Fast Forward: New MP3 Players May Overstep Bounds

The Apple iPod Nano, top, and the Microsoft Zune HD are compared. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
The Apple iPod Nano, top, and the Microsoft Zune HD are compared. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) (Jeff Chiu - AP)
By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, September 20, 2009

We need to retire the term "MP3 player." Not only do the newest media gadgets from Apple and Microsoft play more music formats than MP3 -- in addition to showing photos and videos -- they also fill some roles once reserved for high-end smartphones. They can even replace an old transistor radio.

Doing something, however, doesn't always equate to doing it well. Both Apple's updated iPod Nano and Microsoft's Zune HD, each released earlier this month, work fine as basic music players but exhibit weaknesses in their new roles.

With the new Nano, the fifth generation of a product line that's yielded 100 million sales so far, Apple added a video camera and an FM radio. An 8-gigabyte model sells for $149; a 16 GB model goes for $179, $20 less than its predecessor.

The video camera is an awkward addition. Its lens is too easy to cover with a stray finger, and it deals poorly with low light and moving subjects. In good light, it can record decent clips, but their low resolution (640 by 480 pixels) and dull colors make them a better fit for YouTube than your HDTV.

If, however, the alternative to the iPod's camera is a camera phone that offers no easy way to transfer clips to a computer, or a low-end Flip camera that will be yet another gadget to tote around, this video capability may not seem so bad.

The new iPod's FM tuner makes more sense, especially with two smart features Apple added. You can pause a broadcast, saving up to 15 minutes of it for later listening. And if a station adds the right encoding to its signal, you'll see a song's title and artist show up on the screen next to a tag icon; hold down the center button of the iPod's "click wheel" dial to bookmark it in your copy of iTunes the next time you synchronize your iPod, and you can then buy it from Apple's iTunes Store.

That second feature, however, suffers from apathetic support by radio stations. Around Washington, I found only four broadcasters tagging their tunes, all run by radio conglomerate Clear Channel -- a firm that seems to have a deathly fear of playing songs it hasn't focus-group-tested into submission.

The new Nano throws in two bonus features: a built-in pedometer to estimate your calorie burn from your steps and a voice-memo application to record your mutterings.

Microsoft's Zune HD is a much more ambitious attempt -- but maybe not ambitious enough. It falls into a gap between simpler players like older Zunes and full-fledged, Internet-enabled gadgets such as Apple's iPod Touch.

For its higher price (a 16 GB unit costs $219.99, a 32 GB model $289.99), you get a slim, stylish but limited fusion of media player, digital-radio tuner and WiFi-enabled Web browser.

The HD's vivid, touch-sensitive screen replaces the buttons of older devices, which makes some actions (scrolling through a playlist, selecting a photo) blissfully easier but complicates others (without physical volume buttons, cranking up a song takes two steps). Its on-screen graphics look beautiful but can wash out in daylight.

Another long-standing Zune feature vanished with the old buttons: the ability to share songs wirelessly with nearby Zune users.

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