Zune's fascinating potential

Zune's fascinating potential

Looking at Microsoft's Zune as just another media player misses the point. The player itself has its virtues, but it is clearly only one part of Microsoft's effort to replicate Apple Computer's wildly successful iPod/iTunes media ecosystem.

While Apple has sold millions of iPods, their real value to Apple is how tightly intertwined the devices are with the iTunes music service and iTunes software. If you own an iPod and want to download music, you must use iTunes, which has sold more than a billion tracks in its relatively short life.

The Zune isn't yet a compelling enough device to pull many customers away from the iPod. But if users look at Zune in combination with the Zune Marketplace online store and the software that connects the device with the store, Microsoft's effort is more compelling. It's still a work in progress, but in a few ways it already equals and even surpasses the iPod/iTunes juggernaut.

Beautiful interface

Zune is, overall, a competent 30GB player that is particularly attractive in some areas, misses the target in others and strikes out entirely with one of its most visible features.

To start with the positive, Microsoft succeeded at something no other media player vendor has: It has created a graphical user interface that is, subjectively, as compelling as the iPod's. To do that, Microsoft took a minimalist approach, offering relatively few options but giving users fast, easy and eye-catching access to media.

The main menu offers the top-level options such as access to music, videos, images and FM radio (which is one of the few features the Zune has that iPod doesn't). To move through the list, you press the up and down arrow buttons in the circular central controller, then press the larger button in the middle to accept the option.

If you select music, for example, a list of all CDs appears on-screen with additional options, such as switching to a list of artists or genres, that are displayed horizontally at the top of the screen. You use the right and left arrow keys to cycle through those options. The end result is that you can move through a specific path of options a bit faster than you can with an iPod, which requires you to cycle through more separate screens.

The transitions between screens are an attractive combination of fades and effects, and the screens themselves are quite visually appealing. When you play a song, for instance, the album cover is far larger on-screen, providing more of a connection with the album.

The visually attractive interface is made possible by Zune's 3-inch, 320 x 240 resolution display, which is larger than the 2.5-inch screen of comparable iPods. For the moment, Zune's display is another strong advantage -- at least until Apple unleashes its next-generation device, which, according to rumours, will have a larger touch screen and Wi-Fi. Of course, while playing the videos that come preloaded on Zune is enjoyable, your selection is highly limited, since Zune Marketplace doesn't yet sell video clips.

Mixed look and feel

Other look-and-feel features are a mixed bag. The white Zune unit we reviewed is quite different from the iPod but, subjectively, was reasonably attractive and felt comfortable to hold. Besides the central circular controls, the only other controls are small forward and back buttons located to the left and right of the main control. All controls are well positioned for easy one-hand control of the device.

Zune is about the same width as an equivalent iPod but about half as thick, more than an ounce heavier and significantly taller, which is understandable, given its larger screen. Its case is made of rubberised plastic, which is more resistant to scratches and fingerprints than the iPod. Zune comes in white, black and, inexplicably, brown.

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