We had some difficulties evaluating the Zune Marketplace. Since our first review the Zune Marketplace has make some significant improvements and has even seen a design face lift. However, in the end we were still a bit disappointed with the Zune Marketplace; the only music store with specific device compatibility to even hold a candle to our top ranked music downoad sites like iTunes and Napster. But in the end it still felt like Zune was just trying to “keep up with the Apples.”

The three considerable features keeping Zune Marketplace out of our award winning spots is simply MP3 music selection, DRM tracks and the media player download.

Unlike most music download stores of Zune’s size and influence they have made little headway in the MP3/DRM-free market. Although they have some DRM-free music (about 1 million tracks) and they are more expensive than protected music.

Zune Marketplace has about five million songs in its library and its selection is comparable to our top services. We were able to find almost all of Billboard’s top 100 in the Marketplace store. The Zune’s Marketplace is a little weaker in the independent market than say iTunes or AmazonMP3.

Most songs in the Zune library are available in protected WMA or ZPL format. However, there are different protections on Zune WMA files than there are on Rhapsody or other PlaysForSure music downloads. This means tracks downloaded from the Zune Marketplace are only compatible with Zune players, unless your purchased track explicitly indicated it was an MP3 song.

Like the #1 music download service iTunes, to browse or search the Zune Marketplace you have to download their integrated music player. Once you’ve got the software downloaded, which we will explain in the next section, finding your music is a relatively easy task.

You can search for songs by genre in the left navigation or browse the channels and playlists. To find specific songs or artist just use the search box. The search box includes a predictive search feature where as you type the system drops down with suggestions, much like Google search. This is great if you’re not sure how to spell an artist’s name. Even if you spell a name incorrectly the Marketplace will suggest similar names or songs to help you find exactly what you are looking for.

The only thing keeping Zune Marketplace from getting a perfect score in this category is you can’t search specifically for unprotected MP3 DRM-free music. The only way you’ll know if a track or album is unprotected is that it will be displayed next to the buy button, but there is no channel for only MP3 selections.

Unlike iTunes, Zune Marketplace has two music download models, per track and subscription. They push the Zune Pass monthly subscription quite heavily. They highly encourage you to subscribe, allowing you to download as many titles you’d like as long as your subscription is active. But if you cancel, those titles expire. One incentive for subscribers is they can keep 10 tracks, of their choice, every month.

Although Zune Marketplace is making some headway in the features category they are still quite far behind their arch-nemesis iTunes. In addition to music Zune Marketplace has radio channels; TV shows from NBC, Fox, E!, MTV and more; music videos and podcasts. However, they are still behind the curve with movies and audiobooks.

We’d like to mention, the Zune device does support audiobooks from Audible.com and it is probably only a matter of time that they incorporate audiobooks into the Marketplace.

As previously mentioned most Zune Marketplace songs are specially protected WMA tracks, but their selection of MP3s is continuing to expand. All WMA tracks, subscription and purchase are encoded at a standard bitrate of 192 kbp/s; however, unprotected MP3s are sold at 320 kbp/s. This is currently the highest MP3 bit rate on the market.

Since you have to download the Zune software to shop in the Zune Marketplace one of Zune’s features is the integrated music player. The music player is intuitive, easy-to-use and functions great; however, it only syncs with Zune players. If you are using another MP3 player for MP3 tracks you’ll probably have to import them into Windows Media Player or from the folder level.

However, Zune isn’t a complete iTunes clone, they do have a few unique features too. Our two favorites include the radio feature and Zune’s Wi-Fi access. Using the Zune radio you can tag songs you hear as ones you would like to purchase. So next time you sync your Zune to the Marketplace the software will look for your tagged radio tunes add take you right to where you can buy. No hunting for the one song you heard on the radio. Also, using your Zune’s Wi-Fi functionality you can access the Zune Marketplace from any Wi-Fi hotspot downloading songs without your computer.

Unfortunately, even if the Zune Marketplace had every feature we were looking its download and setup issues still make us a little leery, although it’s gotten better since it’s last review.

You no longer have to sign up with Zune or answer 50 questions before you can install the media player software. However, to purchase songs or sign up for a subscription you will still need to create an account and purchase points.

You can’t just get one song using your credit card. You have to buy a set lot of points, the lowest starting with 400 points for $5. These points can be used in the Zune Marketplace or in the Xbox 360 Marketplace. 400 points will get you approximately five songs. A Zune Pass subscription is $14.99 a month.

Remember that the Zune software is a very large application and it will take a while to download. We also discovered you have to have administrator rights to install the Zune software. If you are logged into another account on your computer, log out and sign in as the admin.

Zune.net has an extensive online support section. You can look for help with the software, device and music purchases. They also include forums for community members to help each other. And remember, Zune is built around community; there is usually someone to help you with your problem regardless if they work for Microsoft. However, we would still like to see some kind of email support.

Zune Marketplace Summary:
7.3/10

In the end, Zune Marketplace is a promising music download service that is still stuck function on an old business model. We beg you Zune to strip the DRM from all music downloaded from the Marketplace and make purchasing just a little easier. Even if you stick with the points system at least make the exchange rate make sense.

Additionally, make the Zune software more like WMP and play nice with other MP3 devices outside of Zune. It’s time to start thinking outside of the box and stop following in Apple’s footsteps.

For a fun and exciting way to put your music downloads to use, be sure and check out our DJ Software review site.

 
 
 

Zune Marketplace

Pros
Zune Marketplace has a large library and is easy to use once you create a Microsoft account.

Cons
It is only compatible with Microsoft's Zune players, Xbox 360 and Windows Media Player, and you have to purchase points to buy songs.

The Verdict
: 7.33/10

This service has some great features, but it's limited to use on Microsoft hardware.