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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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That feature's original selling point -- that you can beam a song to another Zune, on which it can be played three times before expiring -- requires that you meet another Zune user. That's still unlikely. You can also now synchronize a Zune with a computer over a wireless network, but it takes much longer than using a USB connection.

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The Zune's wireless also slashes battery life. Instead of the 24 hours of music playback Microsoft advertises, I didn't even get 18 hours with wireless enabled on an 8-gigabyte model.

The other half of the Zune equation, its Windows-only desktop software, abandons menus and toolbars for a Web-esque interface built out of clickable links. It's not as grotesquely slow as its bloated predecessor, though it can still bog down on an older PC.

The Zune software also adds a feature inexplicably absent from Windows Media Player: It can subscribe to podcasts and transfer them to your player. That alone makes WMP seem obsolete.

Finding a podcast may take some work, though. The Zune Marketplace's directory of podcasts is tiny compared to the one at the iTunes Store, and adding an unlisted podcast requires copying a special address off its Web page.

Another addition to the Zune software, a social networking site, has the same relevance problem as the music sharing feature. The program also can't assemble a "smart playlist" based on your preferences -- such as "songs from this decade" or "songs that I like." And why can't it play streaming music from Web radio sites?

The least appealing part of Microsoft's new deal is the Zune Marketplace. The company has caught up to Apple and Amazon by stocking downloads -- about a third of the 3 million available-- without "digital rights management" usage limits. It also now sells music videos, but not TV shows or movies. And its subscription plan still lets you download all the music you want -- but not burn it to CD -- for $15 a month.

But the Marketplace demands that you pay in Microsoft Points, bought in advance at 400 for $5. After the currency-conversion math, the prices are about the same as anywhere else, a dollar a song and $10 per album. But this bizarre system ensures that you'll end up tipping Microsoft: After spending $10 worth of points on songs, I have 18 points left over.

Fortunately, you can use and enjoy a Zune without spending a penny at the Zune Marketplace. These new devices may give Apple a genuine contest-- but Microsoft's neglect of the music software its partners rely on may shut everybody else out of the action.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/


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