Tech Talk: the Zune, MSi netbook and Xbox 360 dashboard update
Thursday, November 20, 2008 | Author: Mad Typist
I've long been flirting with the idea of upgrading my mp3 player to the Microsoft Zune player. I currently have an 8 GB Sansa mp3 player, which is fine for quick trips to the gym or for a walk around town, but I've been craving something with more storage space that can also play videos for my longer trips (e.g. the upcoming 11 hour flight to Hawaii I've got coming this December).

Anyhoo, the Zune has long intrigued me. The Zune 2.0 with its weird little squircle navigation device seemed like it worked well when I played with it in the store. The idea that the Zune might someday support games developed via the Microsoft XNA Creator Studio also intrigued me. The Zune software, at first a disaster, got a face lift and some new stuff under the hood that got good reviews. Still, I waited.

However, I think I may finally have the motivation to switch over to the Zune. Not only is it available in a 120GB model with snazzy custom designs available for just $249, Microsoft has just announced that customers of their Zune Pass service will get 10 free tracks each month as part of their $14.99. That's big news. According to the press release, these free tracks should be available (most of the time) in lovely DRM-free MP3 format.

Some background on how services like Zune Pass work. Right now I'm using Rhapsody to manage my music on my Sansa player. I have a Rhapsody To Go account, which for $14.99 a month allows me to listen to any song in the Rhapsody library in its entirety, as well as download those tracks to my Sansa (most of them - 95% of the catalog seems able to do Rhapsody to Go). Rhapsody allows me to use this functionality on up to 2 portable devices (there are several players that work with the service) and 4 computers. Zune Pass works in mostly the same fashion. At first I had scoffed at the idea of paying a monthly fee to access music, but now that I have it, I'm completely hooked. It's like having on-demand radio at your fingertips. If you buy an average of 1 album a month, then the service sort of pays for itself (particularly now with the ability to save 10 tracks forever in your collection).

Speaking of Microsoft and media on-demand, Xbox 360 users finally received their long anticipated Xbox Dashboard update yesterday. I ran home and got mine set up quickly. I won't go into major details (you can get screenshots, descriptions and more over at Joystiq.com), but here's the thing I love the most: free on-demand video streaming from my Netflix "Watch Instantly" list through my Xbox right onto my TV. We tried it out last night and after about a 5 minute setup (there's a small download for your Xbox, and you need to go online on a computer to enter an activation code) we were ready to rock. All the available titles were there in a visual list of DVD cover pictures. We pulled up an episode of The Office season 4, and voila! - we were watching a DVD quality video of the "Fun Run" episode.

Awesome. It further validates my decision to go with the Xbox over the PS3. For those of you looking to buy a next gen console, I can heartily recommend the 360, and with the holidays coming up you can now get your very own 360 for a great price (Costco is selling an amazing bundle - a 60 GB Xbox 360 with 2 games, PLUS Guitar Hero III with guitar controller for $349).

Lastly, I recently decided to treat myself to one of the those adorable netbooks that I've been coveting for some time now. At first I had been attracted to the Eee PC netbook, because it was tiny and cute (8 inch screen). However, after playing with it in the store, I realized the keyboard was impossible to type-touch on, and then Eee went and released a zillion iterations of their notebook series that really diluted their brand. I ended up buying the MSI Wind netbook instead, and I absolutely LOVE it. It weighs in at a svelte 2 pounds, has a 10 inch screen that can handle 1024x768 resolution, and has a built-in wireless modem and webcam. I can touch-type pretty well on it, even when in a fast-paced chat session. My only gripe is that the period and comma buttons are half-sized, so I ended up screwing up my punctuation if I go too fast. Also, the function key is where the CTRL key normally is, so sometimes I get weird stuff when I try to copy+paste things.

Overall, though, the machine is peppy and really great for basic web-surfing, etc. Right now I'm running Chrome, which seems to run pretty fast. I also installed OpenOffice on it, and that runs fast as well. I tossed it in my messenger bag and walked around - the size and weight are lovely. The battery life is so-so, but the power pack isn't too big if you want to carry it with you, and for just a few hours of word processing and/or web surfing, it's more than enough. I used it at my local coffee shop and was fine for over an hour, even running several apps at a time.

Obviously, I'd still love to have something like a ThinkPad X300, but since the Wind is literally 10 times cheaper, I'm really quite pleased with the little bugger.

p.s. - I've rejected the iPod for many reasons - at first, I hated the DRM and the fact that any tracks purchased through iTunes was in a format that could only be played on Apple products. I also loathe a product with such a crappy battery that after a year it requires a $99 investment to fix. Now I reject the idea of paying $100 more for the equivalent amount of space just to have a slightly better UI for my mp3 player. The point is: stay away from my comments section, Apple-zealots, because I'm not looking to get sold on the idea of getting an iPod, until they perhaps make the iTouch over 80GB and under $250.

update: two items I forgot to mention the first time around. First, there's a new version of the Zune firmware (3.1) out now, and they're giving away free games like Texas Hold 'Em poker and Sudoku with it. Second, some of the newer titles on the Netflix Watch It Instantly library are available in HD. I know for example that Heroes can be watched in HD (you can't tell via the interface, which is annoying)
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