Microsoft’s Zune. I swore to give the Zune an honest look when it actually began materializing on the Internet. I wouldn’t be a Mac zealot for the sake of being a Mac zealot – I’d actually give it a fair and honest run through. Well, as it came out a couple days ago, a couple of my friends decided to each get a Zune at launch. Naturally, I got my grubby hands on it, and gave it a ten minute run-through.

I’m not impressed, but I am a bit worried. More after the jump.

The first thing you notice when you see a Zune is that it is ridiculously boxy. Moreso than the pictures convey. Moreso than the original first-generation iPod. Picking it up only enhances the boxiness. However, when you pick it up, you find out another serious design flaw – it feels like it’s made with cheap plastic. There’s no way to tell if you need to ‘break it in’ or anything like that, but regardless, the surface is not nearly as smooth as any of the sides of the iPod. As you’ll notice more in the remainder of the article, I’m going to compare the hell out of the Zune and the iPod, because, well, the Zune is supposed to be Microsoft’s iPod killer. It’s only fair.

I was told that in order to turn the Zune on, you had to hold the play button down for two seconds. I don’t know if that’s the only way to do it, and it’s definitely not significant enough to be a showstopper, but the iPod does it so much nicer, where you just push any button and it turns on immediately. Now, with the Zune on, I can start looking for something to listen to.

The actual UI is not terrible. And I wasn’t really expecting it to be, seeing as the Zune project is the child of J Allard, the guy in charge of the Xbox 360 project. The Xbox 360 UI dealt with “blades”, which is a fancy way of saying tabs. The Zune UI is quite similar to that of the iPod, with the main difference being the useless, battery-wasting eye candy all over the place.

That’s about all I got to test. However, I will say that the headphones are really, really hard to unplug from the Zune.

Now for my long-winded opinion section. First, I’d like to address the form factor. It’s over a quarter taller and almost twice as thick as Apple’s 30 GB iPod. It’s even slightly heavier than the iPod. It’s made with this cheap- and plastic-feeling material. The point I’m trying to make is that the form factor is unwieldy at best. It just doesn’t feel good. The iPod, however, does. That is a point that should be emphasized, because its one of those things that really makes you enjoy using the device. And the size is a lot more significant than the weight, because Microsoft has to justify to its customers that the Zune deserves a place in their pocket, along side the cell phones, PDAs, cameras, and wallets.

Another issue I saw was with the buttons. They’re a little on the small side. This wouldn’t really be an issue if the only time you ever interact with the Zune is when you’ve got it in front of you, in the open, and you can see it. But if you’re like me, and you would rather just change tracks from your pocket, the small buttons could be a pretty big issue. The iPod suffers from this issue too, although the iPod has significantly larger surface area on their buttons than the Zune does. And blindly feeling the surface of the iPod to find the Next button is much easier than doing the same thing on a Zune.

However, my biggest issue with almost all MP3 players except for the iPod is the lack of the iPod’s scroll wheel. Apple has the scroll wheel patented out the ass, and nobody is going to Thunderdome with Apple on that, so it is an inherent flaw that all MP3 players besides iPod share. The scroll wheel is a brilliant piece of UI for the iPod, because it allows the user to start with their thumb wherever they wish, go as fast or as slow as they want, and signal to the device precisely how far to go and how fast to go. And since it’s a circle, it allows for a continuous and uninterrupted stream of user input.

The Zune uses an up and down button. If you hold the button down, it begins scrolling through your music. The UI is able to keep up with you pretty quickly, which is very, very important for scrolling through huge libraries of music. I wasn’t able to be anywhere near as accurate with the Zune’s controls as I am with the iPod’s, but it remains to be seen if someone who uses the Zune on a daily basis for awhile can ever match the accuracy of someone used to the iPod’s scroll wheel.

Which is why I proposed a challenge to my three gullible Zune-buying friends, a challenge which two of them thus far have accepted. Their Zunes and my iPod will all be loaded with the exact same library (something in the several-thousand-songs range). All of the devices will then be restarted and brought back to the main menu. All of us will then be told to begin looking for a specific song by a specific artist by an independent timekeeper. The contest will begin, and all of us will begin looking for the song on our respective media players. First to find the song wins. I’m looking into getting a video of the event, which would then promptly get posted to the tubes.

So yeah. Microsoft’s Zune sucks compared to the iPod. As it stands by itself, it’s not a terrible PMP. Video playback was crisp and clear, navigation was intuitive, and it seemed like someone actually put some thought into it. But, unless you have some issue with the iPod or with iTunes (of which there are enough to justify getting something else), get an iPod.

I’ve got some more to discuss regarding the Zune, specifically involving its future, but that’s another story for another day.