For a product from one of the world's greatest hardware and software designers, iTunes is an exceedingly ugly program that is really beginning to show its age. From the decidedly QuickTime inspired now playing display block at the top of the screen, to the highly overrated coverflow visuals, iTunes is really not as good looking as it deserves to be, especially considering how good the rest of the Apple products on the market look.
Enter Zune (the program, not the device). Outside of the United States, Zune is a bit of a mystery - especially since the Zune HD players aren't sold here in good old New Zealand. To be quite honest, the first time I saw it was earlier this year when a seminar presenter had it in the background and quickly skimmed over it. Just the single flash though, the quick glimpse of the decidedly "Metro" look and feel immediately grabbed my interest, and I knew I had to find out more about it, and try it.
And now, a few days later, I'm a convert. Zune does a lot of things well, but none better than sitting there looking gorgeous. The now playing screen (and many other elements of Zune) cycles through subtle colour shifts, and lots of large, crisp text and gentle animation and automatically loaded artist images and pictures adorn the screen while you listen to music. Which would you rather spend time looking at?
Apart from looking great, Zune does a few things which iTunes could learn from. My favourite is the "Find Album Info" ability, allowing you to search for albums by artist/title and update the metadata for your music collection very easily. While not every album I own had any relevant search results, the very fact that it allows you do so and has mostly relevant results is a huge timesaver, especially for songs you know belong on an album but have interesting names such as "01" and "Untitled #5", or have just been spelt wrong.
Being outside of America, I can't say anything about how good Zune Pass is (although the concept of unlimited streaming music and 10 free downloads a month for a subscription does sound pretty good), but Zune's slideshow functionality, while basic, is still beautiful and certainly more exciting than your standard Windows slideshow. The mini-player is absolutely great - with very little screen estate, you get your essential volume controls, play pause next, seek, durations, a snapshot of what songs are coming up next in the playlist, and if you pause it allows you to resume or play either all your music shuffled, a smart DJ list (similar to Apple's Genius), or a pinned item.
Still, nothing's perfect; the lack of internet/streaming media support, the rather short length of Smart DJ playlists (although this could be something to do with my eclectic music collection) and the restrictive rating system (sometimes, you don't just like or hate a song) are all things that should be improved.
With Windows Phone 7 launching later this year, Zune is something I'll definitely have to get used to. While it certainly has its drawbacks, Zune is definitely the media player that I'd rather have on my computer in the background with friends over - easily being my pick over iTunes, and miles ahead of the UI disaster that is Windows Media Player.