Microsoft's Zune Only Looks Simple

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 19, 2006

The new Zune digital-media player may be an all-Microsoft production, but it feels like it came from two companies.

One's the smart, aggressive competitor that built the Xbox and Xbox 360 game consoles, carving out a franchise from scratch in a tough market. The other's the clumsy, lumbering giant that can't seem to avoid occasionally stepping on its own customers.

That combination won't help the Zune grab market share from Apple's iPod. Apple has dominated the market by emphasizing simplicity above all, and Microsoft aims to follow suit with the Zune, a wireless-enabled player that sells for $250.

But the Zune's relentlessly proprietary nature suggests Microsoft drew the wrong lessons from Apple: It matched the restrictiveness of the iTunes Store, not its utility.

The Zune player itself is the most appealing part of the package. About the size of a deck of cards, it comes in dark gray, brown or white and provides almost 30 gigabytes of hard-drive storage. It has an intuitiveness absent from most other iPod rivals.

Pick up the Zune, and its controls fall under your thumb: a back button, a circular four-way controller that resembles an iPod's click-wheel dial and a play/pause button. Once you realize that the central controller doesn't spin, its operation is pretty much self-evident: Press up or down to adjust volume; press left or right to skip to the previous or next song.

The Zune's bright, clear color screen, three inches across, allows more room to present its menus. That made building a playlist more obvious than on an iPod.

When you view photos or videos, the screen automatically switches orientation to a wide landscape mode. A built-in FM tuner offers an alternative to your music and can even display the program data many stations broadcast, such as song titles or call letters.

The rest of the Zune's design shows a similar elegance. Its headphones click together magnetically for tidier storage, while its grippy, rubber-like surface should resist scratching. The thing even looks clean, without the usual Windows logo or even the word "Microsoft." (Only a tiny "Hello from Seattle" on the back reveals its ancestry.)

The Zune, however, is a little thick and heavy, about six-tenths of an inch and just over six ounces with headphones. That added bulk comes from the Zune's major innovation, its wireless music sharing.

If you and a friend with a Zune are nearby -- we got this to work from 50 feet away -- you can beam songs to each other.

This isn't a permanent transfer; the Zune erases the song after three days or the third playback, whichever comes first. But it is a neat way to expand your music library, and eventually your tastes.

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