Microsoft's Zune won't replace your iPod

Zune's features don't seem compelling enough to make it a serious threat to iPod sales

Microsoft's first portable MP3 and video player has finally arrived. The Zune goes on sale in the U.S. on Tuesday, and though I doubt many people are lining up PlayStation 3-style to get their hands on one, its slick interface and vaunted wireless song- and photo-sharing are sure to shake up the market.

I've taken a quick look at the player. It shows impressive polish for a first effort, but the Zune's features don't seem compelling enough to make it a serious threat to take a big chunk out of iPod sales.

The expected specs

At US$250 for 30GB of storage, the Zune costs exactly as much as the latest 30GB video-capable iPod and the Zen Vision:M. Like most non-iPod players, it includes an FM tuner and supports MP3 and WMA music files, as well as WMV, MPEG-4, and H.264 video files.

Unlike many Windows-based players, the Zune also supports unprotected AAC files--a nice touch for anyone who's been ripping CDs using iTunes' default settings. On the other hand, Microsoft's player lacks a built-in voice recorder, which most Windows-based players include.

The Zune is a bit larger and heavier than the latest 30GB iPod, but its bright, beautiful color screen is a half-inch larger (measured diagonally) than the iPod's. When you're watching videos on a screen that small, every extra bit of real estate counts.

Rounding out the package are a USB cable, a carrying case, headphones, and a 14-day trial membership in Zune Pass, Microsoft's $15-per-month, all-you-can eat music subscription service.

No wires, plenty of restrictions

Of course, Zune's true appeal rests in its built-in Wi-Fi access. Meet up with friends who have a Zune, and you can beam tracks, playlists, or photos to their players, so they can listen to or view them on their own time. Beamed tracks appear in the inbox of the recipient's Zune, where they'll remain for a maximum of three days or three plays. If you like a track, you can flag it for purchase through the Zune Marketplace, an online music store associated with the player.

Unfortunately, that's it for wireless connectivity. There's no wireless syncing with your Wi-Fi-equipped PC at home and no wireless access to the Zune store. I'll have more to say about how well wireless sharing works in the next few days; but like many who've evaluated the Zune, I can't help thinking that this type of wireless sharing is not enough.

Still, the Zune is a decent music and video player, as I found out once I got past a few initial problems.

Early glitches

The first time I synced the Zune (after installing the included desktop software, which is basically a customized version of Media Player 11), a dialog box popped up, searching for updates and then announcing that a firmware update was available (a day before the player was officially released, no less). After I downloaded the software and installed the update, my Zune player was ready for its inaugural syncing.

Unfortunately, the early firmware update I obtained fell short of solving all of the synchronization glitches: When I transferred my first group of files, several just wouldn't sync. Worse yet, the Zune desktop software refused to simply skip those files. Instead it hung until I clicked Stop Sync, unplugged my Zune, and deleted the offending file.

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Eric Dahl

PC World
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