Zune squares up to iPod

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For the best part of a decade, Apple’s family of iPods and its iTunes online store have dominated the portable media player market and helped define a digital lifestyle.

In spite of repeated challenges from rivals such as SanDisk, Microsoft and Sony, Apple has maintained its near 75 per cent market share and helped build a huge iPod ecosystem through a potent mix of marketing smarts, price management and just-in-time product enhancements.

In spite of the iPod’s undeniable success (and indications the standalone portable media player market may have peaked), Apple’s rivals are not about to give up. Indeed, as I have been discovering, some of the latest products from competitors offer features that Apple’s players have yet to match.

This week, Microsoft launched its long-awaited Zune HD in the US (the company has yet to announce launch dates elsewhere). In spite of the Zune moniker, the new player is a
clear attempt by Microsoft to draw a line under the limited success of earlier Zune players and start afresh. To this end, the company is phasing out its earlier players.

The Zune HD is available in two configurations: 16Gb for $220 and 32Gb for $290 (almost the same as the new iPod Touch pricing). The 32GB version holds up to 10 hours of high-definition video, or 48 hours of standard-definition video optimised for the player, 8,000 songs or 25,000 pictures.

Unlike previous models, the Zune HD is a stylish, super-slim device that features some technology firsts including a big, bright and bold OLED (organic light emitting diode) multi-touch enabled screen.

As you might expect, the super-bright colour screen, which measures just under 84mm diagonally, is great for video. Another advantage of OLED screens is their low-power consumption. Microsoft claims the Zune HD should deliver up to 33 hours of music playback and about 8.5 hours of video from a single charge – claims that my initial tests bear out. (The device recharges in about three hours when plugged into a PC’s USB socket.)

Microsoft has devoted a lot of attention to video functionality including how well the Zune links up to other devices. For example, the player is powered by Nvidia’s Tegra processor and features high-definition video output. This means users can play back video clips, movies and television shows stored on the device on a big-screen TV using an optional “AV Dock” that costs $50 and supports either an HDMI (high definition multimedia interface) cable or a composite AV cable.

Meanwhile, the revamped Zune Marketplace, Microsoft’s answer to iTunes, features movie and TV show downloads and a range of games for the company’s Xbox video console in addition to an extensive music selection available for purchase and download or monthly subscription plan.

Like the iPod Touch, the Zune HD is WiFi-enabled so owners can stream music from the web and synch it wirelessly to a PC, a feature that iTunes does not support. The Zune HD also comes with a nifty web browser that is optimised for this screen format and enables users to check e-mail, traffic and news and browse other sites while connected to a WiFi network. (The browser supports Microsoft’s Bing search engine, and the device comes with an on-screen virtual keyboard.)

In addition, the player comes with a built-in HD radio receiver, useful if you get bored of your MP3 collection. For audiophiles, the player supports WMA lossless files as well as all the more usual audio formats.

When you first set up the Zune HD, you must download the latest version of the Zune software to a PC and connect the Zune player to the PC using the USB cable connector supplied. As soon as the device is connected, it automatically begins charging the battery and synchronising content in much the same way that iTunes software does with an iPod. This is when you can opt to sync with a PC wirelessly. If you want to download content or purchase a Zune subscription, you need to set up an account.

The process is reasonably painless, though I got a fright when my test device froze after updating. Fortunately, all that was required was a reset (holding the on/off button on the top edge of the player down for seven seconds).

Microsoft is positioning the Zune HD to be part of “an integrated entertainment experience” that also includes its Xbox video player and Windows-powered PCs. The company also says the Zune software/service could appear on other types of devices including Windows Mobile-powered smartphones.

In a nutshell, if you want to play it safe, are a Mac rather than Windows PC user, or want access the widest range of add-on software, go for the iPod Touch. If, however you want a feature-packed, portable player for a reasonable price, the Zune HD is worth considering.

Apple’s iPod family will probably retain their market dominance, but based on the evidence of the Zune HD, rivals are narrowing the gap.

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