From the iPod to the Zune HD and Back Again

I like my iPod but I’m not a huge fan of iTunes. When I heard about the Zune HD I figured it was time to try it. I want something better, something that doesn’t lock up for 20 seconds every time I download a podcast. So with the hope of finding more usability I trotted down to Best Buy on release day (Sept 15th) and bought me the large size Zune HD. Yay! A newer, better, player! The software was very different but eventually I got used to it and could navigate it fairly well. Yay, all is happy with the world.

Well...not so much. Though the Zune HD is a FINE player, the software has angered me too much at this point. In terms of usability, it fails so greatly compared to iTunes that I must quit using it in principle. That was why I switched...but it doesn’t perform. But instead of just being a complainer, I decided that I would tell you why. That way you can make an informed decision and the Zune team can have some feedback on how to improve their product.

Quit Deleting My Podcasts!

I use my iPod/Zune for two primary things, music and podcasts. I listen to a lot of both, so it is crucial that both of these functions work well. For music, the Zune worked like a charm. But for podcasts...well, it just made me angry.

I first noticed the problem when my podcasts were mysteriously not on my Zune. Then, I noticed the problem. It looks like this (this picture was taken this morning when I plugged in my times...):

But...but...I haven’t listened to those yet? Not even partially. So this happened a few times. I got very frustrated and complained on Twitter. Thankfully, @ChrisKoenig jumped in and gave me some advice. Finally, I was able to get it to stop doing that. But this had another negative ramification. (I do appreciate your help in this Chris. You da man. It is the Zune that is the problem, not your advice. You, as usual, are a helpful person.) So...let’s walk through the relevant settings screens. The most important to know about for not deleting your stuff is the series settings for each podcast. It looks like this:

"Keep 3 episodes of this podcast". An interesting setting. So, by default, when you subscribe to a podcast it will only keep the last three. If you get a little behind, well, too bad. If you don’t know about the setting you are going to start losing your content. Or, if it is a new podcast for you and you want to download and sync the last five, well, too bad. Next time you connect your Zune the software will probably remove those episodes for you. Usability fail #1.

So how do you solve this? Well, if you drag that slider all the way to the right the number is "All". Great! Problem solved!. Yes, but here is the next problem that presents itself, and here is the real life example of what made it painfully obvious to me. Shortly after learning of this nice trick, I saw a blog post recommending some podcasts (Pixel8 and Parleys). I don’t know if it recommended both of these or not but I subscribed to both at the same time. So I get the top three by default. Cool, I guess.

Since they were new podcasts for me, I pushed the slider to "All" because I wanted some podcasts further down the list. "Oh crap" sums up the next thought that enters my head.

Do you see that slider on the right-hand side? That’s right, my Zune software is now going to download 240 podcast episodes. I’ve got a pretty big hard drive on this computer. But you know...I’m not down with that. The screenshot above is from me just recreating it. At the time it was actually worse because it was downloading all of the episodes of Parleys and Pixel8 at the same time. Ugh. Of course, I told it to, but what am I to do? Download all the content? Or for all older episodes do I need to sync it right before I want to listen to it and make sure I do before I re-sync because otherwise it will be deleted. Usability fail #2.

Alright, so I think of perhaps another way to get around the problem. I subscribe to the podcast, have it download all and then just go cancel the download. Sweet! That works. So I close my Zune software. Later I come back, turn it back on might have guess it already, but it begins downloading all 240 episodes again. So I have to cancel. Then I give up and unsubscribe. If it is more pleasurable to delete a podcast because managing its content is so annoying, you know you have a problem. Usability fail #3.

This right here was enough of a usability fail for me to take it back. And maybe there is another setting that I could tweak that I don’t know about...but the problem is already obvious. I had moved away from iTunes for a more usable piece of software and the Zune’s was not it.

No Manual Transmission?

If I had my way, this is what I would change:

Notice the conspicuous absence of a "Manual sync" for podcasts. That’s all I want, really. Just let me download what I want. That’s all I ask. Hey, and here’s what that can look like:

That actually gives me what I need. I have access to all 240-ish podcasts from Parleys, but I can pick and choose which ones I want. All I have to do is click the "get" button and drag the podcast over to my iPod (when I have it connected...of course). Simple. Manual. Awesome. It doesn’t delete my stuff and doesn’t download tons of extraneous data (though I do need to find the option to turn off downloading the most recent automatically, but that’s much better than 240 episodes).


Browsing podcasts with the Zune software is also painful. Let me show you why. So I browse to Marketplace > Podcasts > Science and Technology > Technology. So far we’re cool. You see something like this:

So I scroll down. It automatically grows the search pool as you go. You think to yourself “well that’s cool” but you don’t realize the problem yet. So you see this podcast called "Binary Opposition" and you think "gee, that looks cool but I don’t want to subscribe without knowing what it is about. I’ll click on it."

You click on it and you see that it is about news and the episode titles are useless, so you decide you don’t want to subscribe. So you click the back button. Congratulations. You are back at the beginning of the list. If you want to find your way back to where you were, you get to scroll. And because the results gradually load you can’t just guess the location by the size of the scrollbar. No, you have to keep pulling that thing down until you finally find it. Just for fun I timed myself just now. It took me fifty seconds to find my place again. If I were further down in the list it would probably take longer. This is a horrible browsing experience. On the contrary, iTunes pages its results. It would be great if you could jump from page to page so it’s not perfect. But you know what, when you click back after viewing a podcast, you are back where you were. No time wasted. Usability fail #4.

The Search Box

Here is a minor one but I noticed it almost immediately. The problem is with the search box in the upper-right-hand corner. Let’s say I search for "Zune". I then click on a result. I realize that I now want to search for stuff on puppies (not an actual search), so I click on the search box again. What it doesn’t do is highlight the contents so that it can be replaced with my next search. Instead it puts the cursor right after the last letter of my previous search.

Now, this one can certainly be debated. This is a preference for me. But that seems to be the way things are going. The search in Firefox, IE8 and Windows Explorer (Win7) all work that way. Is this way better? To me it is because that’s what I expect. And if I had to guess, I’d say more are used to that than the current behavior of the Zune. That still constitutes a problem. Usability fail #5.

iTunes...I Like You, I Like You Not

So I’m going back to my iPod and my iTunes. Going back to it I am reminded of various things that I don’t like about it. I’m not really going to post on that at the moment because I am quite sure that the snobbish Apple simply won’t care. But Microsoft teams sometime listen. I hope they listen to this, because I’m going to miss my Zune player as I’m going to try to get a refund. My 30 day return period is up in a couple days and I can’t wait any longer. It is sad. Seriously, I love this player. But the software just does not work for the way I deal with content. Or its proper features are so un-obvious that several people couldn’t come up with a way to make this software work how I wanted it to. Amazing hardware, Zune team. Please make some improvements to the software so I can switch away from iTunes. I’m trying. I really am.


In the comments a very nice individual suggested a work-around. If you switch on the “Oldest episodes first” option, even if you have a number like 3 set for episodes then it doesn’t appear to delete podcasts. That’s fantastic. So if you have this problem, give it a try. I really do appreciate the comment. I’m hoping it is beneficial for those who stumble across this.

However, this solves the functional problem but not the usability problem. It is not obvious that this is the option you want if you want to, say, make sure it doesn’t delete a podcast somewhere in the middle. Nothing says “let me control the content on my device” like “manual sync”.

While typing this up I thought of another feature from iTunes that I really miss. It is a nice usability feature because it seriously cuts down on the visual noise. Take, for example, the podcast “Freelance Radio.”

I am caught up with the exception of the most recent three episodes. However, when you subscribe a bunch more show up in the list. iTunes solution to this is that you can delete the episodes that you aren’t interested in for whatever reason. Since I’m a manual sync kind of guy, when I go back to the podcasts in my Zune software all of the episodes are still there. It doesn’t take long, but it does take more processing power to look through and decide there are no new episodes.

How iTunes has it setup in list mode also has another advantage. When new episodes appear and are downloaded, there are visual indicators in the left margin. It is easy to see when there is new content. Zune? Haven’t seen such.


Cruleworld 2009-10-13 12:56:16

There is a setting on podcasts to download the oldest non-listened to podcasts. Just do that and it will wait to download the newest until you are caught up...

Eric 2009-10-13 01:05:39

So I tried that and it doesn’t seem to be deleting my podcast. That’s very nice. Good to know for those who want to keep using their Zune. Good point. I’ll update the post.

However, this still covered in usability fail sauce. If I wanted the podcasts at the beginning but not the most recent that option makes sense. In other words, that option does not behave the opposite of the option to download the most recent. Even the comment beside the option tells you that it is for another purpose.

Justin 2009-10-13 02:31:16

I’m a huge Zune fan but I have to agree with you that the sync functionality (be it music or podcast) is one big pile of fail. I don’t know how many times I downloaded music to sync to my Zune and after syncing 3 or 4 times it still wouldn’t show up on my Zune (don’t even get me started on having to disconnect just to see if my stuff made it over.) There were other times when I need to sync X number of songs but after the sync only Y would show up, and for some odd reason Z number of random songs at the end of a playlist would have mysteriously disappeared. Why can’t I just drag and drop onto the device?!

I like the Zune, I like the software as a music player, and I could never go back to iTunes when you think about the value of a subscription model versus 99 cents a song (I listen to A LOT of music) but every time I have a botched syncing session, my world gets a little bit sadder.

Please Microsoft..... FIX YOUR ****!!!!!

Mike 2010-01-08 09:30:27

Just stumbled on this. Are you serious? Did you not see the big "Download" button on the right column next to each and every podcast episode that you subscribe to? You can download each episode individually, not the entire series. If you’re so tech saavy, then I assumed you would see the correlation between a button that says "Get" and a button that says "Download". It’s even in the screenshot you posted!

Eric 2010-01-08 09:37:47

So I like to do this thing called subscribe to podcasts so when new episodes appear they get listed for me conveniently. Sure, if I wanted to go to each podcast every day individually and see if there was a new episode and hit that download button I could. Absolutely. But that’s just stupid. So thanks for dropping by and offering your helpful suggestion and for being a turd in the process. I do appreciate useless and rude responses on my blog.

Mike 2010-01-08 09:28:23

Yes, of course you subscribe to the podcast. Set it to 3 episodes. If you miss one or want to download an old one, just click the "download" button next to the episode to download it. Then just right click and "add to collection" and it will not delete it automatically. Take 5 seconds to actually LEARN the software you’re whining about instead of complaining and running back to iTunes because it’s safe and comfortable. If my 10 year old daughter can figure it out, I’m POSITIVE you can too.

Eric 2010-01-08 09:30:31

Actually, it was deleting it automatically. That was the whole problem. Apparently you don’t think it was but I don’t care. And don’t bother posting any more comments as they will not be approved. As a general rule I ignore people like you. I will have to go back to that plan once again.