A Tribute to the Greatest MP3 Player Alive

Some of you might be wondering why I didn’t title this A Tribute to the Greatest MP3 Player that Ever Lived, but there’s a reason for that!

But first, really quick, and before I get into this small tribute, I do want to offer a quick update about yesterday’s post, as some of you might be wondering what point it served. Well, it’s pretty straightforward: I’ve noticed that if one searches “Axtara” or “Axtara – Banking and Finance” you get the store pages, and the news page on the site that announced its release … but you do not get any of the reviews or previews.

So I made that post designed specifically for web crawlers looking for search results. With a little luck and some work, in a few weeks it’ll be one of the top search results, so anyone looking for Axtara will find the store pages, and a free preview of the first three chapters to read, nice and easy.

Since we’re doing news, editing on Starforge is now in full swing, and in addition Patreon Supporters will have another chapter preview coming soon. But not yet, because they’ve got The Minstrel and the Marshal for the moment, and that’s plenty of story to keep them occupied.

All right, that’s it for news. Let’s move on to the post: A tribute to the greatest MP3 player ever made.

Yeah, I know this is going to ruffle some feathers. But hey, my site, my opinion. Are you ready to see the image of the greatest MP3 player ever made? Here it is:

That’s right. The best MP3 player ever made is the oft-mocked Zune.

I know it seems strange, but the truth is that the Zune really does work. Including the battered, beaten example I’ve pictured above (which happens to be my own). Here, I’ll show you.

There it is, the same Zune from a different angle, playing away. The Command & Conquer Generals soundtrack, if you’re curious.

But it’s still going. Bear in mind, I bought that Zune when it was new. Is this why it is, in my mind, the greatest MP3 player ever made?

No, not entirely. It’s certainly part of it. But … there’s more to it than that. Let’s rewind the clock all the way back to 2008.

Or actually, lets go further. To late 2006, when the Zune first came out. See, the model in the picture? That’s a 2nd gen model. The second edition.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s jump back to 2006 and the launch of Microsoft’s iPod competitor: The Zune.

Frankly, it didn’t land with much of a splash. Apple, with their cult-like devotion (and that’s not an exaggeration, studies of the human brain have shown that Apple aficionados actually treat and think of the company like a religious cult rather than a corporation, which is how they can get away charging $1200 for a monitor stand, or $300 for a pair of headphones that cost $3 to build and the worst sound quality on the market) had made certain that the Zune would face an uphill battle. From attack ads, to sponsored mockery on comedy shows, Apple wanted to make sure that no one even considered Zune a viable alternative. The marketing mockery was so viscous that, no joke, when I acquired on in college, one passerby who spotted it asked to look at it, and when I handed to them, threw it into the ground and told me to buy a “real MP3 player” before leaving. A classmate who saw me pocket it actually refused to sit in our study group anymore and left because he didn’t want to associate with such “trash.”

Yeah, Apple pulled out all the stops to demonize the thing, and their zealots blindly followed in lockstep. From the very beginning, between the infamous Apple attack ads (by the way, the guy in those ads actually didn’t own a Mac product, but was a Windows user because he was a gamer, and Macs couldn’t handle that), the fact that Apple, being the only real game in town until that point, owned that market … and yes, that the 1st-generation Zune wasn’t quite all that.

But it wasn’t just that. One of the reasons the Zune had failed to strike a cord with people was that it was, weirdly enough, too much of a leap into the future. Many of its features and services would never be embraced by Apple … but a decade later, would be heralded as a great accomplishment by services like Spotify, though all Spotify really did was present the exact same thing Zune had, just without catching Apple’s market-killing Eye of Sauron.

But at the time, between Apple aggressively encouraging people to mock the Zune for all it was worth (and knowing them, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that encouragement involved baseball bats and men in fedoras) and the device being too far ahead of its time … things got rough fast. Again, this wasn’t to say that things were perfect—and that wasn’t helping either—but it didn’t make for a solid launch. Even in 2008, when I decided to chance on a 1st-gen model Zune … I ended up returning it. Not because of the future features, but because the thing stopped working.

Not a great look. Rule number one of an MP3 player? It has to work. And the 1st-gen model had, frankly, a number of hardware issues that made that proposition a little dicey. For one, it had some weak spots in the construction. That guy that threw mine to the ground? Well, it turns out a sharp impact like that could jostle the internal antenna lose inside the casing. At which point it would rattle around and eventually break, removing all your wireless and ability to listen to public radio. Or trade files with other Zunes. Yes, you could do that, and I’ll get to those features in a moment. Also, there was something wrong with the OS, which had a pretty high failure rate of actually bricking the device. Not a great look. This is what happened to my first one, and after several factory resets, I sent it back.

Even the software had some serious rough edges. You couldn’t rename albums. You couldn’t even merge them. It was a bare-bones music player that did offer some really awesome features (including being far less of a system hog than Microsoft’s Windows Media Player or Apple’s “Give me ALL OF IT” ram apocalypse iTunes), but largely lacked a lot of common features people expected.

All in all, not a great look, especially with Apple doing their best to make sure there were no competitors anyone took seriously.

But before we move on to the next part of our tale, let’s first talk about what the Zune did—software and hardware—that was ahead of its time, in some places over a decade ahead of its time.

The first was its streaming service. For somewhere around $7 a month, you had access to the entire Zune library. Every song that their store sold. You could stream them on you PC, or you could download them to your Zune and computer and listen to them offline. Yeah, that “download your streaming” thing that every streaming service was making such a big deal out of a year or two back? Zune was doing this in 2007. Over a decade before anyone else would even try.

Oh, but it got better. To encourage this service, once per month you were allowed to pick a few songs to just keep forever. That’s right, not only did you get unlimited streaming, but every month you were given credits to download music you could keep forever afterwards.

You could also share this music, though Microsoft’s “advertising experts” trying to call this process “squirting” shows that there was a lot wrong at that company at the time. But each Zune had Wi-fi as part of its hardware, so if you met someone else with a Zune, you could “share” music with them, the songs transferring over Wi-fi and letting them listen to them up to (I believe) five times before deleting, but not before asking the user if they wanted to flag any of them for purchase the next time they were at their desk.

A cool feature when it worked, but between Apple’s negative marketing and 1st-gen hardware issues, it didn’t ever see much use.

Did I mention radio? That’s right, in case you wanted to listen to public radio, the Zune had you covered. Not common, but I’ll admit I’ve gotten some use out of it over the years.

But there were other neat things the software and hardware did. Both the device and the program, when playing music, had equalizer settings, something the iPod didn’t even offer. Better yet, they automated the process. Equalization, for those of you unfamiliar with the process, is the act of adjusting sound levels on various audio channels for specific types of music. For example, Rock and Roll music will generally sound better with certain channels increased and others getting less focus. Most software and stereos include equalizers, but rely on the user to individually change the settings for every genre or album they listen to.

Most people just mess with it once and leave it. If that. At the time, while iTunes may have offered a sparse equalizer, the iPod hardware didn’t. So Zune having an equalizer was ahead of the game.

Oh, but it went way further than that. See, some genius on the Zune team had noted that MP3s, unlike the old CDs, had metadata. Metadata that included genre, the kind of thing you wanted to know for equalizer settings.

So why not then, just have the hardware and software automatically adjust the equalizer settings for each song, thus delivering an optimal experience?

Turns out, this is genius. And, combined with some pretty high-quality audio components, made the sound quality of the Zune hardware and software far exceed that of any market competitor at the time unless you were going for high-end, $1000+ audiophile equipment.

Again, the kind of stuff that’s finally accepted now, but at the time, Zune was the only player in the game doing it.

There was one other cool thing too, something I still actually miss (Microsoft shut down the Zune servers about five or so years ago). The software kept track of all your plays … as well as everyone else signed into the service. So as a visualization, while you were listening to say … a Weird Al album, the service would pop up statistics. How many people have listened to this album? What about this song? How many total plays has it had? How many times have you listened to it? What percentage of the total are you? Along with this they’d offer neat details about the artist, like when they got their start. It was small, but the neatest thing was that it did it for a lot of stuff that wasn’t even in their store, but that people were listening to anyway (like ripped CDs). And it was cool to see how many times you’d listened to a song and how much of the total that was.

So … what went wrong? Oh right. As neat as all this was, and ahead of its time, the 1st-gen hardware just wasn’t cutting it, and the software lacked a lot of basic features that had been cut to make room for the new stuff. And the Zune floundered.

But they refused to let that stop them.

So back to the drawing board they went. Every flaw, every issue, every lack. And in September of 2008, the 2nd-generation Zune device hardware launched alongside a software update.

And they had fixed every single problem. Edit albums to your heart’s content! Merge albums! Foreign character support! System footprint reduced to almost nothing! That latter one? It’s why I’m still using the Zune software to this day, right this minute, in fact. It’s currently using 0.3% of my processing power and 46 megabytes of ram. Windows Media Player, by comparison, uses multiple times that and is slow as trash in addition, while iTunes … well, iTunes wants a whole computer to itself.

Oh, and the hardware. Sands and Storms did they improve the hardware. The image of the Zune crashing, breaking, stopping … That had hurt. The 2nd-gen?

Well, that’s mine pictured above. I bought it in 2008, right after it came out (they offered me a discount, largely I think to make up for my bad experience with the first model).

That’s right, I’m still using it fourteen years later. During that time, I’ve gone through three phones. My siblings went through multiple iPods that eventually stopped working. This 2nd-gen Zune is so hardy that it has been involved in all of the following attacks on it:

  • Being frozen at -40C.
  • Almost ten bad mountain bike wrecks, including several that left me with cracked bones.
  • Its screen being busted twice (you’ll notice I’ve got tape over it now).
  • Numerous blows and impacts, too many to count, but enough to scuff the metal exterior.

In that time, this Zune has been from Alaska to Hawaii, from the depths of winter to the 100F+ degree heat of Utah summers. It’s been battered, smacked, dropped … but it keeps going.

And here’s the thing: It’s not an anomaly.

See, over the years the Zune has built a dedicated array of users. And one of the reasons they love their little device is that it just keeps going. The largest point of failure at this point in time is the old-school, platter-based hard drive going out … but dedicated fans who have gotten their hands on the firmware software have replaced those drive with matching 120GB SSDs and then continued right onward.

Zune’s 1st-gen model had been a flop. But the 2nd-gen model? They’ve outlived not just support from the company, but every other MP3 player out there. Apple’s own classic iPod hasn’t seen a new iteration since 2014, and the official answer on the average life expectancy of an iPod classic is 2-3 years. Meaning at this point, you’re more likely to see a Zune in the wild than an iPod, even with the dominance of smartphones.

Interestingly enough, the story doesn’t stop here. Not only did the Zune manage to be enough of a threat to Apple’s market that the iPod price dropped by several hundred dollars to match the Zune, but Zune’s advances actually got Apple’s engineers off their lazy butts and forced them to make updates to their now archaic design. Zune even attempted to move into the touch market, introducing a touchscreen Zune HD that not only forced Apple to rush a new iPod touch model to market to compete, but also has gone down, quite honestly, on many lists of the “Best MP3 players of all time” as the number one spot.

But … the damage was already done. At the time, Microsoft wasn’t interested in “long term investments.” They wanted something that made money now, regardless of the future, and if it couldn’t win in the first few years, they gave up.

And so they ended production. The public, largely unaware of what history would say, trundled on. The hardware ceased production, and those that knew what they had bought out a good chunk of the remaining supply.

And the software? Microsoft kept supporting it for a time, but then brought down the axe, as the executives didn’t see why the company should support two media players, the one being Zune and the other being Windows Media Player. Despite WMP being a worse program in every conceivable way, MS picked it to be what they stuck with … according to rumor, because the lead of the WMP team was close friends with the member of upper management who had to decide what to keep and what to cut.

As of 2012, support for the hardware and the software was dead. Zune had lost.

Or had it?

See, here is where the story shifts a bit. Time marched on, and some things began to stand out. That Zune software MS no longer supported? It was one of the most popular downloads from Microsoft’s website. So popular, in fact, that when Microsoft attempted to bury it and took it down because people weren’t using WMP, downloads sprang up all across the web. According to one rumor (admittedly rumor), despite MS not officially supporting Zune in Windows 10, it was one of the more popular media players for the OS.

Meanwhile, iPod, its dominance now assured, immediately stopped releasing all but token improvements, the rush of their race with Zune now settled into sedate lethargy. There have been two updates to their line since the Zune vanished, each adding slightly more memory and changing the colors. That’s it.

But on the fringes, Zune prices started to climb. While many began switching over to smartphones, especially once streaming came along, those who preferred MP3 players were starting more and more to notice that there was this one particular brand that seemed invincible. Or at the very least a lot hardier, better-sounding, and capable than any other mass-market competitor. Prices on remaining models began to rise.

Now? A classic 2nd-gen Zune goes for $800, and they sell. While an iPod touch? $200. Meh.

Grassroots repair movements sprang up. Fans of the hardware got their hands on factory firmware, allowing users to replace the aging HDDs in their zunes—the current biggest point of failure—with new SSDs for the device to live another two decades. Specialized repairers began offering their services in the rare event these devices did die, because it turned out a single Zune was still a lot cheaper (and in many ways better) over a decade than repeatedly buying a new iPod.

And me? My Zune still accompanies me on every bike ride, most walks, and any trip. It holds my whole music library. I’ve had it so long that I’ve even run into the memory limit: It’ll crash and restart if it tries to play a playlist past song number 4000. And the software has similar problems if you make an album of more than 4000 songs. Eventually I might have over 4000 albums … and then there might be a problem.

Currently I’ve only got 607. I’m a ways from that being a problem.

And the Zune keeps going. Tough, dependable, determined.

It is the greatest MP3 player alive. Because everything else has died. I’ve been through two desktops, four phones, three console generations, at least six or seven sets of earbuds … and the Zune keeps going.

It was a tortoise, and iPod the hare. But we all know how that race turned out.

Here’s to another fifteen years, Zune. I’ll enjoy every minute of it.

But … Bear with me a moment longer. What if … someone at Microsoft pulled their head out of their behind for a moment? I’m not saying they need to bring the Zune back and push it again, try for a “Zune in every pocket.”

But could they bring back the team? Maybe once and for all dump the AWFUL Windows Media Player and give the Zune software the home it deserves? Make it 64-bit? Or even fire up just one small factory, and bring the hardware back with modern touches, like an SSD.

Nothing big. But there remains a dedicated base of people who use the MP3 player over a phone. And the Zune? Well, despite MS’s lack of faith … it won. The iPod is dead, but what MP3 player still circulates, still sells even at astronomical prices, and keeps on playing?

The Zune. The old tortoise still continues forward.

And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the king.

Long live the king.

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