Windows Phone 8 syncing tool drops beta but is it better?

Microsoft has finally announced that their syncing tool for Windows Phone 8 is ready for the prime time. We thought it would be a good idea to check it out and see if it’s finally a fitting replacement for the Zune software. 

The first thing many may ask is “why do I need to plug it into a computer to sync”, well that’s the thing. As the cloud gets more powerful and useful there are fewer reasons all the time. Well that’s the premise but in reality the fact is many of us still need it occasionally. With some Windows Phones now supporting well over 64GB it’s hardly surprising at least some content might come from a PC. 

In the Windows Phone 7 time frame we had a heavy but highly workable syncing tool in the shape of the Zune desktop client. It was built to facilitate the syncing of large amounts of PC dwelling content like videos, podcasts, music & playlists. It had its issues but worked pretty well and provided some really handy features such as podcast management. Microsoft dropped the Zune software with the arrival of Windows Phone 8.

Fast forward and Microsoft proudly announce that their sync tool for Windows Phone 8 is finally ready. Release notes indicate the software is said to improve podcast support, simplify updates and generally be more flexible. Oh and squash some bugs. 

Setting Up

Once the software has been downloaded and installed, simply plug in your Windows Phone and you’ll be presented with the getting started screen. “Your stuff, where you want it” is certainly very encouraging indeed, hit next and we’re presented with a few extra options.

Your stuff where you want it?

Do you want to Sync Music, Videos and more from either iTunes or Windows Libraries? The default option is set to iTunes. There is no getting away from the fact that iTunes is actually in use by far more Windows users than a program like Zune, hence they let you choose that. Once you make your selection you’re presented with the main sync interface.

The software then dives into look at what you have in your PC collection and essentially indexes and presents you with the results. It’s pretty quick even if you have a large collection of music you won’t be hanging around for long.

In Use

Considering this is a tool designed to sync media, the interface couldn't be any less useful or pretty. Forget about seeing album covers and artist bios, this boils it down to the basics.  If you select your locally stored “Music” it will be presented in three columns. Playlists, Genres & Artists, each being just a huge list of text entries, an endless sea of tick boxes.

Initial indexing of your PC content before you begin syncing

Not only is there no album cover view, there is actually no album column so you’ll be expected to either search for what you want to sync, or scroll through that endless list of checkboxes. If you like ticking boxes, this app is a dream come true. 

The sync tool will show you how much space you have left on your phone but when selecting items to sync it won’t calculate how much room it will consume on your device. Each category for photos, videos and podcasts is equally barren.

The process of syncing and limited management of your phone’s on-board data is painless enough it’s just there isn't anything else. There are no features to manage your playlists, determine how you would like your media converted, access to the Windows Phone Store or any Xbox Music integration. Moving on..

What purpose does it serve?

It sounds like a crazy question but it’s one I really must ask. Why has this app been in beta for so long and what is its remit? Now that Windows Phone 8 can be plugged in and accessed just like a normal drive you can simply drag and drop your media into it, all from the familiar Explorer interface. If you want to actually see your content properly you can even use the almost forgotten Windows Media Player to sync and manage.

If the remit of this app is to simply serve as a portal for getting stuff from iTunes to your phone then maybe it’s okay. Doesn't that mean they are helping potential customers skip their own content store and put more money into Apple's coffers?

Compared to the Zune desktop client

If you had a Windows Phone 7 device, you would have used Zune to do everything, there was simply no other way to sync. The Zune software was designed to be very much like iTunes and similar in almost every way, some would say better even. Zune would present your music and playlists beautifully & give you access to the Store to download movies, podcasts and music. Beyond that, Zune would let you dig deeper and let you rename things and tag things how you liked.

Zune Desktop Client - Shows how sync and management should be..

Beyond that, the Zune software was a way to update, backup and restore your data. It gave you key hooks into the Music Store, Podcast Subscribing and even burning things to CDs and such.

Windows Phone App For Desktop - Tick those boxes!

The Windows Phone sync client we have today simply does none of this, why anyone should download this tool?

Granted it will of course let you quickly sync your photos and items from your Windows Phone. The main concern for many is photos, but they can all be uploaded to SkyDrive automatically now.

Final thoughts

Until Microsoft announced this tool was out of beta, I had totally forgotten about it and for good reason. When I looked at this in depth when Windows Phone 8 was released it was even more bare bones than now. I have been unhappily adding podcasts and music and videos manually via Explorer since then.

The Zune desktop client that came before this was lacking many features and needed some updating, but instead it was dropped. Why? There are many users who are crying out for Microsoft to re-engineer it to sync with their latest mobile operating system. A quick look at the comments on the Windows Phone blog shows how much actual users find this sync solution unsatisfactory and unfit for purpose. I have to wonder, am I the only one whose heart sank when I fired up this client?

There are many out there who question why Microsoft didn’t just rebrand the Zune Client Xbox Music. If you’re going to replace something, shouldn’t the replacement be an improvement in some way? Obviously not in this case.

Can we expect Microsoft to turn this bare bones app into anything approaching iTunes or Zune in terms of features? Sadly considering how long it’s taken Microsoft just to get to a final release of this SyncToy with stripes on I won’t hold my breath.

Zune Desktop Client? You are missed.

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Oh c'mon guys give the guys who wrote this a break. Clearly as their first ever development project straight out of high school they haven't done bad !

I only have one question and if MS is listening I think as customers we deserve an answer. Why do they think that droppping the previous investment in a working and highly functional product like Zune and providing this as a replacement was the right thing to invest time and money in?

Perhaps if they even bother to enlighten us we might agree!?

p.s. I uninstalled it 10 minutes after trying it and am still waiting for anything that comes close to the functionality of Zune. This as an effort on what is meant to be their "all in bet on mobile" is appalling.

I was looking a getting myself a Windows Phone this week, until I found out it doesn't support manual
configuration of IP address and DNS server for the WiFi connection, and for me, that's a dealbreaker.

Interesting, why would you even want to do that? I'm curious, what advantages would it have to have such a feature? I mean, this is why we use DHCP in networking, you could do it from that end no?

Note not everybody uses DHCP! I'm not arguing that that is a good idea, but static IP without a DHCP is a valid network configuration and can have advantages compared to DHCP...

Robert Brand said,

Interesting, why would you even want to do that? I'm curious, what advantages
would it have to have such a feature? I mean, this is why we use DHCP in
networking, you could do it from that end no?

All the devices on my home WiFi network are set to manual IP/DNS, so I'd only be able to use
the 3G connection on a Windows Phone device to go on the internet with when I'm at home.
That would cost me call time credit, while using my WiFi won't cost me any extra.

Since it does not yet allow manual WiFi configuration, Windows Phone is out of the question.
Which is a shame, as I actually like the look of Windows Phone compared with the others.

I very much like everything about Windows 8. Like the start screen, like how fast it is, everything. I'm not bothered that it's not as 'pretty' as Win 7. I'm not confused by the Start Screen. I'm not an idiot.

Over the weekend, I helped a friend set up a Lumia 920, and moved MP3s to it with Explorer on an XP machine. No problems at all. But with this new app, you get less functionality than with nothing at all. This is the REAL problem.

As far as I can tell, none of the apps offered for Win 8 have any value at all. The are not worth free. Now, you can SAY that it takes time to develop things, but we're talking about almost two years of development, and Win 8 is closing on a year of release. Yet all the apps I've looked at are less than trash. Considering the ENTIRE POINT of this revamp is for the apps, wouldn't it make sense that at least SOME of them have value? Because if they aren't, maybe the people that don't like the changes are right.

Change to add value is good. That hasn't happened. Change for no reason at all is bad.

One other thing I don't know: Do Apple and Android apps suck as much as Microsofts? I doubt it.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that they new applications are worthless but you hit the nail straight on when you say that this lack of functionality is the real problem and not just with this particular application but with the whole of windows 8 as a mobile platform. Many 8 phone users have deserted or not take the platform precisely because Windows won't let them do what they want. Android is seen as the platform of freedom and choice. Many people claims that is the lack of third party applications what is the problem here. I think the core applications and functionality of the OS itself are also greatly responsible. Microsoft executives are however blissfully unaware of this and they will continue for the foreseeable future to build an touch OS as annoyingly simple as possible.

I'm afraid I'm not that surprised at all about this mess. It's the philosophy design now prevailing at Microsoft and one of the main reasons Windows 8 is failing to lure people away form Android while disappointing former Windows devotees. To put it in a nutshell Microsoft thinks your typical tablet user is dumb and doesn't like to be confused with too many options. They simplified the visuals of the interface and are trying to do the same with the feature set of the applications. To get an idea of what they are up to just compare Windows mail client on a pc with Get the picture?
Further proof of this worrying "misconception" at Microsoft of what customers expects from its software is the rise of marketing gurus within the company. Microsoft is now a company blowing billions on negative advertising without a clear idea of how to make windows a winning formula. The strategy that the company is pursuing is generally correct the tactical implementation of it absolutely disastrous at all levels. Trying to make software simple to use is a laudable aim but to prevent people to make it as complicated as they want is a rather stupid thing to do and one that goes again what the company stood for in the past.

Auto Playlist and Wireless Sync are two great features of Zune and WP7 and I use them on a daily bases. Waiting for these features to be available for WP8 and Windows 8 to upgrade my phone. They way it looks, this will not happen any time soon.

Microsoft bring back the Zune development team to take over Xbox music. They knew what music enthusiast wanted and derived a fine product.

Great that we don't have to use this thing or any external tool to sync to WP8. I for one am happy that Zune is gone and wasn't replaced by a rebranded version...

I'm afraid it's not the interns doing their work here but the guys at the top that have decided that a minimalistic interface should be accompanied by a minimalistic set of features as well so we don't get confused. As everybody knows tablet and smartphone users are easily confused and don't way to fiddle with their toys just to stroke them with affection, aren't they? Or, maybe it's Microsoft executives that are really confused. Look the start button is back! I wonder who had the idea of remove it from a operating system whose 95% of users are PC users not tablet ones.

Wireless sync was fantastic in Win7 with Wp7. Now my Wp7 doesn't wireless-sync in Win8 with Zune. God damn annoying that it doesn't exist for wp8. Really backwards

It still sucks. I'd rather sync content using explorer than use this app.
The zune desktop client is 1000 times better than this piece of crap. zune desktop client is my go to media player when i'm at home. With all the developer MS have at their disposal they could have updated the zune client and call it xbox music, and make it work with WP8.

I can finally use it to Sync Podcasts, I use Zune to download the Podcasts and then this App picks them up and Syncs them to my phone, it is annoying that no Art of Meta Data is passed through to the phone which I hope they improve soon.

iTunes podcasts worked prior to this update but yeah, the latest update does bring that Zune ability back. Even if it doesnt do all the nice meta data. *sigh* - Progress...

psreloaded said,
Agreed, they should have just rebranded Zune and updated it.. What they have done is regressive...

I agree as well. I liked Zune...

I really can't believe that there isn't even a check all button... who designed this thing? The web interface to SkyDrive is a million times more sophisticated and usable.

I'm starting to hate Microsoft. I absolutely LOVE WP8. But so much seems to be missing. Lack of updates on the platform sucks too.

Nashy said,
I'm starting to hate Microsoft. I absolutely LOVE WP8. But so much seems to be missing. Lack of updates on the platform sucks too.

It hasn't even been out for a year yet. Geez. Do you have any idea how long software takes to develop? Besides, you're wrong about updates, Portico was released in December.

Lack of wireless sync is one of my main gripes though.

Nashy said,
I think updates should be smaller, and faster while they're playing catch up.

That's what they're doing, but development still takes time...

You can set all your photos to backup direct to the cloud. With Windows Phone 8 it does a cloud backup too which is handy for restoring phone with apps and text messages. Make sure to check your settings

Yeah when my first HTC 8X was dropped in a tub of water and I eventually got a replacement the backup restored everything, apps, photos and setting etc, pretty impressive and seamless!

Robert Brand said,
You can set all your photos to backup direct to the cloud. With Windows Phone 8 it does a cloud backup too which is handy for restoring phone with apps and text messages. Make sure to check your settings

Can I activate automatic backup of pictures etc when on Wlan only? My data plan is not big enough for mobile uploads.

Yes, if you select Best Quality in the backup settings it will only use Wi-Fi to backup photos.
Settings>Backup>Photos Will show you your options.

It work wonders on Window Phone 8, specially now that we can sync photos in full res to SkyDrive. Before, we needed to sync our phone to keep those full res photos backed up.

The only downside with WP8 restore feature is that it won't let you choose which apps (or none at all) to restore. Other than that, email/social accounts, message conversations and phone options are being restored, even call history!

Zune was great for those looking a great player and library manager. I'm with those that think that a proper updated version could be awesome for this and also allow people to sync their data if they don't use the phone auto sync options.