It’s been five years since I signed up for Zune Pass. Back in 2006 the thought of having unlimited music streaming blew me away. Since then I’ve only let my subscription lapse for two months and in between that time the whole world around Zune has changed. You no longer need to plug in your device to sync music. The Zune Software has evolved from the worst music software I’d used to the best media experience available on a Windows PC. So too has Zune Pass.

Before you can come to understand the full extent of the changes Microsoft has made to Zune Music Pass you first have to remember how the initial service worked. In 2006 $14.95 a month earned you unlimited downloads wrapped with DRM. Those downloads could then be loaded via the Zune software onto three computers and three Zune music players. In 2009 Microsoft revved the Zune Pass and added ten free MP3s with the price of your subscription and the ability to stream as much music as you would like via Zune.net and Zune media players. In 2010 Microsoft added Windows Phone to your list of compatible Zune devices along with the Xbox 360.

A Rose is A Rose

This September Microsoft announced that they would be fundamentally changing the way the service, now called Zune Music Pass, worked. Starting on October 3rd anyone who signs up for the service will receive unlimited music video streaming instead of the Zune Pass 2009’s 10 free MP3s. Additionally those users will only be allowed to download music to a total of four devices, with only one of them needing to be a PC. Additionally Microsoft slashed the price of the Zune Music Pass’ monthly renewal. Henceforth it’s only $9.99.

In The Real World

Let’s get one thing clear straight off. Whether you’ll like the changes made to Zune Music Pass is entirely wrapped up in one question. How you use it? For example since I’m a member of the old school service I received the music video streaming alongside my 10 MP3s until I decide to cancel my subscription or switch credit cards. This also means that my device limit is the same. I happen to use my Zune Music Pass as one subscription service for all of my family with Zune devices. My grandfather, who has a Zune HD 64, is on my plan as well as my girlfriend who uses a Zune HD 16. Add my current device of choice, a Windows Phone HTC HD7. Each of us also have a computer that’s attached to the account as well. We sync from these PCs to our devices. It’s my understanding that until fairly recently a large segment of the Zune community was doing exactly the same thing. Microsoft would have you think that these people aren’t using the Zune Music Pass as it was intended however since they’ve never actually introduced in alternative other than buying two subscriptions. Sure it’s cheaper now since buying a second pass would only set you back $20 altogether.

And He Said Let There Be Streaming Music Videos

I’m going to shine a light on my age here. By the time I was able to read, write, and use a remote MTV had long since moved to only showing music videos at night. (In fact I’ve always thought of MTV as the people who gave me Daria.) I’m told that music videos are a huge part of the music industry, and Microsoft openly admits to them being huge sellers inside the Zune Marketplace. That being said I don’t know a single person who has ever purchased a music video. Not a single one. Not just in the last year but not ever. If you want to watch a music video you go to YouTube or use Vevo. Both are free. Both have every music video known to the world. While I appreciate Microsoft adding something new to the service, and trying to pull off a little marketing to all those people buying said music videos, there’s a few things that I’d like to call attention to. First not all music videos in the Zune Marketplace are available for streaming. Sure, it will improve over time but this it won’t do so overnight. Second and this is very important. Those 10 free MP3s could be enjoyed on any Zune compatible device. Music video streaming with Zune Pass is limited to the Zune software and the upcoming Xbox Dashboard update, and there’s no downloading for viewing offline or creating a collection of the ones you enjoy. Also at the time I’m composing this review none of these are in HD. Seriously. I’m not a spoiled video quality brat but I’m using a 13’ LCD. I don’t want to see what these things look like on anything bigger.

And So We Have It

With all that said you’d have thought I was prepping to completely pan Microsoft’s changes to Zune Music Pass. I’m not. At the end of the day subscription services are about two things: making it cheaper to enjoy your favorite music without “borrowing” it from the recording industry, and making it easier to discover the music you don’t even know you like yet. Sure there are a few things to not like if you’re a longtime Zune Music Pass user. The changes to how many devices you can download to are discouraging but happen to hurt even more since Zune still has no sense of a cloud library and no way to stream music without having to navigate through the marketplace and know what you want to start listening to. Changing the device limit right from under U. S. users also doesn’t sit well with me. At the end of the day four devices is less than six even if you are giving me a cheaper price for my trouble. Also one wonders why they didn’t just keep both pricing models.

But there’s also a good side to this. I’ve been calling for some sort of shake up in Zune’s model and pricing for a few months now. The 10 free credits and streaming for $14.95 was great for 2009 but simply wasn’t competitive in the current market. Music video streaming needs a little work, but throws a completely new twist into the mix.

The Verdict

If you’re new to Zune Music Pass and have an Xbox 360, Windows Phone, or a Zune device then this is still an amazing deal. Most people will be thrilled that they don’t have to pay for music videos and can download all the music that they want for a low price every month. If you’re an older user it’s much less cut and dry. If you’ve got a family of three or more already on your Zune Music Pass and don’t mind forking over the $5 to continue downloading on 3 computers, and 3 devices, as well as the free credits; don’t let your credit card expire and continue to enjoy the service the way you’ve been enjoying it. If you’re one of those users who don’t have family members with a Zune enabled device, or have never used all of your slots then switch to the new plan, kiss the ten free MP3s good bye, and keep that extra quid in your pocket.