REVIEW: Zune Pass

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A few weeks ago the Zune Music store finally arrived in Australia. But while we have enough online music stores, the big part of the announcement was Zune Pass. For $120 a year you get unlimited on-demand streaming music. But are there some hidden problems?

Chris Southcott reviews the Zune Pass, after the jump.

  • Score:

    7.5 / 10

  • The Good:

    Unlimited downloads; Large catalogue of major and indie labels; tight integration with Windows Phone, Xbox and Zune software.

  • The Bad:

    No support for Mac, Android or iPhone; bit-rate of songs low; some Australian and niche international artists missing; fairly expensive for what is basically music rental.

  • Bottom Line:

    Despite its flaws and low bit-rate; it is a good music system for Microsoft – if you happen to live within their ecosystem.

Introduction

A few weeks ago the Zune Music store finally arrived in Australia. But while we have enough online music stores, the big part of the announcement was Zune Pass. For $120 a year you get unlimited on-demand streaming music. But are there some hidden problems?

I’m going to go through the experience on all supported platforms, including the browser, Windows 7, Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 7, and then the general problems I had with the service that were shared with every platform.

On Windows Vista/7

It’s seamless, addictive and really cool.

Firstly let’s start with the Zune desktop application, which is available free for Windows from Zune.net. Not only is the software beautiful, looking much better in my opinion than anything else at the moment thanks to its simplistic, colourful metro style, but it works well too. As soon as you’re subscribed you can download whatever you want from the marketplace. Any music is available under your $10 subscription fee. So you just search, press download and it’s instantly available on your computer and when you sync it onto your Windows Phone (or Zune, if you somehow have one of those). It’s seamless, addictive and really cool. Whereas with iTunes/anything else I’d be hesitant to download my desired songs, because albums can range from $16.99 to upwards of $22.99, with Zune Pass I just download and listen and know that, for that $10 a month, I am legally enjoying whatever music is available. And the whole catalog of Zune can be downloaded for that $10 a month. You can also stream it too if you’re light on storage. And it’s truly addictive to have so much music at your disposal. Hear a song on the radio, get it now for, apart from the $10, free. Having that ability is awesome and has made it hard for me to leave.

On Windows Phone 7

But who listens to music just on their computer? Like iTunes, Zune lets you sync all of your downloaded music, including music downloaded with Zune Pass, as well as your own music (downloaded or ripped legally I hope). And it works really well, much better than other music streaming/unlimited services because it’s all local.

If you’ve downloaded it on your PC then it’s local on your Windows Phone. Songl, which is the only other streaming service in Australia that I know of, forces you to listen to the music on your phone while online before it caches it for offline play, which means that if you don’t have much data then you’ll have to leave your phone playing that new album over Wi-Fi before you leave. And while that can be fixed, Zune Pass right now is superior in that regard.

The player for Windows Phone 7 looks really, really nice, with pictures of the band in the background, a nice “live-tile”. As well as looks, even though the files have a lower bitrate than most downloaded music, sounds incredible when compared to iOS. The music just sounds 10X better, at least on my device. The layout of the homepage of the Music application is great too, with recent plays and new music in a graphical interface which is really nice, as is the rest of Zune. It’s a simple idea, but a great one. As well as listening to synced music you can download anything you can download on the desktop software. Zune Pass is fully integrated and the music can be streamed or downloaded and synced back to your PC. Think iTunes, but unlimited. Again, the addiction to this rises. The main problem is the Windows Phone part. Getting a phone just for music isn’t a good idea, and I personally prefer Android and iOS compared to Windows Phone. I was actually looking for an old Zune before writing this review, just because I want Zune Pass but not Windows Phone. But if you already own a Windows Phone or want one then it’s great. Just don’t even dare try out Zune Pass if you own an iPhone, Android phone or, in my case, Palm Pre 2.

On The Web

The website uses Silverlight…and there is nothing worse than Silverlight, not even Flash.

This is where the negatives start showing themselves. The website, while allowing you to stream anything you can in the desktop and mobile apps, uses Silverlight. And there is nothing worse than Silverlight, not even Flash. It’s slow and pointless. In a world reliant on Flash and soon HTML5, the only reason to use Silverlight is Microsoft’s DRM. And never mind that everything else uses Flash, Microsoft must use Silverlight to “protect the music”. Sigh.

The website looks fine, but Silverlight means Linux users can’t use it, Mac and PC users have to suffer through laggy software and it’s just another plugin you need to install. There are social features, which feel a little undercooked, but it’s basically Last.FM with recommendations and profiles, so you can see what you’re friends are listening to and what you should be listening to. You can post status updates and follow artists too but it’s nothing to write home about. It’s good, but unless all of your friends own Windows Phones and love Zune and Zune Pass it’s basically pointless. And it doesn’t hook into anything like Last.FM.

On Xbox 360

The interface, as usual, is very nice but I would never listen to music on a console, except for in-game which this doesn’t support. And you can’t sync it. You can have a “queue”, but it’s pretty basic. I can’t just tell it to download everything on my phone or PC as far as I’m aware and if I couldn’t find it, I doubt anyone else would (let me know in the comments if it does).

Also you need Xbox Live Gold. And even if you’re paying $10 a month you’ll still have to lay down $80 a year. Yes, even though you’ve already payed for Zune elsewhere. I understand why Microsoft charges for online gaming, sort of. But paying for something I should already have access to is stupid.

Universal Problems

The Closed Ecosystem

Image: Max Klingensmith/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Now, let’s go into my setup and one of the biggest negatives of Zune Pass. I’m currently borrowing a Windows Phone (for an unrelated reason) from Microsoft, use a Windows PC almost full-time (but not for much longer) and own an Xbox 360. So I’m almost the perfect consumer, at the moment, for Zune Pass. But the problems for me started cropping up almost instantly with this part of the service.

What will I do when I give back the Windows Phone and go back to my Palm Pre (sadly) or what if I’d never had a Windows Phone? What about when if replace my PC with a Mac, which I’m doing this Christmas? It’s problems like these that are only apparent in Zune, whereas services like Spotify, Rdio and Songl work on devices out of their parent company’s ecosystem. And streaming music ecosystems are a lot different than actually buying music, mainly because most music websites are DRM-free and this isn’t. And you don’t ever own the music you’re streaming. If I wanted to switch from Bandit.fm to Bigpond Music to something else, I could simply walk away because I own the MP3’s and MP3’s are open and work with almost everything. But with Zune, if Microsoft doesn’t put an app on my phone or computer (running Linux or Mac) then you’re locked out. And all of these services require the maker to make apps and support different devices, but Microsoft looks like they’re going to stay inside their little universe instead of opening up Zune. And if I walk away I will loose all of the music I downloaded. In the end, you don’t own any of the music you download under Zune Pass, so that $10 is basically a rental fee.

in the end, you don’t own any of the music you download under Zune Pass, so that $10 is basically a rental fee

Streaming Quality

Zune Pass streams at 128kbps WMA and downloads at 192kbps DRM-filled WMA’s. That’s a major downside, especially when the standard iTunes format is 256kbps DRM-free AAC and Bandit.fm and Bigpond offer 320kbps MP3.

Available Music

Let me tell you about my music habits. I don’t really like mainstream music, not because I’m some hipster but because I prefer other genre’s. So if you like that genre of Pop music, then you’ll probably be able to find it on Zune, if the artist isn’t a snob. But the problem I had was that many smaller bands are only on iTunes or other services and weren’t on Zune. And the thing is that Microsoft wants you to stay entirely in their ecosystem, but I couldn’t. About 1/4 times I wouldn’t be able to find some new music whereas it was on iTunes. Sure, it can be seen as a niche problem and as I said many people probably won’t face this problem. But if you have different music tastes then what’s playing on popular radio you might not find everything you want. And for $10 a month, or $120 a year, this is a problem.

Final Thoughts

Don’t get me wrong. I love Zune Pass as an unlimited music service for such a tempting price a month, especially for me because I spend at least $10 a month on iTunes or Bandit.fm. But it’s so locked down to the Microsoft ecosystem that it’s basically dead in the water if you don’t abide by Microsoft’s rules of only using their hardware and software.

Still, despite its flaws and low bit-rate, it is a totally addicting music service for Microsoft lovers. But it’s dead to people who don’t live entirely in the Microsoft ecosystem. And in the end, you don’t own any of the music you download under Zune Pass, so that $10 is basically a rental fee. You can try it for 14 days free on Zune.net but for me? I’ll be waiting for Spotify.

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