I bet if one of our ancestors got to hang out with us for one day, and got to partake of the smallest sampling of everything that we’ve created, it would blow their ancient fucking minds. Sipping a warm pumpkin latte, dressed like a delicately coiffed hipster lumberjack, while listening to the newest Imagine Dragons album on our pocket computer would probably end up killing them. While we take our current level of technology for granted these days, having whatever music you want to hear available at the drop of a simple voice command wasn’t always this easy. Back in the olden days (sometime around the turn of the 21st century), we used to have to spend hours loading up tiny little electronic players with MP3 files if we wanted to enjoy listening to our favorite music while we were out and about. It was important to always be prepared for that extended road trip or that massive line at Starbucks, because streaming music on Pandora could really rack up some serious data charges. Back then, the tiniest amount of data had a higher theoretical value than a bucket of 24 karat gold, and was nothing more than a delicately embossed invitation to have T-Mobile force you to assume the position. Dedicated MP3 players were an important piece of transitional tech that bridged the gap between the lack of data plans during the Dark Ages to the data abundance of the current day, when you can use your phone to operate your toaster at home while golfing in another state.
The original Apple iPod came out on October 23, 2001. It was sad little thing, and the ugly display was a clear callback to the days of the Apple IIe and the joys of dysentery while on the Oregon Trail. On the surface, the first gen iPods weren’t much to look at, but everyone still snatched them up almost as fast as they were being made. There were a few other versions that came after that, but the next big innovation was the color display iPod, which was released in 2005. A year after all this, Microsoft released their first Zune models into the MP3 player battle, which was pretty much nothing more than throwing a bacon-wrapped blind penguin into a lion cage. These original Zunes looked dated and were somehow worse than shitty 2001 iPods. In response to poor sales of the first generation, the new touchscreen-operated Zune HD hit the market in late 2009, at the totally worst possible time: MP3 players were already becoming an obsolete technology. For as much shit as everyone gives them, the Zune HD was clearly superior in every way to the iPod of the time. The interface, abilities, and file management systems were light years ahead of the brand leader, even if it came out far too late to be relevant. Microsoft’s late start, against a monster of a competitor who had already branded the product as the de facto name of the device type, (i.e. Kleenex or Band-Aids) led to extremely poor sales and lack of overall interest by consumers. While these weren’t exactly flying off the shelves, the biggest net positive factor that the Zune had going in its favor was the ability to play anything that you had in your library. You could install that sketchy .zip file your roommate gave you to for your music collection or even those old Snow MP3s that you hijacked years ago using Kazaa. iPods, and the Apple music store were notoriously known as the Gestapo of Music, and they kept every single MP4 file under total lock and key by not allowing importing, copying, or transfers of anything, even from the same computer!
I may have gotten one of the last Zune HD players ever made, completely oblivious to the fact they were soon to be extinct. I went all-out with the options, so my Zune got the all the best crap: a rare gunmetal blue case and custom laser etching across the back. I have an extensive love for this Zune, as it has accompanied me on at least 4 cross-country flights, and has provided me with a bitchin’ soundtrack while driving to New York to California to New Mexico and back again. It’s been to Vegas so many times that it doesn’t even get carded anymore. I’ve used it every day in my car for commutes, and especially while riding my motorbike through the mountains because that’s when you need playlists that aren’t dependent on a wireless signal. I recently had to retire the old gal, with full honors, since she has provided me with literally years of daily use. I sensed she was on her way out, and I was fully aware that I still was not ready to adapt, which means that I had to hunt down a suitable replacement for one of my favorite electronics. Normal folks use their phones for stuff like music these days, and you can call me old fashioned, but I still enjoy being off the grid sometimes. This quest to find a suitable replacement has been nothing but a journey full of stupid mistakes and endless waves of hucksters selling trash. If you are thinking about picking up one of these incredible devices, be aware there are some inherent pitfalls since these have been long discontinued, and electronics don’t age all that great. But by being a little bit picky, and asking all the right questions, you can help ensure that you will get the right one for your needs that will provide you with years of glorious offline listening pleasure.
Personally, I prefer to shop for Zune HDs on eBay, because interacting with the seller is absolutely crucial when purchasing outdated electronic devices. Never hesitate to ask questions, and if someone is really confusing or fails to answer you directly, you should just automatically pass on it because returns and complaints on eBay are like intentionally fucking with the mafia. If you do end up getting ripped off, don’t let a shifty seller talk you into splitting the difference and keeping the broken Zune around for parts. I carefully pulled one apart with tweezers to see what sort of guts I could salvage, and I ended up breaking both the microscopic battery ribbon and screen ribbon, instantly condemning it to nothing more than landfill fodder.
Here are the most important things to look for when shopping for used Zune HD’s
- Make absolutely SURE the OS is still intact. The OS is the software that runs and controls everything, and is also the program that is used to physically interact with the player. Most people chose to wipe the file memory when selling their Zunes (so you don’t have a chance to laugh at all the Insane Clown Posse shit you have suddenly inherited), but by moving the debugging cursor down a line or two, it is entirely possible to do a complete and total wipe of the OS as well. This wouldn’t be a big deal if these were still being made, but Microsoft has stopped supporting, reinstalling or updating the OS for practically an entire decade. It is nearly impossible to reinstall this crucial software if it is removed. I spent almost two solid days trying to get a replacement OS file for a cheap eBay Zune I bought. The only solutions to this problem that I found were extremely sketchy, and it required me to dive deep into the scarier parts of the web. Be a pal, and don’t subject your computer to this shit. If you see a picture in the description with the Zune screen turned on with colorful wavy lines in the background, that’s the stock wallpaper, which means that the OS is still functional. If it only has a tiny gray box that shows up at the bottom of the display, WALK AWAY.
- Make sure the screen and the headphone jack are in good shape. The LCD screen is pretty self explanatory, right? You won’t be able to see stuff or pick out tunes if it’s covered in broken glass spiders and LCD bleedout. The headphone jack (located at the bottom of the player) is just as important. Once these get loosened up too much internally, your Zune will be plagued with random visits by the pull-out/shut-off function, pick up really irritating interference buzz, and can lose signal in one or both sides of the headphone wires. Trust me when I tell you that it’s super infuriating. Look for pictures of all the sides and inputs. If there are marks or scuffs on the bottom of the player, it’s been dropped a lot on the jack end, and that Zune might end up being problematic.
- Try to find out if the battery condition is still passable! This is harder to discern from a seller, as they will likely have no idea what the hell they are even selling, or may have not used it in a long time. As much as you want to control this, the condition of the battery is almost a complete crapshoot. Just like the iPod, the Zune also has an internal, non-removable battery, so whatever was put in there ten years ago (and how the current owner conditioned the battery) is what you are getting. A portable MP3 player that only has a 30 minute lifespan might not be worth the work (or cash) you put down for it. I’ve gotten one with a ruined battery, and it is currently nothing more than an attractive paperweight. My newest replacement Zune has a battery that can still crank out music for at least 24 straight hours! (and that one was listed by a pawn shop!)
- Make sure the seller includes a sync cable. If it doesn’t come with a sync cable, you will have to resort to ordering one separately, which might mess with your return window if there is something critically wrong with your Zune. The sync cable is how you register, charge, and put the newest Smash Mouth album on your new player.
- Buy a pack of screen protectors! I can’t stress this enough, there are a lot of sharp things in your pockets, which will scratch the hell out of the screen. You know what they say about “a stitch in time or whatever”, right? It’s the easiest way to keep your player looking and functioning great for less than 3 dollars, and will keep your Zune in mint condition, since it’s the entirety of your children’s inheritance.
- DON’T OVERPAY! While these haven’t been made for over a long time, and were never very popular to begin with, these are still far from being rare. Don’t get so wrapped up in the excitement of the auction that you end up paying too much for one. Rule of thumb (in 2019 Donald Trump dollars): 16GB: $45, 32GB: $80, 64GB: $220+. The levels of memory may seem tiny in comparison to the terabyte microSD card currently sitting inside your phone, but that’s still plenty of room in them to do everything that they are designed to do. As long as you keep your podcast stable clean, a 32GB Zune is all you’ll really ever need.
Now, the Zune isn’t a piece of hardware for everyone, and to be honest, Spotify is still a pretty fucking cool option for streaming music as long as you have anybody but T-Mobile. If you don’t have a ton of saved music on your computer or several soft books of CD’s on hand, populating your Zune with music could get expensive if you don’t fancy yourself a pirate. The Zune is great for listening and storing podcasts, and the upside to using it for that is that podcasts are mostly free, and everywhere. Back when Microsoft was still supporting the hardware and software, they offered a Zune Pass, which was basically Netflix for music. For a monthly fee, you could load your player up with whatever the hell you wanted, and you got to keep an album for free (permanently) every month! I only got to do this for three months before the service was discontinued, and I’m still very bitter I used all my freebies on three copies of the same Vanilla Ice album (I’m not good at computer).
Once you get your new (but actually very old) player, is that you are going to want to install the Zune software on the computer that houses all the content you want to add to your player. Make sure in advance that you have picked out a bitchin’ name for your new buddy since that’s how your PC will recognize the player and the files contained within. Go with something cool like SHART THE GAMBLER or DOORPOKE WIZARDLY III. Please also know that I’m always available for coming up with sweet-ass band names, so hmu on the Twitter link at the bottom.
As you get acquainted with your new purchase, you might notice that there’s a “game” menu on your Zune. If you want to install games on your player, be aware that you are shit outta luck in this department since there’s no more marketplace. The games they had were behind the times anyways, and were meh. No Zune Store game really stood out, with the exception of Tiki Towers, which was kinda fun for a while but absolutely chewed up and spit out the battery life.
On that same note, since there is no marketplace, it is impossible to use the Zune software to actively search out current day podcasts to download. It’s a labor of love, but I get around this annoying hindrance by searching for the podcast I want with iTunes, and I use iTunes to download a single episode. Once that is downloaded (and make sure the podcast you are after is properly tagged) re-open the Zune software and then look to make sure it is populated in the “PODCAST” section. Open that tab, highlight the episode, and then click on “Subscribe” at the bottom to finally make this outdated software act as a podcast aggregate. Sure, it’s kinda irritating, but with a little elbow grease and persistence, you can make this creaky old system appear to still work as designed.
Sure, this entire thing is kind of a massive pain in the ass for the basic ability to listen to music files, but trust me- you will definitely appear unique when you have that Zune HD hanging off your hip at the coffee shop, you lumberjack-looking motherfucker.
Tehben is probably editing a mountain of copy at this very moment. He may be dead inside, but he still has a deep-seated passion for crafting homemade bottle rockets out of old lunchmeat and bootlegging Caillou DVDs. Hit him up on Twitter or Google+ or YouTube if you wish to pitch him a little something something.