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Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Microsoft FINALLY wakes up to podcasting...

I read with interest yesterday that Microsoft have finally got round to adding podcast support to their new Zune players, so I thought I'd have a look into it to see how the support fared against that found in iTunes.

I have a very love/hate relationship with iTunes - it seems to be getting slower and clunkier with every new version (I use it on windows, I understand it works much faster on Macs, but go figure), it looks ugly, and for such a huge company, the visualizations are laughable to say this has come from a huge company with such a huge budget when compared to single-man programmed vis's like Milkdrop (Winamp) or Twisted Pixel (Windows Media Player), which I can watch for hours and not see the same effect twice, and they're silky smooth. On top of that, not only does iTunes act slow, but it also slows your entire system down to a crawl as well (and this is on a 2.4Ghz Dual-Core with 2Gb RAM)! On the other hand, iTunes has pretty much been the one piece of software that has made downloading and listening to podcasts a no-brainer, which is really what it needed. Finding a podcast you want to listen to in iTunes is almost simplicity itself, and the reviewing system is helpful for finding out if a podcast is a waste of time, or other similar podcasts. Whilst making podcasting nice and easy for users though, iTunes is still lacking a lot of developer-end features like the ability to see easily how many people have downloaded and listened to your podcast, as well as basic HTML formatting in the descriptions for the episodes.

For my main media player right now, I've been using Media Player 11, which looks pretty, I can control from my taskbar, has good visualizations (once you've installed Twisted Pixel or something similar), rips super-fast and at decent quality (very important for a DJ), and the search is nice and fast also. I used to like Winamp for all my tunage needs, but even this has got a bit slow on the old search function in recent versions - but I can forgive that with them having a team of developers smaller than Microsoft's cleaning staff. The only downside to Media Player is that it has absolutely no podcast support, which is a real shame, and I'm sure would stop a lot of podcasters/listeners having to rely on iTunes just for this function (and I know a lot that do).

I decided to give the Zune software a try, if only to see how it fared against iTunes and Media Player. Installing it was no problem, and the download was less than half the current size of iTunes. It took about the same time to install as iTunes, but was much quicker to load once all my tracks were loaded into it's library (currently around 20k tracks). Interestingly, there was no feature to just work with Media Player's library, meaning that you have to go through the import process again, and the 2 libraries have to be maintained separately, which was a bit of a bummer.

The interface, whilst a little confusing at first looks beautiful, and you can choose from about 8 themes if you don't like the girly default one. It seems strange to me that the Zune2 players look very masculine, yet the software looks very feminine. It also seems strange to me that Microsoft would not just bolt the Zune syncing, podcasting and picture features into Media Player, which people will probably be using already if they don't have iTunes (which, if they're buying a Zune, they probably won't). All the menus fade in and out smoothly, or slide around, and compared to the grey boredom inducing look of iTunes, it really is quite refreshing to behold. It will not only allow you to organize and play your music, but your videos and pictures as well. The pictures part is especially nice for showing off your pics, as the interface is there over the top of the pictures, but doesn't get in the way, so you can see your pictures take up the full screen (with all the fady wizzy slidy effects you could want, it's all very pretty). Finding how to get to the podcast directory took me a bit of time, as the Zune software separates what's currently on your computer from what's on the internet, so going to your 'collection', then clicking on podcasts only shows you your current subscriptions, and their episodes. To get to the directory you first have to click on the marketplace (which I didn't think I could as Microsoft wouldn't let me create an account because I was born in the wrong part of the world), then on podcasts. This is a little confusing, as the assumption is that anything in the Marketplace is something you have to pay for, which is something which is invariably not the case with podcasts.

Once you've found it, the podcast directory is nice to look at, but quite slow to load, even though it loads the podcast artwork after the page has loaded. At the moment, the directory is pretty sparse compared to Apple's huge directory, but it's early days yet. Apple are very good at keeping up with podcast additions to their directory, I've just submitted Ruforia to the Zune directory, so we'll see how long it takes to show up. Choosing a podcast to subscribe to is very similar to iTunes, although once you're on an individual podcast's page, it seems to take an age before you get a list of the actual episodes within that podcast. Clicking on an episode does show the description in place of the actual series description, which I think is much better in usability terms than the iTunes method of clicking the small grey 'i' next to the episode (which you'd be surprised how few people know how to use). Aside from the general lack of speed accessing the podcast details, the only other downer is that people can not review podcasts like in iTunes. What would have been one better for Microsoft would have been the ability to discuss in a forum-like manner podcasts and individual edpisodes (since they seem so hell bent on creating yet another social network... can't they have one social network that you can bolt extra components onto as you need/want rather than a million different ones... xbox live, MSN messenger, Zune, Live Spaces, it goes on...). Other minor gripes in what would have otherwise been a pretty decent media player:

  • Editing Track/Artist information in the library list view is a complete pain, and really slow.
  • What's with the girly pink/orange bar along the bottom of the window all about?
  • Why can't Microsoft program software that conforms to it's own UI guidelines? Every other program has a drop-shadow under Vista now, except the Zune software :s
  • On that note, why could they not have given it a full-size Vista icon?
  • Ok, I realize that this is primarily software designed for use if you have a Zune player, but could they not have all the 'device' options hidden until you register a Zune player with the software so that they don't get in the way. iTunes doesn't show any iPod options unless you actually have an iPod connected to it. Much less confusing for newbies.
  • It's actually harder in the Zune software than in Media Player to add album art to tracks. Can't someone invent a nice easy way to batch add album art to your tracks???
  • They've pretty much covered everything (almost) iTunes does in terms of podcasting and nothing more, how unimaginative.
  • Why do all the titles have to be in huge capitals? Most podcasts/tracks end up being cropped off the edge of the window. I can read you know, Microsoft.
  • No 'Users also liked...' function? Have we not established this is a Good Idea® if you want more business by now?
  • Only 3 levels of rating?? Every music software that uses the ratings system uses 5 stars! Oh and we've changed it to hearts/broken hearts to rate the tracks? I'm sorry, but just because I don't like a track doesn't mean that I've had my heart broken by it, I don't get all emotional just because a crappy Trance track has wormed it's way into my collection.
  • No visualizations??
  • Not only does it not tell me the title of the track currently playing in the task bar, but it doesn't allow me to control what's going on without maximising the application first. This wouldn't be so bad if it took any notice of the multimedia keys on my keyboard, but it doesn't.
  • Would it have been so hard to install a little sidebar gadget for Vista along with the software, so that you can see when new podcast episodes are available? It seems like it's just going to be another of those technologies that Microsoft heralds as the feature that will change the world, and then not make use of it in it's own programs.
One really thankful thing is that the Zune software actually reads the iTunes tags in the podcast definition file, instead of requiring it's own XML definitions. That could have been a lot more painful for everyone concerned. But apart from all that it could be a really good podcasting alternative to iTunes about 10 years down the line. By which time iTunes will have moved the goalposts again of course!

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