Zippity Zune? Nah.

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, November 15, 2007

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

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.

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.

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.

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