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With a market share of at least 75 per cent, the hard drive-based iPod family of 30Gb (gigabyte) and 80Gb players, the iTunes online music store and “iPod ecosystem” accessories market collectively form a tempting target.
Early this year, Microsoft assembled a team of former music industry executives, marketing experts and the hardware designers that pulled together the Xbox games machine to design, build and deploy an iPod-killer.
The result is Zune, a 30Gb hard-drive based player that stores and plays digital music, photos and video, and costs $250 – the same as the 30Gb iPod. Zune players bear more than a passing resemblance to the Toshiba Gigabeat player – not surprising, since Toshiba is the contract manufacturer. Launch dates outside the US are yet to be announced.
Microsoft also launched an online music store, Zune Marketplace, and a software program, Zune, that links the two, using proprietary technology in much the same way that the iPod is integrated with the iTunes music store and software.
Microsoft claims that integrating the player with the Zune online service and desktop software has enabled it to improve the customer experience and avoid the problems associated with earlier attempts to loosen the iPod stranglehold by marrying Microsoft software with third-party hardware and online music services.
I have been trying out a couple of Zunes (two are needed to test its hallmark wireless media sharing capabilities), and seeing how they compare with my fourth-generation iPod.
So far, Zune comes in one version and three colours – black, white and brown – but Microsoft says the player’s internal software can be upgraded over the internet and there will be other models. The Zune’s 3in-diagonal colour screen, minimalist design and slightly soft rubbery case make an immediate impact.
Instead of the iPod scroll wheel, the Zune has a four-way directional navigation pad with a centre button and just two other controls. But there is no doubt that, next to the sleek, slim iPod, the Zune player feels big and heavy.
In fact, despite its relatively skimpy 30Gb capacity – enough for about 7,500 tracks, 25,000 photos or 100 hours of video – the Zune weighs 5.6 oz, more than an 80Gb iPod and almost an ounce heavier than the 4.8 oz 30Gb iPod.
At 0.6 ins thick, 2.4 ins wide and 4.4 ins long it is also bigger – the latest 30Gb iPod is 0.43 ins thick, 2.4 ins wide and 4.1 ins long. In fact, the Zune is about the same width and thickness as my fourth generation 30Gb iPod, but a bit longer because of its bigger screen.
Battery life at around 14 hours per charge, is similar to the iPod. Unfortunately, like the iPod, the lithium ion battery pack is not removable.
Nevertheless, the Zune has some advantages over the iPod. Among the less obvious is that you can work the navigation pad while wearing gloves. I found the interface easy to use and in some instances simpler than the iPod.
The Zune also features a built-in FM radio and the sound quality is excellent, even with the supplied earbuds. But the feature Microsoft will emphasise is the ability to exchange music and photos wirelessly with friends and acquaintances.
In my brief tests, the two Zune players found each other easily and peer-to-peer sharing worked flawlessly, as did the Zune Marketplace download service and Zune media management software.
The software, which feels similar to MTV’s Microsoft- powered Urge music service, searches the PC for music and other digital content, which is then stored in the user’s library.
The player works with most types of digital music files, but only downloads music files from the Zune Marketplace, which features about 2m tracks, compared with around 3.5m in the iTunes store and there is no downloadable video content, audio books or podcasts so far. However, the Zune Marketplace does offer an all-you-can-eat $15 monthly subscription service.
Annoyingly, to buy content from Zune Marketplace, you must first purchase Microsoft “points” in $5 increments using a credit card. A single track costs 79 points, equivalent to 99 cents.
Overall, the Zune player, companion service and software are impressive and they provide a real alternative to the iPod for users who value features such as wireless networking, the big screen and built-in FM radio and are willing to overlook minor shortcomings. Given Microsoft’s track record and determination to succeed with the Zune, it is a fair bet that Zune 2 will address these issues.