Arguably one of the best hard drive media devices on the market today, here’s a complete look at the Zune 120, released on September 16, 2008.(read more reviews)

by Travis Pope
Editor, ZuneSpring
last updated on October 5, 2008
first published on October 5, 2008

Many things can be said about Microsoft and it’s hardware and software platforms, but no one ever said that they never learned from their mistakes. The Zune 30 was in many ways a laughing stock. Paraded by technology enthusiasts and normal consumers alike. Sadly in hindsight many of these critics were absolutely correct. The Zune 30 was notorious for it’s humongous size and ridiculous batter life. Strange thing is I loved that scrappy black music player so much i didn’t bother to update to the sleeker Zune 80 and I may have never upgraded until fate intervened, and my Zune 30 died. (Yeah thanks Grandpa, best birthday present ever.) I will be focusing on hardware aspects of the Zune 120 today, for a walk through and review of the software and device firmware checkout out the Zune 3 review.


Compared to it’s closest competition the Zune 120 is nothing special. It has no tapered edges no small little touches that make you go ‘wow’ however what it does have on it’s side is precedence. COmpared to it’s 30 GB counterpart the 120 is to media players what the Ford Taurus was to small sedans. It’s not the smallest nor the best looking however if your in the market and looking to make a purchase it’s worth investigating. Don’t get me wrong that fact that it doesn’t have curvy edges is actually a good thing, at least you can stand the thing up by itself, something you can do with a few others.

The Zune 120 and Zune 30 in a comparison shot.

The Zune Pad

One of the biggest differences between the Zune 30 and the Zune 120 is the Zune Pad which replaced the old directional pad. Featuring a tough pad built on top of a directional pad, it’s the best of both worlds. Each feels intuitive to use everyday and although touch sensitivity is fine, I prefer just the directional pad. Speaking of a preference you can choose one or the other with just a few clicks in the settings area. High marks for the Zune pad, high marks indeed.

The Paint Job

One of the things I hated about the Zune 80 was it’s ridiculously faded matte black paint job. Don’t get me wrong charcoal was fine, it just wasn’t nearly as exciting as the Valentine’s Day Red or now glossy Black. This time the Zune Team went for a less muted finish to help it stand out from last year’s players and it’s amazing what a few ounces of paint and gloss can do. The front cover uses the gloss to such a great effect that I actually sat there and stared at for a few minutes just to take in the differences. Equally enjoyable is the finish on the back of the player which also is black but not glossy. The thing really is a joy to hold, mind you the Zune 30 was less a music player, and more of a giant rubberized brick, so any improvement in the paint job was appreciated.

The Screen

One of the few things that bothers me is the Zune 120’s 320×240 screen resolution. Don’t misunderstand me the screen is bright and vibrant and excellent even up close, but no one who has used a media player with a higher resolution screen will be fooled. The screen is ok, nothing special, just ok.

It’s the little things

It really is the little things that matter when it comes right down to the nitty gritty and while the Zune excels in some areas it does fail in others. First the good details. While the internal screen has a mild resolution the player can output near DVD quality video to an external display, thus making up a little for the low internal screen resolution. In fact, while testing this feature I actually saw compression artifacts in the video files themselves, something with the Zune 30 was impossible. Yes nine out of ten viewers agree, when it’s the video and not the screen, buyers feel a little better about the decision to purchase that particular device. Second, the Zune 120 has amazing quality from what my ears can tell and yet it lacks an EQ, and the premium headphones. The headphones are really great so maybe, Microsoft make a great cost cutting decision, but I personally I would have loved to try them, only I won’t be because I will never pay $40 dollars for them, and expect many other users won’t either. The EQ issue is a little more difficult. According to most surveys, the vast majority of listeners to bother with EQ and honestly I don’t either. Although my Zune 30 did have EQ settings over two years I only used it twice. That being said I can see where some users would take issue with not being able to more directly customize their output to the song their listening to. Although my Zune 30 did have EQ settings over two years I only used it twice. Another strange change is the complete loss of basic pack-ins with the device. My Zune 30 arrived with a rubberized finish, making it nearly totally resistant to scratches and still included a cloth pouch however the less tank-like, gloss covered, glass faced Zune 120 does not. Sorry that’s just plain wrong. Even more odd is Microsoft’s decision to not let the Zune act as a external hard drive. Yes, we understand why you didn’t include it on the Zune 30 -no time. Nevertheless with this release my music has leap froged my laptop in terms of capacity and your telling me that I can only use it for movies, music, and pictures for recreation and not my documents and files in case of emergencies? That lame.

What I Think

In my opinion what really makes or breaks a media player is simply based on three factors. Does it have too many buttons? Do you feel embarrassed to use it, and odes it do what you want. The Zune 120 is an excellent piece of hardware. It does exactly what it should for why you would want one and on top of that it includes wireless functionality the competition has come close to providing for their users. My verdict is simple, pop your collars and toast the the good life Zune Team. Job well done. If you’ve got the Zune 30 and need more space or are new to Zune then this is an excellent upgrade, for those who already have a second generation Zune you should pass, there are no real compelling reasons for you to upgrade.

further investigation

Zune 120 photo gallery

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