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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