The History Of: Microsoft Zune

  • October 5, 2011 10:59 am

Microsoft’s Zune is officially dead. But where we say good-bye to Microsoft’s in-house hardware we say hello to a new generation of PMP; a device whose soul purpose is no longer to simply entertain but communicate with the world around us too. Join us after the break as we take a walk back through time, admiring Microsoft’s Zune through the years…

Launch Day: November 13th, 2006

On November 13th, 2006, Microsoft in conjunction with Toshiba launched the first generation Microsoft Zune. To anti-Apple fanboys, the launch of Microsoft’s Zune media player was a fist pump of epic proportions — a middle finger in the air directed straight at Steve Jobs & Co. Where Apple’s simple, “we’re right” approach turned off many, Microsoft’s underdog image in the MP3 market certainly rallied the troops and gave them a rare chance to draw a loyal following more akin to a small start-up instead of a massive global tech giant.

On that autumn day back in 2006, Microsoft stood up to Apple with a dream of unseating the champion. Mind you, at this time Apple had already hit their peak in the MP3 player market. In fact, there wasn’t a “market”. There was the iPod and then everything else that wasn’t an iPod. The Zune was a breath of fresh air thanks to it’s admittingly quirky design and innovative new “Twist UI” that allowed users to scroll not only vertically, but horizontally through menues. Add to that a decent-sized 3″ QVGA display, a unique (at the time) WiFi music sharing — “squirting” — feature, and healthy codec support and you can see that the Zune was a decent 1st-gen player.

Among the Zunes many talking points was one odd point revolving around color choice. The white and black color options were normal for a PMP. The oddly tinted brown option with greenish hue seen on the edges was not, however. If anything, Microsoft got at least a B- for trying to be different. Over the course of the first-gen Zune’s life other colors such as the Product RED and pink Zunes popped up here and there for special events for one reason or another.

But it wasn’t perfect. First and foremost Microsoft chose to simply match the competition with the QVGA display rather than leapfrog. The quirky design also didn’t get many praises despite the very un-Apple like design. It was a risk to make a brick. And it was a risk that ultimately didn’t really pay off.

The final sour point — lack of storage. Microsoft made use of a 30 GB HDD in the original Zune 30 instead of a faster (though smaller in capacity) SSD. The decision to forego the new-age storage medium was two-fold: price and size concerns.

In the end, there aren’t too many 1st-gen products we can say were honestly built to last. If it weren’t for our own clumsiness (read: we lost our original 1st-gen Zune) we’d still have a Microsoft Zune.

Second Generation Zune 4, 8, & 80

Nearly a year to the day of the original Zune 30 GB Microsoft released the second generation Zune 4, 8, and 80 GB Zunes on November 13th, 2007. The two former devices made use of flash memory (a rare choice at the time) while the 80 GB Zune feature a much more capacious, traditional HDD as well as a bump in screen size from 3″ to 3.2″. Navigation on the Zune was also drastically changed. Instead of a circular d-button of sorts, Microsoft added a new touch sensitive “Zune Pad”.

The flash-based Zunes were powered by 399 MHz ARM Core Freescale i.MX31L processors and featured 64 MB of memory for the newly debuted Zune games. Screen size of the more pocketable media player came in at 1.8″ and featured 320 x 240 resolution.

Several new features that debuted with the new Zunes and Zune 2.0 desktop software was that of wireless syncing. For anti-Apple fans, this feature was a direct blow to Apple, whose own iPod users had long sought some time of wireless syncing of their own, especially with the recently launched iPod Touch also feature a large 3.5″ touchscreen and WiFi. Battery life was also something the second-gen Zune improved on, rising from a category almost sub-par average of 14 hours to a more respectable 24 hours.

The second-gen Zune took a good first-gen product and made it even better; many would still say to this day it was the day in which Microsoft finally launched a valid iPod competitor after many failed attempts by others over the years.

Third Generation Zune 16 and 120

On September 16th, 2008 Microsoft once again lobbied a serve into Apple’s court with the Zune 16 and 120 players. The numbers obviously signified the storage packed within — 16 GB and 120 GB — and were directly marketed at fighting Apple’s still potent (though beginning to decline in relevance compared to the iPod Touch) now renamed iPod Classic. Like the previous second-gen Zunes, the low capacity device used flash storage while the higher capacity still relied on HDDs. Outside of physical storage increases, the third-gen Zune hardware remained largely unchanged.

The software on the other hand was the real reason to upgrade. The Zune 3.0 software update brought several new and innovative features that Apple’s iPod didn’t have, namely the ability to tag songs listend to on the FM radio — let alone it had an FM receiver to begin with — for purchase later when connected to a WiFi network. On that note, the act of purchasing songs via WiFi was a new feature for the Zune in and of itself. Other notable additions included a clock (surprisingly one of the most requested features throughout the first two generations of Zune), audiobook and games support, and last but certainly not least, a revamped quicklist feature.

Fourth Gen Zune HD

By this time Apple’s iPod Touch had completely revolutionized the stand-alone PMP market leaving Microsoft playing a bad game of catchup. Their HDD Zunes were good players certainly worthy of praise when compared to the iPod Classic, but when the iPod Touch was factored in there needed something completely new.

On September 15th, 2009 Microsoft responded with the Zune HD. Initially available in 16 GB and 32 GB capacities, the all-flash Zune HD broke the norms of screen technology at the time with it’s adoption of a 3.3″ 16:9 480×272 OLED display. Other hardware bragging rights came by way of the powerful Nvidia Tegra APX processor comprised of ARM11 and ARM7 processor cores + 6 other dedicated cores, 128 MB of RAM, WiFi, support for Microsoft’s XNA technology and 720p via HDMI-out and the optional Zune HD dock.

The biggest changes to the new Zune 4.0 software included a native web browser, the ability to stream Zune Pass music through a desktop computer browser, and support for (via 3rd party patch) streaming internet radio.

Seven months later on April 5th, 2010 Microsoft released firmware 4.5 which added on-device Smart DJ, Xvid support, and Marketplace support when used with the optional dock. Several days later on April 9th Microsoft released a higher capacity 64 GB Zune HD that was physically identical to the lower capacity Zune HDs while the lower capacity Zune HDs also received $20 shaved off each of their price tags.

The Future Of Zune: WP7

Earlier this year it was reported by Bloomberg that Microsoft would officially stop Zune hardware design and manufacturing, instead focusing on rolling the Zune software into the companies new Windows Phone 7 mobile platform. Denial aside, the writing was on the wall. With no new serious hardware upgrades since 2009, Microsoft’s Zune was a dinosaur in an age of robots (read: smartphones). Smartphones had largely replaced the need for a dedicated MP3 player. Apple figured this out way back in 2007. And much like Apple took the iPod and put it into a phone several years prior with the iPhone, Microsoft was moving forward to the next generation of portable audio.

Finally just today, October 3rd, it was revealed that all mentions of Zune hardware were removed from Microsoft’s website — Zune HD still accessible via direct link — perhaps finally signaling the true end of an era. Add to that a newish support page on Microsoft’s Zune website that pretty much spells it out: the Zune is dead.

It’s been a rather quick five years for the Zune considering the first iPod was released almost five years prior on November 1st, 2001, (Speaking of which, can you believe the iPod has been around for almost a decade?! Yeah, we feel old too.) But even though Microsoft was late to the game, their short stint was both memorable and honorable despite being the but of many jokes (and source of even worse tatoos).

So here’s to you Microsoft Zune, for five years of audio bliss.

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