Following on the theme of trying to make it easier for my kids to watch movies in the car but without the hassle of the pesky shiny discs, I decided to try using a Zune 80GB as a car video player. This is clearly outside its design parameters, because the Zune Car Kit has no provision for video output as one example. Despite this "outside the box" usage, I persevered anyway, and here is my story.

Our family vehicle is a 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, with the touch-screen nav system and in-car DVD system. While it works, the DVD system was designed by a team that did not have any young children between them, and as a result has severe usability issues with that specific scenario. I'll spare you the details, but if you have young kids you can imagine how much fun it is to have them yelling at you because they can't see the screen (as the remote to turn it on doesn't work from the front seats) or because the screen is obscured by a huge dialog box with an OK button (which inexplicably appears every time you start the system). The only good news about the Toyota system is that it has an external AV jack at the rear of the center console. Even if the DVD UI had been not been designed one night down the pub, there is still the hassle storing and tracking the physical discs, keeping the kids away from them, and the impossibility of changing them when on the move (unless an adult is in the rear seats). A friend recently had his kids manage to stuff four DVDs into the single DVD slot in his Honda: there's an expensive repair in his future.

The First Zune Trip (30GB version)

I started by borrowing a friend's Zune 30GB which handily came preloaded with a bunch of kid-suitable content as he'd already ripped a bunch of stuff for his young daughter. I bought a program to convert my DVDs at his recommendation, though I'm not going to name it here becauses it's not exactly legal or reliable. I used said software to add a few more movies to his Zune for our forthcoming July 4th trip. I used the Zune Cable Pack to connect the AV output to the car, and the usb cable to our 12V "cigar lighter" socket via an adapter we already had for our cellphones, and embarked on a 7 hour roadtrip. In retrospect I should have tested this on a short journey, or at least got it going before we left. I did neither, which is how we came to pull off the highway to deal with unhappy kids.

The first issue is simple movie selection: an adult in the front negotiates the movie choice with the kids in the back, then selects it on the Zune, hits Play, then immediately has to go to the Settings menu to turn on the TV output. At this point the LCD goes dark, and while the kids can see the Zune UI on their screen in the back, the adult in the front is left literally blind. If your kids can read this is probably workable, but mine are 2 and 5 so this is not an option. The trick at this point is to just hit Play on the device. Fortunately this much had been figured out before we left.

The second problem, which caused us to exit the freeway to fix, was that there was no sound. I hadn't bothered to read any documentation for the Zune, so it took me a little experimentation before I discovered how to change the volume on it. This feat acheived, we resumed the movie (with sound) and hence our roadtrip.

During playback the kids were very happy: picture quality is of no concern to them, so the 320x200 default Zune resolution is just fine on their 7" LCD in the car. At some point I hope that the children of an HD DVD veteran will truly understand what picture quality is all about, but at 5yrs old its not the time.

We were on our second Zune movie when the next problem occurred: the Zune battery died. Despite using the USB sync cable with our 12V adaptor, the Zune had not been charging at all. It looks like the Zune requires a high-power USB port, and our car adapter fakes up a low-power USB port. Oops.

We reverted to our well worn and well watched DVD collection for the remainder of our trip.

Switching to Zune 80GB

The Zune 80GB that we had ordered (a bargain at $234 via this offer) showed up the day we returned from our trip, so I proceeded to copy the converted movies to it. However, instead of just copying them (which takes almost no time), the Zune software insisted on transcoding the videos. This takes about 1x time (ie a 2 hour movie takes 2 hours to transcode on my PC). What was weird is that the exact same videos copied without transcoding to his 30GB Zune. I'll spare you the details of how I figured this out, but the Zune 80GB only accepts WMV video in WMV9 format: formats such as WMV7 and WMV8 (which the converter software creates by default as its a lot quicker to convert) have to be transcoded. The Zune 30GB accepts these formats directly. The Zune documentation lacks pretty much any technical information, and video is no exception, the best I could find was this KB article which you'll note doesn't actually tell you about which formats will copy directly and which require transcoding. The WMV9 format at 320x200 seems to take around 300MB per hour, which is reasonable.

General Zune Observations

I love the device itself, but I am not a fan of its PC software (a very dumbed down Windows Media Player-like clone) or its lacking documentation (see this page for an example of telling you less than the actual UI does).

When categorizing video files you can set certain metadata (Type, parental rating etc) for the files (though I took some time figuring out exactly how), but the edits you make don't get written in the WMV files themselves, they are stored in the Zune database somewhere. WMV metadata is read by the software if you have managed to set it, but never AFAIK writes it back to the file. This means that if you copy the files somewhere else, those metadata edits won't be copied.

The Zune software only offers primitive filtering on the metadata anyway: its support for TV series is good (you can give it the Series and Episode numbers and navigation on the device consumes this), but although it will display the parental rating it won't let you set it, nor can you filter by it. In order to separate the few non-kids movies from the kids ones I left ours categorized as "Others" (the default) and marked the kids either as TV Series or Movies/Family. In general Microsoft's support for editing WMV metadata is very poor, Vista's Explorer Properties tab is about as good as it gets (and that isn't very).

Zune only supports playlists for audio files, not video files. This is a weird restriction, as Microsoft have at least two formats for playlists (ASX and ZPL files) either of which would suffice for video. This would allow the easy creation of "edited" movies by skipping the scary bits, for example, without having to resort to actually editing (and then re-encoding) the video.

I got a different 12V-to-usb adapter which was claimed to be Zune 80GB compatible but in fact was not. The Zune appears to have very special requirements for its usb charging, and I'm still looking for a solution that doesn't require $$$.

Requests for the Zune Team

If in-car video becomes a supported scenario for the Zune team, here's what it needs to be successful IMHO, and it isn't much really:

  • Let the LCD stay on when TV Out is selected, at least until you Play a movie
  • Have a car dock kit that supports 12V charging with AV output

An actual Zune car dock that fits the latter specification is shown here but its an annoying Flash site ie looks great but is content-free. Its also not for sale yet, but it looks promising and the price is good (considering the Zune Car Pack costs an amazing $80).

Conclusion

If your kids are old enough to operate the Zune themselves then its a good choice for in-car video. If your kids are too young for that, then the Zune is not a perfect choice for in-car video, but its usable. You need a bit of patience to set it up and have to cobble together sufficient hardware to connect it. It is better in every respect than an in-car DVD player, as there are no discs to carry around or trash, plus its portable and can be used out of the car too of course.