As much as Microsoft (STOCK QUOTE: MSFT) would love to think it could make up ground in the portable music player market, Apple's< (STOCK QUOTE: AAPL) iPod still rules the roost -- and probably will for a long time.
But a few days ago, Microsoft released two new Zune music players as well as an upgraded version of both the player and computer software. The result is more available storage on the devices and more features for the software.
The flash-based Zune players now come in 16GB ($199.99) as well as 4GB ($129.99) and 8GB ($149.99) while the newest hard-drive-based Zune comes with 120GB ($249.99) of storage and complements the 80GB ($229.99) model. The two new models sport sleek black-metal back covers.
The new software is definitely an improvement over the original and last year's update. It puts your computer music library right on the front page where you can see everything in a glance. It also recognizes all the MP3s you've purchased from Amazon.com and iTune, and accesses all the metadata (titles, artists, genres) for each song.
The new software also puts Microsoft's new Zune Marketplace front and center. As you might expect, the Zune store offers songs, videos, podcasts, audio books and TV shows for sale. You can download titles one at a time or spend $14.99-per-month for an "all-you-can-eat" Zune Pass with access to all Zune store content. Millions of songs and videos are available according to the Marketplace Web site.
Zunes differ from iPods in a number of ways. The biggest hardware difference is that Zunes have built-in Wi-Fi. You used to be able to share songs with other friends owning Zunes. Now, the new software allows you to download content directly from the Zune Marketplace to your Zune music player.
Zunes also have built-in FM radios. Now, if you're listening to the Zune radio and hear a song you like, you can press a button and "tag" it for later purchase from the Zune Marketplace.
Zune also allows you to be "social" with friends by networking using your wireless Zunes. Microsoft suggests you "set your favorite tracks, update your profile, change your status, and search for other Social members -- all from within the new software." There are also two new games that come with the new 3.0 player firmware.
Zune is most importantly a music player, and as that it excels. Sort of. I've always thought Zune audio quality was terrific. The hard-drive models sound better than their flash-based ones but overall, I prefer the Zune sound quality to most of the iPods I've ever heard.
I know those are fighting words, but I'm not alone. A number of people who I've spotted using Zunes on the subway or in the street say they prefer the way their Zune sounds to any iPod they've ever heard. It might be the Zune's audio circuitry or it might be the difference between the sound qualities of ripped AAC (iTunes) files vs. WMA (Windows Mobile Audio) files.
On the other hand, Microsoft should be ashamed of itself for not offering the option of ripping your music into WAV files. These uncompressed music files sound much better than any of the Zune options, including "lossless" files. Compressed music sounds like it has been compressed.
You wouldn't settle for compressed, lousy-looking videos -- so why accept what Microsoft offers? Kudos to Apple who allows users to rip music into larger, superior-sounding AIFF (Apple's version of WAV) files. I figure these big files are why they offer 120GB portable music players in the first place.
That said, the Zune is a viable option if you're in the market for a portable music player. Aside from the ultimate sound quality, Zunes offer good value for the money and are actually terrific playback machines. Get yourself a good set of portable earphones (Klipsch, Shure, Stax) and begin enjoying the music. Recommended.