stream the songs directly from their servers whenever you want. Which I've been doing at work... all day... every day.
Their client app, while a bit hefty on the memory requirements (that's .NET for you), is a polished experience. Finding music is easy enough. Your standard search box. All of your Messenger contacts show up, and you can see what they've been playing and their favourites. A list of channels, which are basically updating playlists. A special channel updates weekly with 90 minutes worth of music it suggests based on your listening habits (basically, "Users who listened to this also liked..."); my first round seemed to favour the more popular end of the spectrum (eg. Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold), but still great selections for what I like.
To finish off the experience, they have podcasts, which are regularly updating audio or video content. This is great in particular for news - I've got CBC and BBC news clips already plugged in. Most podcasts are free, even without the Zune Pass, so you can enjoy them even if you don't want to shell out the moola.
Final assessment: OMG Zune Pass is incredible, I don't see why everyone doesn't have this right now! I'm not just saying that as a loyal Microsoft lackie either; my previous disdain for Zune is well-known. Even if you object to paying for music you can easily pirate... $15 a month to have no-hassle instant access to any song you want, even songs you don't know you want yet... seems like a no-brainer. They've gained a customer of me. Well played Microsoft, the first hit is free eh?