Zune Pass: Microsoft Fans Only Need Apply

The actual Zune music player may be long dead and buried, but Microsoft is sticking by Zune as a service until the bitter end. This month it even expanded its services, launching the long awaited Zune Pass music streaming platform in Australia. How does it stack up?

Disappointingly, the Zune Pass that launched in the States back in 2008 and the version that’s just arrived in Australia aren’t the same thing. Originally, Zune Pass offered an unlimited music subscription service with the benefit of 10 free downloadable tracks every month you could add to your library for keeps. Given that one of the biggest drawbacks for traditional music owners with subscription services is that you have nothing to show for your money if you suddenly stop paying the monthly fee, the Zune Pass solution seemed like an ideal compromise. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to sway people away from iTunes, so it was also discontinued in the US

The version Australians get also ditches the “download for keeps” component completely, which makes it an almost identical service to Sony’s Music Unlimited service and Samsung’s Music Hub, although targeted for different devices. The Zune Pass works across three types of systems – the Xbox 360, Windows PCs and Windows Phone 7 smartphones, which means it has a potentially massive audience.

Setting up the Zune Music Pass is relatively easy – mostly. Using your Windows Live logon, simply select the Music Pass option on your Xbox 360, connect to the Zune software on your PC or the Zune Pass website, or through the Music + Videos tab on your WP7 handset. From there, you’re given the option to sign up for a free 14-day trial, paying $11.99 a month or $119.90 for a year’s subscription.

At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Accessing through a WP7 HTC Mozart handset, I was only given the option of signing up for 12 months or using a redeem code, despite having accessed the service on both a PC and my Xbox.

Navigating through the Xbox, in particular, is a simple process. You can create a music playlist of your favourite tracks or albums and let the Xbox play them back, or find an artist you enjoy and simply indulge in their music. While the songs play, the Xbox will overlay images of the artist with the track and album name. You can search for albums, artists, songs and music videos and play them all back with ease.

However, despite my best attempts and Google searches explaining it is possible (if not how to achieve it), I couldn’t get the service to work in the background while playing games on the console, meaning you can only really use the games console for music or games with Zune Music Pass. Similarly, the Smart DJ feature that the internet said was amazing to discover (and could be used on the PC version) was nowhere to be found on the Xbox console. Whether that aspect of the service is yet to roll out to Australia yet is to be seen.

The PC version of the service adds the benefit of being able to purchase individual songs or albums for your account to keep, although interestingly it does so using Microsoft Points instead of a credit card. Accessing it via a browser is simple and handy for Mac users, but does get a little temperamental if you’re trying to access it from multiple locations.

On the mobile front, it’s interesting to see that accessing your own music on the phone will now offer links to the Music Zune Pass service, although as previously mentioned, I was only offered the option of signing up for a full year (which, unfortunately I wasn’t prepared to do). You can also purchase songs directly through the phone using money rather than Microsoft Points, but at $3 a track for some old Jeff Buckley songs, it’s hardly the most economical purchasing option.

Which shows that despite having more than three years to fine tune the service since its original launch in the States, Microsoft still hasn’t ironed out all the kinks with Zune Music Pass. It still has potential, despite competing with a range of similar services, but Redmond really needs to pull out that iron and steam out the creases before it really becomes a viable alternative to iTunes.

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