When you ask any Zune user what first attracted them to Microsoft’s entertainment platform they’ll tell you a few different things. Some were snagged by Redmond’s promises to treat music like an art form and less like some spreadsheet with music files attached. Some will tell you that it’s the platform’s flagship Zune Pass music service that first brought them into the fold. These would both be valid answers, but what I find is that most users were attracted to is the dream of just having their stuff work over multiple devices. In 2006 that was a pipe dream, in 2008 it was a no-brainer, and with Zune Music on XBOX, in 2010 it’s reality. Microsoft has finally delivered on a perk of the Zune ecosystem they should have delivered from Day One, and I won’t lie to you folks, I don’t even care that it wasn’t released four years ago. Why? It may have been well worth the wait.
For those of you who are interested please also take a gander at our Zune Video on XBOX review from last year, because to understand why we are excited for this, you first have to understand what we came from the year before. Until now any Zune music content on your XBOX 360 had to be either streamed to it from a Zune equipped computer on your network or have a Zune device plugged in via USB. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but to compound matters the music panel when plugged via USB looked god awful, and would not track your plays, a strange limitation if the whole point of Zune is to track and analyze your music to help you find more music you might like.
Zune on XBOX is my name and Streaming Is My Game
As I mentioned earlier you really had only two ways of getting your music onto an XBOX from the Zune platform, stream from the network, or plug in your device. If you only purchase music via Zune and don’t have a Zune Pass, that game remains the same. However for those who have decided to fork over cash for the subscription service, the name of the game this year is streaming and apparently its all the rage. Much like with Zune.net you can now stream entire albums directly to your 360 directly from the cloud. No middleware, no separate device. For the most part this seems to work flawlessly, allowing you to search artists, albums, and songs, directly from the interface. No computer required.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t go through every last details of the interface, but this thing looks so nice I’m going to break that promise like a politician telling his wife he’ll be home for dinner. First I didn’t think it could get better then the current Zune software’s now playing interface. Everything’s at your fingertips and easily identifiable.
What you get with Zune Music on XBOX’s interface is something straight out of a concept film. It’s all swooping text and cool animation. It’s full of bright colors and giant pictures of artists. In short it’s the Zune identity in 10 foot interface form. After spending a week with it I’m totally making it my mission to convince Microsoft to adopt this look for the Zune Software’s now playing experience. Yes, it’s that damn cool.
The Full Experience
To me the Zune Experience is a sum of all its parts. As we found out last year with the Zune interface, just slapping the Zune brand on something isn’t going to turn heads. In order for this to be as lauded as the Zune Software as other parts of the Zune ecosystem are, it needed to be sheik. What it also needed was every bit of what makes Zune, Zune.
When you first encounter the link to Zune Music on XBOX you’ll be prompted to download the application to your XBOX. Yes, they still haven’t integrated anything into the XBOX Dashboard, something you can bet I will be dinging them for later. Once you’ve got it downloaded you’ll find menu items based on different functions of Zune.
‘Featured’ acts much like the XBOX Dashboard’s entry channel. Each week you see new releases, top songs in the marketplace, and special content on different artists. This week they must have been all about hip-hop because everything was Lil Wayne, and Gucci Mane. Yep I don’t care about them either.
You will be able to select ‘Smart DJ’ right from the home menu, and much to everyone’s delight Smart DJ works the same way here as it does on the software. Click ‘Add Artist’ and you be prompted to use the apps great search tool. Once you’ve found one you like the app will automatically pin It to your Smart DJ tab.
It’s just as you would think. Music added to this tab will always show up unless your clear it first. Think ‘Now Playing’ from the Zune HD but with a new name.
The search tool in Zune on XBOX , much like it’s look and feel also took me by surprise, in a good way. You search by artist, album, song playlist, and music videos, so you’ll have no trouble getting your hands on the stuff you like, no matter how you are used to sorting it. You can also use the letters at the top of the screen to refine your search results based on the name or search term you are looking up.
The Zune Social was a strong differentiator for Zune its early years symbolizing exactly what Microsoft’s message was at the time: We care about music. I was afraid that in its efforts to bring Zune over to a new platform Microsoft would leave this bit on the chopping block. I’m happy to report that it’s there in its entirety. You can instantly stream your friend’s recently played songs, their most played songs, as well as add them to your XBOX’s queue with a single button press. Before we move on I’d also like to point out that it seems Zune on XBOX can tell the difference between Gamer/Zune Tags that are active on the Zune service and those that are not, meaning you don’t see the fifty percent of friends you may have accumulated that do not use Zune. This is something that should be ported to the Zune software’s ‘Social’ tab as well. As it stands now I have to scroll through entire rows of Zune cards that have never used Zune and therefore have no plays to explore.
This section actually turns out to need a little bit of a disclaimer. Unlike the other tabs the ‘Music Video’ area has a browsing area just for music videos. Once you hit browse you’ll be taken to an entire Music Video marketplace sorted by the genre. On the tab itself you’ll find popular and featured music videos. I was given the impression that going forward you music videos will automatically play if you have a song that corresponds to them in your queue playing. This however was not a feature I was able to test due to the fact that I in no part want to contribute to today’s crop of music artists thinking they should put their horrible songs to visuals. I’ll have to hit up fellow Zune MVP Marques Lyons to get the details on it since he’s the only one I know with any. Once he’s gotten back to me I will update this review.
All of your music videos are stored in the ‘Me’ area along with your links to your top artists, recently played artists, and to my surprise Zune Account Management. From ‘Account Management’ users will be able to read the Zune Pass’ Terms of Service, adjust its privacy settings, view their purchase history, and purchase a Zune Pass directly from the console. It makes sense. If you are going to be pushing XBOX users on the Zune Pass this hard you might as well make it easy for them to get it, and getting it with your remote is so easy Snow White and one of the dwarfs could do it.
Earlier I stressed just how important I was to make this an entire Zune experience and the need to make this an application for music listeners who really love music. The artist pages in Zune on XBOX shows that Microsoft must have been thinking the same thing. Just as if you were using your Zune HD, or Zune Software, getting information about your favorite artists is as simple as pressing a few buttons. On each page you’ll find a list of Albums (whether you can stream that album or not), a bio, a list of their Music Videos available for purchase, pictures, and Related artists. One thing I don’t see here that would have made complete sense was a feature introduced in Zune 3 called ‘Mixview’. The featured displayed artists’ influences and top listeners of the artist in a sort of cloud animation. While this feature also didn’t make it to the Zune HD, I had high hopes that it would be included on Zune on XBOX. It would have gone great with its interface and completed its feature set.
As always you’ve also got to look at the details before you get too excited, and there are a few that raise my eyebrow. The more egregious issue here is that much like any of the XBOX’s entertainment services, you must be a XBOX Live Gold subscriber. Starting in November that’s $10 of your American dollars (I haven’t gotten used to writing for an international audience yet) or whatever XBOX Live Gold goes for in your neck of the woods. Yes, most hardcore users will already have a Gold subscription but their not the ones Microsoft should be worried about attracting. The second and slightly less egregious detail is that according to the press release Zune Music takes up a computer slot on your Zune Pass, just to stream. At the time of this review I didn’t see that reflected in my account’s computers and devices area but take that for what it is. It also doesn’t help that I can’t stream Zune Pass songs while playing games, on a video game console either.
So you’ve done it. You’ve made it to the very last page of another one of my increasingly long reviews and you are wondering if Zune Music on XBOX is worth your time. The problem is I don’t think that I can help you determine that. Hear me out. We’ve waited for this for so long, for Microsoft’s ecosystem to start making sense, for it’s entertainment platforms, to coreless into something bigger than themselves. This is a fine entry, and to be perfectly honest it’s almost nearly perfect. It’s a great first generation effort.
However there are a few things that bother me and should bother you. First of all why can’t I use Zune Pass to also stream music while I’m playing video games? I’m guessing the answer is because it’s not really integrated into XBOX at all, but an app that runs on the XBOX platform. This to me is a sort of a cop out. Zune integration means Zune integration. I should be able to stream music via the Guide’s interface at the very least. Another thing that someone seemingly overlooked on the integration front is that Zune should have also replaced that god awful interface you are still required to use to stream music that isn’t via a Zune Pass in the ‘My XBOX’ area. Yeah it got a coat of paint, but if that’s what users will need to use to stream content stored locally on the home network from the Zune client software it should have gotten an upgrade as well. I’m left feeling like there really is no integration here, like Zune is just like LastFM which also sits on the XBOX Dashboard to the left. Zune shouldn’t be just some app. It should be woven into the fabric of XBOX’s entertainment options.
Also I understand that XBOX Live Gold is how Microsoft brings home the bacon. I completely understand the need place it behind a paid wall. However that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Zune users are already paying you $15 a month, now you are going to beat them over the head for another $10? I suspect that the largest reason for users getting XBOX Live Gold is to play multiplayer games, but what if you are a Zune user with an XBOX who just doesn’t think that’s a wise monthly investment? No Zune on XBOX for you. And to insult those Zune users who already have three computers synced to their Live account, you also take up a space that would let them download music to their PC, only to stream to their XBOX? Yeah, no.
With those gripes firmly in check I still do believe that overall this is a win for Zune users, If they already have a XBOX Live Gold Subscription. Those who don’t should ask themselves if $10 extra bucks a month to just to get the Zune interface and streaming in your living room. I expect most will say no. XBOX user’s with a Gold Subscription but with no Zune, or Windows Phone device are also stuck out in the could here. Would you pay $15 bucks for a Zune Pass just for an XBOX? I expect most people to again say no. Then there are those people like me who have all the necessary equipment and bribes in place. To those with both a Zune Pass and XBOX Live Gold this is a no brainer, a solution so beautiful , fully featured, and well implemented (as far as a stand alone app is concerned) that you would be foolish not to use it.