Over the past few years I have become an avid podcast listener.  I've been using Creative MP3 players until this point.  I have owned a Zen Nano, Zen Stone Plus, and a Zen Vision M.  The first was good its 1 GB size became restricting.  The second was a good size, but the battery life was terrible.  It's supposed to be 10 hours but it felt more like I was getting 5-7.  Worse, it's not clear when you are about to run out of battery.  The Zen Vision M is nice, but too heavy for my liking.  The UI is also quite a mess.  It's very inconsistent and not always intuitive.  For various reasons, I've never owned an iPod.  I also skipped the first Zune due mostly to the form factor.  I want to carry my player in my pocket all the time.  A hard drive player is just too big for that to be comfortable for me.

About a month ago I started seeing and reading about the new second generation Zune.  I liked the firmware on the first one but the PC software was pretty bad.  The new one did two things that piqued my interest.  First, they came out with a flash model.  Second, they totally rewrote the PC software.  As an added bonus, there is finally podcasting support.  The new unit looked promising so on the first day it was available, I bought one of the black 8GB Zunes.  I was not disappointed.  The device is solid, the firmware great, and the PC software very well done.  It's not perfect, there are certainly things that could be better, but overall the experience is amazing.

Highlights

When you unbox a new Zune, there is no CD included.  Instead, you have to go to the web to download the software.  The first thing I noticed is that there is a native 64-bit version of the Zune Player.  I run a 64-bit version of Vista on my main home machine so this was a welcome thing. 

The new player is elegant.  It is very streamlined.  This means that some functionality you might want is missing, but for the purpose of playing media and syncing to a Zune it is great.  In fact, I don't think I've loaded Windows Media Player since installing the Zune player.  It's that good.  It uses the same 2D control system that the Zune uses.  Visually, it looks great.  It makes iTunes look like a spreadsheet by comparison.

The support for podcasting is well done.  There is a list of hundreds of podcasts included in the marketplace.  You can search for them by keyword or browse by category.  Subscribing is as easy as hitting a subscribe button.  If the podcast you want isn't in the marketplace, you can just enter the url of the rss feed and it works the same.  It will then download the 3 most recent episodes and upload them one at a time to the Zune.  You are free to change these defaults if you want.  On the Zune, the podcasts show up in their own menu and are separated into audio and video podcasts.  When you finish listening to a podcast, it is automatically marked as watched and will be removed next time you sync.  In a really cool touch, each podcast has its own bookmark.  Unlike the Creative players I'm used to, I'm no longer hostage to the podcast.  It's easy to switch to music or even another podcast and come back to the same place later.

The screen on the Zune 4 and 8 GB models is a bit small, but it's fine for watching many shows.  I have watched video podcasts and TV shows transcoded from my Media Center and both are definitely watchable.  The screen is bright and the colors vivid.

Wireless sync is really cool.  Once you set up the Zune on your wireless lan, you can cause the Zune to sync any time you want.  It works well.  Look Ma!  No wires.

Lowlights

Unfortunately, not all is wonderful in Zune land.  The first thing I noticed is that I couldn't install the updated firmware.  I got an error 0xC00D11CD.  Searching the web I found that I'm definitely not the only one hitting this error.  Luckily, I also found a solution hidden in the forums.  If you see this error, try plugging in the cable directly into one of the motherboard mounted USB ports.  I get the error every time I'm plugged into the front jack but never in the back.  Your mileage may vary but hopefully this will help someone.

I really miss the ability to force a transcode before syncing.  The Zune can play audio at high bitrates and video at high resolutions.  If I'm not going to copy the file elsewhere, though, the extra resolution is wasted.  I want an easy way to down-res the audio and video files before syncing.  I can't find a way to do this presently.  This becomes a big problem when I'm trying to sync files from Media Center.  These are often 2-3 GB .dvr-ms files.  Because the Zune can play them directly, it doesn't transcode them.  Unfortunately, I don't want to waste 3 gigs of my 8 for one TV show.

While I'm at it, I'd like to see support for Divx and Audible formats.  Neither are on the device or in the software presently.

Conclusion

While there are definitely some things that could be better, this is a major leap forward from the first Zune.  The device UI is easy to use.  The new player is great.  The support is much broader than the first time out.  I haven't used an iPod extensively so I can't compare, but I don't feel like I'm missing anything with the Zune.  In fact, there are features like wireless sync I would miss if I did have an iPod.  If you are in the market for a new MP3 player this Christmas, give the Zune a good look.  You might be surprised at what you find.