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Zune is long gone, but it left an impression on me forever

Zune HD
Zune HD (Image credit: Richard Devine/Windows Central)

Zune turned 13 years old in 2019, and that realization made me a bit sentimental. Yeah, it's long dead, and it never stood a real chance of challenging the iPod on a large scale. But Microsoft's plucky music player was innovative in its own ways, and it was cool to me despite its very uncool reputation.

In a world of iPods in every backpack, I was one of those weirdos carrying around the OG Zune after I saved up enough to buy one in 2007. Yeah, I understood the allure of the iPod then, and there was always the pressure to fit in. However, it was precisely because the Zune was so different that it appealed to me.

And when I say different, I mean it. For the young ones reading this, that original Zune was a heavy brick of a device that definitely didn't look as elegant as the iPods of the time. Instead of Apple's smooth click wheel navigation, you had to punch your way through songs using regular old buttons. Oh, the horror.

Despite its size, the original Zune had a lot going for its design, though. For one, it felt sturdy as hell; like you could chuck it through a wall and it'd be just fine. There was also the plastic it was made of, which had this super premium feel and a slight translucent quality that looked great.

Beyond its exterior design, though, it was the interface that really drew me in. You could tell Microsoft put a lot of care into not only how you sorted through and selected songs, but how it looked. The design felt fresh and futuristic. It was well beyond the iPod's boring, simple menus of the era. And though you were unlikely to run into many Zunes in the wild, Microsoft had this neat feature where you could quickly share songs with other Zune users. That was a big deal at the time.

I'll always look back on Zune as the piece of tech that left the biggest impression on me.

The chunky Zune went through a couple of design iterations in the coming years, slimming things down, altering the look of the buttons, and more. It was the Zune HD in 2009 that completely overhauled the look and feel of the player, adopting an elegant aluminum shell, a fantastic (for the time) OLED screen, and a redesigned UI that would lay the groundwork for Microsoft's Metro design philosophy seen in Windows phones.

The Zune HD was a bit of a revelation for me. It competed with the iPod Touch, adding support for apps (though there were few) and a web browser. In a time before I had yet to jump on the smartphone bandwagon, the Zune HD was my smartphone (so long as I was in range of Wi-Fi).

Zune HD

Source: Richard Devine/Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Richard Devine/Windows Central)

But it was the Zune PC software and subscription service that really had me hooked. You could, at the time, subscribe to Zune Pass, which let you access and download millions of songs from the Zune Marketplace's catalog for a monthly fee. For a time, that also gave you 10 free songs to keep each month.

This was before music streaming with apps like Spotify was common, and it made the iPod feel like it was stuck in the stone age. It also fostered a sense of music discovery that was hugely important to me at the time. I found a ton of artists and songs that I never would have otherwise if I had the barrier of buying every track before I could listen to it.

Nowadays, we're spoiled for choice when it comes to having access to millions of songs within seconds anywhere we go, and that's a good thing. But for me, I'll always look back on Zune as the piece of tech that left the biggest impression on me. The hardware was unique, the software design was polished and modern, and Zune Pass gave me an unprecedented feeling of freedom in music exploration.

Updated June 12, 2020: This article originally ran for Zune's thirteenth anniversary in November of 2019. It has been updated and edited slightly for our nostalgia series.

Zune HD made me wish I never bought an iPod

Dan Thorp-Lancaster is the Editor in Chief for Windows Central. He began working with Windows Central as a news writer in 2014 and is obsessed with tech of all sorts. You can follow Dan on Twitter @DthorpL and Instagram @heyitsdtl. Got a hot tip? Send it to daniel.thorp-lancaster@futurenet.com.

64 Comments
  • Damn right. If only MS knew how to market. I still have a lot of my Zune stuff, and occasionally still haul it out. The ability for the player to sync stuff over WiFi in the background was wonderful. I had auto-playlists set up, favorites (based on what I listened to most), recent purchases, recent downloads, and these updated overnight from the Zune app on the PC, without doing anything but docking the player. Always had fresh stuff on my Zune without micro-managing my music.
  • It was also repurposed as Annalise's burner phone at the end of "How To Get Away With Murder" two weeks ago
  • Loved my zune. Got it through the OLD bing rewards program (forgot the exact name, you played stupid games to earn points to get it from MS) along with the flip case. I did also have an iPod Video and the Zune sounded better (using the same MP3 files) and the screen was SOOOO much better. Also picked up the component dock on clearance at a target years back (for $15) So, at the time, the ipod lived in the car, controlling the car head unit, the zune was on me everywhere else. And the software.... God I wish MS kept with that. It was, and still is, my favorite PC music player.
  • Another Microsoft product that had everything but the marketing to push it. Eveyone who compared the ipod with a zune all said the zune was better. From the design to the software. Loved my HD the screen on it wow. Kept my zune pass until Xbox music was shut down. For me other music services don't feel the same. For me zune was the best package for digital music but one of the products Microsoft did not push especially outside of the US.
  • I had a zune HD, and loved it.
    In fact, I'm still using the ZUNE software, because i'm
    using windows phone 7.8, so its still going strong. later
    -1
  • VINTAGE TECH??? OMG YOU ARE SO COOL
  • AHHHH man I wish I could use WP7.8 on a daily basis again
  • Fun article Dan, and good memories of this device. Just a month ago my millennial daughter, who grew up with me using the Zune asked me to take it on a road trip (yes, while the battery is dead, it still works fine plugged in). I couldn't believe it -- really, and you have an iPhone? "Dad, that Zune is the best!"
  • You can order batteries for them on Amazon. There are several YouTube guides for replacing the battery.
  • Careful about replacing the battery in the Zune Flash (8GB), I've tried three times and broken something every time. The ribbon cables are delicate and when I say delicate I mean compared to anything else. I can fix your average smartphone and these cables are thin like hair and feel soft like putty to a pair of metal tweezers. I think next time I'll try plastic ones. The OG Zune I replaced the battery successfully and it made it good as new.
  • Yep. All this. And don't forget the Zune premium earbuds as well. My wife's pair finally died, just a month ago. I found her another set of eBay, because she loved them that much, and the nostalgia was real. There's much more capable buds out today, but that kind of longevity and appeal after this many years counts for something.
  • Every Windows Phone was a Zune.
  • Yes! Especially the HTC HD7 with Dolby Mobile or the HTC 8X with Beats audio.
  • My wife still has her 30GB zune, my daughter has her 80Gb and my son has his 120GB. I replaced the batteries in all 3 last year and they are all still going strong after all this time.
  • I still have a Zune 80 in my car because until it was phased out, it was the only way to play DRM tracks directly through my cars infotainment (via usb not aux). But I've been thinkin about replacing it with a regular ole dumb USB stick since all the drm tracks are dead which causes annoyances when playing back certain playlists.
  • I wonder why Microsoft is seeding this article to their propaganda arm, Windows Central now? Maybe a developer’s edition “Duo,” timed with the release of the earbuds?
  • I wonder why Apple fantrolls are here?
  • yeah this guy is all over pro-MS articles here. Maybe he didn't read the name of the site he's on. And the praise of the Zune is justified, it was a reliable and well designed piece of hardware, like an Acura NSX or Grand Seiko.
  • Wrong. I had the Zune HD and loved it. I still use a Windows Phone. However, you can’t seriously claim the timing of this article is random. Microsoft is laying the ground work for something.
  • I am listening to music on my Zune 80 RIGHT NOW.
    The damn thing just won't die. I got it as a Christmas gift in 2007 because my iPod Nano had literally fallen apart on me on a business trip to Italy that year and I was fed up with how cheaply they were built and how fragile the click-wheel on them were (and small at 8 GB of space.)
    The Zune 80's battery still holds a good charge, the screen still looks great, the controls work fine, I just cannot load any new music on it anymore because with Windows 10 v1709 MS broke the Zune software (it worked on W10 up until then.)
    Even my original wall-charger and cable still work perfectly all these years later, and this thing has been hauled all over the planet in my backpack on business and personal trips.
    Heck, I have been through 3 pairs of Noise-Canceling headphones in that time.
    People on the plane ask me: "What is that?!?" and when I tell them they say: "OH! The thing in the Guardians of the Galaxy 2 Movie?".
    Yes. Yes it is.
    MS could never overcome the steamroller of Apple Adulation in the fickle and easily bought-off Technical Press (even more so in the MSM.)
    Too bad. I still love my little Zune 80 and it keeps plugging along with 42 GB of 192KHZ MP3 files and 20 or so MP4 movies.
    All my new music and videos goes on my S8 because MS broke the Zune software. The bastards........
  • You’re joking, right? The Zune HD was a pile of hsit. It took a button press and then fiddling with the screen to simply change the volume. Who the H thought that was a good idea? It desperately needed hardware volume controls to be even remotely useable. You know, like EVERY OTHER MP3 PLAYER AND PHONE ON THE GD PLANET. The software that installed on the PC is horrible. It makes iTunes look user friendly. Plus, if the mp3 tags in your songs are not just right, some of the tracks that you drag into the Zune software simply do not appear. No warnings, no errors, just not there. Thanks. The Zune died for a good reason. It sucked. I still have a Zune HD. If you are having fond memories of this thing, then there is something wrong with your memory. Seriously, this must be a left brain/right brain thing. All the marketing in the world could not have made this turkey popular.
  • It's ok to like different things you know. You don't have to feel threatened.
  • you are not correct, you have a bad opinion, and your experience is not anyone else's
  • There is always someone who disagrees, but you are the only one I've ever seen who trashed the Zune software. I'd suggest that everyone else who ever used it, longs for it still. It was ahead of its time in design and its ability to allow user control of track information and art. When I run across videos of it these days, it still looks good. As for the Zune HD. You're just wrong.
  • but the aesthetic
  • I still use several Zune HD's. We are in an expensive internet location and do not stream music. The only two weaknesses the Zune had was how long it took to transfer music to it and the lack of Bluetooth.
  • Still use my Zune HD daily. It's connected to my klipsch stadium and I have not had any urge to replace it. The sound quality is great still and it just works. Microsoft created the best mp3 player and let it die.
  • Love my Zune, still use it daily. I agree the marketing was just never there. I have had a lot of folks ask about it. Still love the interface and at the time (before Spotify) as a AV guy, my Zune was the go to for all types of music for any location I needed, all I needed was wifi and I was set.
  • I owned a Zune & an iPod - the Zune was MUCH better, and completely blew away the iPod. Unfortunately, it was another in a long line of great Microsoft products that Microsoft's complete lack of any coherent marketing strategy let die a slow, painful death!
  • My Zune HD still plays my bedtime music for me every night.
  • Zune HD was fantastic. The software was SO much better to organize, and even the simple things, like the screensaver that showed pics of the artists, and the amount of times the song was played... great memories.
  • The HD radio feature was also insanely (eternally?) head of it's time. That is still a feature only found on upper end after market car stereos for some weird reason.
    The Zune HD was an amazingly stylish player. I think the problem was the original Zune failed to excite people vs apple and by the time the Zune HD came out, the iPod was becoming more about apps than music and phones were beginning to take over as do everything device. Zune tried to add some but it was an afterthought.
    Still surprised they couldn't figure out whatever spotify did in the subscription but as they were ahead (not first) of the market. iPod'ers were having to pay for every DRM'd song while folks on MSFT music subscription were exploring everything.
  • With the monthly subscription to Zune, you also got to keep 10 songs permanently. I would download 10 songs each month that my daughter wanted for her iPod.
  • I miss the hd radio the most. And the case.
  • I remember when I first subscribed to a Zune Pass Trial. And it just dawned on me...
    "...I can look up whatever i want when i want...i dont even have to download it and take up storage..."
    My mind was blown.
    I miss my Zune HD. I bought a Pink 30 a while back just cause I had to, I missed that too lol i should buy an HD
  • I remember my Zune HD and the custom design program. I splurged for the custom design and the day I got it I was so impressed with the hardware I designed and bought another one for my ex-wife's birthday gift. It was the first time a device felt really good in the hand and didn't have to be attached to a computer every day.
  • I still have and actively use my HD alone and with it's stand for desktop use like I do with my Blackberry Playbook. Both are still excellent devices for media consumption just like while audiophiles still hold on to their ipod classic 5th gen with the wolfson DAC, a similar DAC shared with the playbook which still has one of the best sounding speakers for media consumptioon. To me the beauty of my Zune HD is in its OS something that none of the dozens of digital audio players I've purchased since then has ever matched in elegance. The only issue with the Zune HD is its lack of storage for today's higher def files. But I still find it's form factor, UI, and sound, calling me back to it every now and then. It's funny because I bought it decades ago for a business trip to Seattle, thinking everyone their would be using MS devices as this was when MS windows phone was in its hey day. But I found everyone walking around with their iphones and ipods instead. Apple really won the marketing war for these devices Their ipod ads were brilliant
  • I also have a Zune 2nd gen that I use almost daily (at the gym). I think at some point the lock switch is going to break and I won't be able to use any of the controls anymore, but otherwise it still works great, even with the original battery.
  • I owned a brown Zune with a 30GB hard drive. It was awesome. The best thing was the Zune ecosystem. I think it was ahead of it's time, ZunePass was a great deal. A music subscription service that let you download 10 free songs every month. I used it to grow my collection. I could check out albums before buying them and the social aspect was cool as well. I had friends on Zune with whom I could share music and see their collections. The achivements were cool also. Man, I really miss Zune.
  • Still using my ZuneHD daily at work, and I love it! I am from Italy where 99% of people never heard its name since it was not sold there nor advertised. But i wanted it at any cost, spending 30% more for shipping oversea. And it worth it! Definitely the best music player ever made! Probably the best piece of tech I ever had!
    Luckily battery is still in decent conditions, it still lasts around 20-25 hours so I basically need to recharge it just once per week when I dont use it intensively. Between the end of January and the first week of February (dont remember exactly the day i got it) it is 10 years old! And I laugh when I see modern devices like smartphones or tablets lasting no more than two years.
    Zune was indestructible! Long life to ZuneHD!!
  • We're half past 2020 and I still use my Zune!
  • The Groove and FIlms apps still have the names ZuneMusic and ZuneVideo
  • Mine still works. If I still had my 30 GB model, I bet it would work too, but my custom-engraved Zune HD still works fine (even if the music formats supported aren't as extensive as my phone).
  • Different is good. Alternatives are good. Things that not all people like are good. This whole Apple culture implies that there's only one white device to do each thing. And people buy into it. Nothing more dangerous than that. I wish I had a Zune. Did it work with Groove Music subscriptions?
  • Groove is what Microsoft moved to after they ditched Zune.
  • Zune moving to Groove is the equivalent to Google Play Music moving to YouTube Music.
    (easy music library tool -> flashing video unusable library tool)
  • When they made proper software. Now we get watered down apps.
  • My son still has his Zune 120, my daughter has her Zune 80 and I still have my original Zune 30. All of them still work. I replaced the batteries a couple of years ago.
  • I still have my Zune 30. I also had an iPod Mini back in the day. I definitely liked my Zune better.
  • loved the zune software I thought it was a game changer, they killed so many things by rebranding the software
  • Truly sad that Microsoft has become so enterprisey. I get it that the enterprise is their bread and butter, but I feel there's no longer even room for a conversation about consumer-first products (other than Xbox) at today's Microsoft. Microsoft used to a good solid "spumoni", now they're just french vanilla.
  • Microsoft never sold the Zune devices here in Australia and so it was never marketed here. We were only able to get the Zune service after Windows Phone 7 came out here. I subscribed to Zune in November 2011. I loved being able sync my jams with my HTC Titan wirelessly and automatically. My ratings would also be sync'd back to the desktop for example, if I "unhearted" a song. What a shame Microsoft degraded and eventually shuttered the service. From my experience with my Titan, the whole service and experience was almost perfect.
  • Still have my Zune HD. It is connected to my klipsch stadium through the dock optical cable. I have no desire to replace it any time soon. It just works even after all these years. I tried replacing it with newer players but they never stack up. It was truly ahead of its time.
  • What people forget is that Zune was never released outside of the USA and Canada (iirc). I wanted one, in Australia, and of course I couldn't get one. Most of the world had the same problem. So Zune died.
  • If Microsoft couldn't sell it in the US, why would Australia be any different? They would just lose more money by expanding distribution.
  • Still one of the best interfaces. Everything made today is just garbage.
  • The problem with Microsoft, and it remains to this day, is that, if their product isn't an immediate success, they simply throw in the towel. For a company that large with that much money, I never understood it. It's rare that you get something perfect the first couple of times you try. Microsoft had really good ideas and products that just needed to be baked a bit more, needed a bit more reworking. Zune, although I never owned one, was a nicely designed product that needed better software and ecosystem. Microsoft could have spent the money to make it great, but I guess they just thought it was more trouble than it was worth. Same thing with their phones. Nowadays, there are tons of small and medium-sized players in the phone market grabbing market share. Microsoft could easily come in and disrupt Android and iOS with Windows Phone. Hell, they could buy one of these smaller companies with great hardware and put their money into the software. For a software company to not be able to produce good software for a device is sad.
  • Surface Duo can leave that same effect on you. Lol. Can't wait to see it. https://www.facebook.com/groups/397641020931176/?ref=share
  • How is the "effect" from the Duo different than any of the thousands of Android devices available?
  • Band of Horses anyone?
  • I went searching for the Zune desktop app recently and installed it again.
    It is still one of the best-looking media playback apps on Windowa, how many years after? Microsoft only has the stamina to stay the course when it's enterprise - very sad. The number of great ideas and years of hardwork and creativity in the consumer space that is thrown away because it's not "bread and butter" would have made many other companies if they had a quarter of the reseources.
  • Would you mind sharing a link to where you found the software? Really bummed that Microsoft has bailed on even hosting the files officially any more and so many sites seem a bit sketchy.
  • I had a Zune 30 and a Zune HD. As music players, they were great.
  • I wish I had given the Zune a chance. Back then there was a lot of anti-microsoft sentiment due to Windows Vista and I didn't even see the need to pick one up and play with it at my local Media Play/FYE. I assumed it was just a me-too device. I didn't get the ipod either. I settled for a simple, cheap, generic mp3 player, then later just added music to my Samsung Sway and then much later a Galaxy S. I was a poor college student and while I was one of the few with a laptop, I was more of an independent techie. My nokia 640 Windows phone turned me into an enthusiast.