You've been Zuned! Congratulations. In this article, I'll share a handful of tips for your new digital media player that can save you time, effort, and money. These five handy techniques are a taste of the information you'll find in "Eight Great Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Zune," which is to be published soon as an O'Reilly Short Cut. We wanted to get you the facts early so you can make the most out of your new Zune purchase.

Secret 1: You Don't Need the Expensive Cable

For $99.99, Microsoft will sell you a Zune A/V kit. It contains some great stuff, including a dock, a spiffy wireless remote, and a sync cable. It's all cool. But if all you want to do is hook up your Zune to your TV to play back videos, you don't need it.

Microsoft used exactly the same shortcut Apple did to make its player compatible with both standard earphones and video output: it added its video connector near the top of the jack, above the normal right and left audio contacts and the ground. That means you can use any standard four-conductor A/V cable to connect your Zune to your TV.

Here's what you need:

Once your Zune is hooked up to a TV, you can use the system to display slideshows, listen to music, or even scan through stations on the Zune's FM radio. Playback happens on the TV console rather than on your hand-held device. Here's how to make the connections:

Fig. 1: Cable

Fig. 1: You can use standard A/V cable to connect your Zune to a TV if you know the wiring secret. This camcorder cable has three RCA plugs at one end and a four-conductor mini-phone plug at the other. (That's an 1/8-inch plug with three bands on it).

  1. Insert the 1/8th-inch mini-phone plug into the headphone jack on your Zune.
  2. Insert the red RCA plug in to the yellow jack on your TV. Insert the yellow RCA plug in to the white jack on your TV. Insert the white RCA plug in to the red jack on your TV. Got that? None of the jacks will match the color of the plugs that are in them.
  3. Power on your TV and, if needed, set it to get its signal from the RCA jacks.
  4. Power on your Zune if it is not already on. In the main menu, navigate down to settings → display. In the display settings, shown in Figure 2, set tv out to on. The Zune will remind you about turning your unit off. Click OK.
Fig. 2: TV Connect

Figure 2: Send your Zune video out to your TV by setting the "tv out" setting to "on." Unlike the iPod, the Zune sends your menus as well as videos. Very handy!

That's all you have to do. Your Zune will go dark and the TV will start to display your Zune menus. Use the controls on the Zune to navigate through your menus and access your Zune media.

When you are done using video-out, either unplug the mini-phone plug from the Zune jack (really, this is the easiest way) and wait a second; or change the "tv out" setting back to "off;" or, following the standard Zune protocol, hold down the Play/Pause button for a few seconds to turn the unit off before powering it back on.

Secret 2: Tethered Zunes Don't Power Down

At times, you'll want to use your Zune as it charges. Or you may want to take advantage of using your sync cable as a power source without using up your battery. Here's how: quit out of the Zune software without detaching the sync cable. This exits the "circle-of-dots" connect/synchronize mode (Figure 3) and returns control directly to you after a few seconds.

Fig. 3: Connected Screen

Figure 3: The circle of dots indicates your Zune is either actively syncing or simply connected to your personal computer.

Unfortunately, tethered Zunes have quirks. The "hold the Play/Pause button until the Zune turns off" trick only works on untethered and unlocked Zunes. When your Zune is connected via USB, you can hold down that Play/Pause button until the cows come home; it's not going to power down. Sure, your battery won't take a hit, which is why you probably tethered the Zune in the first place, but your Zune is stuck on "on". (Keeping your Zune powered up for extended periods could possibly shorten component life, but there's always a balance to strike when choosing how you use your devices.)

I'm not sure why the Microsoft team made this call, but I was button-holding and cursing for a while until I figured out why my Zune would not power down. Detach the USB tether and then hold the Play/Pause button for a few seconds. Your Zune will obligingly shut off.

Tip: The Zune is a Windows-only gadget. You can connect your Zune to a Mac, and will even see that it's attached in the System Profiler, but that's about as far as you will go. The Zune will not mount on either the PC or a Mac and does not, unlike the iPod, have the option to be used as a portable hard drive.

Secret 3: You Don't Have to Rip to WMA

Do you intend to share your (non-copyprotected) music between your Zune and your iPod or other digital players? Well, you might want to set up your Zune software to rip your tunes to a universally compatible format like MP3 instead of the default WMA. Fortunately, the Zune software allows you to change your default format and set your preferred bitrate. You don't have a huge choice of codecs, but at least you don't have to live in WMA-land unless you really want to. And by using MP3, your Zune library of ripped non-DRM music can be read and used both by other digital players and by non-Zune software.

To change your default format, choose Options → Rip → Format. Select from WMA, Lossless WMA and MP3. Bitrates for each format vary. Set your desired bitrate from the Options → Rip → BitRate menu. For MP3 you can choose among 128kbps, 192kbps, 256kbps, and 320kbps. After selecting your format and bitrate, all new CD rips will be stored using those settings. You will not affect any material that is already ripped or any copyprotected tracks you buy from the Zune Marketplace.

Selecting the MP3 Format

Figure 4: Change your default rip format by choosing Options → Rip → Format. I recommend MP3 if you need to move your audio between devices. (Click to enlarge.)

Tip: The Zune software on your PC automatically scans your personal media library including the My Music, My Video, and My Pictures folders on your computer. To grow your library, simply add media files to these folders or specify additional folders for Zune to search.

Secret 4: You Can Put TV Shows and Movies Onto Your Zune

You know all those freeware and shareware PSP and iPod video-conversion tools? The ones that convert your video to .m4v MPEG-4 video? That same video will play back on your Zune. As Figure 5 shows, it's just a matter of adding your video to the Zune library for playback. After that, once you sync, your video goes onto the Zune, ready for watching.

Figure 5: Heroes

Figure 5: The Zune software, playing back a recent episode of Heroes. I had to snap this shot with a digital camera because the Zune software blanked out the screen when I tried a screen-grab with SnagIt.

While testing, I personally used several tools to convert video to MPEG-4: QuickTime Pro (on WinXP), iSquint (on OS X), and Neuros Audio's stand-alone hardware, MPEG Recorder 2. There are numerous other converters as well. Notable Windows programs include Videora iPod converter and MeGui. In my tests, the Zune software had no problems playing back the software-converted video, but it couldn't play the Neuros machine-recorded version.

With MPEG-4 video be prepared for slow syncs. The Zune converts the MPEG-4 video to a Zune-native WMV format as it syncs. This significantly slow things down. Videos that take less than a minute to transfer to an iPod can take up to an hour to convert on an underpowered PC. Zune.net provides a complete breakdown of the video formats it supports and their recommended settings.

Secret 5: You Can Opt Out of Microsoft's Big Brother Program

Feel uncomfortable with Microsoft's watching your every move in Zune? Opt out. Say "No." Stand up for your rights.

Unless you make the affirmative choice to keep Microsoft out, you are by default enrolled in Microsoft's "Zune Customer Experience Improvement Program." This program assumes you want to improve Microsoft's bottom line (and nosiness) by allowing it to monitor your Zune software usage.

Right.

To opt out, you need to get into the Options window. Not surprisingly, there's no Options → Privacy menu choice. Instead, you must first open the Options screen for any other feature, like Playback. Select Options → Playback → More Options.... The Options settings window opens. Click the Privacy tab. Uncheck the "I want to help Microsoft" box shown in Figure 6 and click Apply.

Figure 6: Privacy

Figure 6: Be a winner, not a weener. Opt out of Big Brother.

Congratulations. You just stood up to corporate America.

Reach for the Zune

The Zune is a terrific little device. As this article has shown, there are more secrets to using it than you initially might think. I hope you'll enjoy theses tricks and insights whether you end up using your Zune to watch homemade videos, view slide shows on your TV, or manage a shared media library between the Zune software and iTunes.

For even more tips and details, see my upcoming O'Reilly Short Cut, "Eight Great Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Zune."


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