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Zippity Zune? Nah.

The mighty iPod, shown at a San Francisco Apple store, has a credible yet flawed challenger in the Zune.
The mighty iPod, shown at a San Francisco Apple store, has a credible yet flawed challenger in the Zune. (By Justin Sullivan -- Getty Images)

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, November 15, 2007

Will the last company to surrender to the iPod please remember to log off of the computer?

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It doesn't look good for anybody trying to unseat Apple's iconic music player. Over the last year or so, many rivals of Apple's iPod and iTunes have either begun to close their online stores (Sony), stopped making music players (Dell) or quietly let their music services go stale (Napster and Yahoo).

Microsoft, however, will not be discouraged so easily. It has introduced three models of the Zune media player, rewritten Zune's desktop software and updated its Zune Marketplace store.

These changes amount to a serious upgrade from the first Zune, a decent gadget saddled with an awful store and software. Zune 2.0, if you will, is a legitimate solution to the iPod's lack of competition.

But it's also part of the problem. As Microsoft has augmented the Zune product line, it has neglected the older Microsoft software on which most other non-iPod players rely. The Zune's success may come at the expense of those other non-Apple options.

To be fair, the new Zunes are more pleasant to use than most other iPod rivals. They include a nifty, reinvented control: a squared-off, touch-sensitive circle that responds to a tap of a thumb or a flick of a fingertip.

This surface makes common actions -- adjusting the volume, jumping to the next song-- a moment's gesture away, even with the player in a coat pocket.

And unlike most iPods, on which a spin of the click-wheel dial can yield different results depending on what's on the screen, the Zune won't hop forward in a song when you meant to crank the volume.

These new Zunes -- a $150, 4-gigabyte flash-memory model; a $200, 8-GB flash unit; and a thicker, heavier, $250 Zune with an 80-GB hard drive -- are about the same size as comparable iPods of two years ago.

All can play music and videos in a variety of formats and can also display photos. As with the first, bulkier Zune introduced last fall, though, the new models don't accept audio or video downloads locked with Microsoft's older PlaysForSure software, which is standard for most non-iPod players. That excludes a vast library of content, such as public-library audiobook downloads, Amazon Unbox movies and songs rented from Napster or Rhapsody.

The new Zunes include two extras: FM radios and wireless networking.

Radio makes sense on these devices, but wireless support still feels like it's grasping for relevance.


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