It might be easy to view Zune as something of an afterthought to the Windows Phone 7 experience, but actually it's one of the killer features of Microsoft's latest mobile operating system. You'd have to be deaf, dumb, blind and stupid not to have noticed the surge in popularity both of digital downloads and music streaming services in the past years, and Zune offers both of these features, conveniently integrated into the Windows Phone 7 experience (though also available on a Windows PC, for the WP7-sceptics).
The interface is, unsurprisingly, consistent with the rest of Windows Phone 7, and that's no bad thing, as it proves intuitive and simple to navigate. One possible annoyance is the strong push towards encouraging users to buy more music when playing what they already have. When browsing through your music collection, there's a dedicated marketplace section that when expanded throws up suggestions of tracks and albums by the same artist that you might wish to buy, rather than ones in your collection that you might want to play.
We appreciate that if you are a user of the services Zune offers, this integration is a nice touch, saving you the need to drop back into the home screen to view the Zune Marketplace. However, if you don't want to acquire your music from Microsoft the integration becomes interference. Moreover, unless some facility is opened up to let other providers integrate in a similar way, it's something of an unfair advantage for Microsoft.
Redeeming this in our estimation is how brilliantly this integration works if you do sign up to a Zune Pass. Available in one, three or twelve-month subscriptions, this works similarly to services such as Spotify and Napster, letting you stream almost all music available in the Zune library (some tracks are purchase-only) on your phone and this is possible over both 3G and Wi-Fi. The same desktop software used to sync music also lets you stream it on a Windows PC - sorry Mac users, there's no love for you here from Microsoft.
At £8.99 month-by-month, or even less if you take a longer subscription period, a Zune Pass isn't an insignificant expenditure, but it's comparably priced to rival services and has a few advantages. Where other services offer offline modes, Zune goes a step further and lets you import tracks downloaded on your handset into your PC's collection, and vice versa.
Zune Pass was great on the Zune HD (not that its use was officially sanctioned in the UK, as Zune hardware was never made available by Microsoft here) but on Windons Phone 7 it's a potential game-changer. With a reasonably generous mobile data allowance you could conceivably never load any music files onto your phone. More likely, you can restrict your permanent library to just the music you listen to frequently and if you fancy listening to something a little off the beaten path while your away from a PC, just stream or download it from Zune.