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Zune's fascinating potential

Zune's fascinating potential

Zune's most-discussed feature, its Wi-Fi capability, falls flat, however. Zune would be truly compelling if it connected directly over a wireless network to the Zune Marketplace. At the very least, it should connect wirelessly to your PC so that you can transfer media to the device.

Instead, Microsoft uses Wi-Fi only to connect one Zune to another to exchange music. Once somebody has transferred music to your Zune, you can play it three times. If you want to listen to it a fourth time, you must buy the music. In other words, Microsoft is using Wi-Fi as a marketing tool.

If a lot of people had Zunes, this feature would be moderately interesting. In the absence of a lot of Zunes out in the world, the feature is a waste of good Wi-Fi capabilities. Eliminating Wi-Fi and lowering the price by $50 bucks would make Zune a far more attractive device than this unnecessary "feature."

Missing entirely is the ability for the device to operate as a hard disk. Also notably missing are some of the little extras that are attractive to some iPod users, such as games and the ability to use it as an alarm clock.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that, using iTunes 6.0 or higher, you can transfer your Microsoft Outlook contacts and calendar to an iPod. You can't do that with Microsoft's own Zune.

The media ecosystem

Like the Zune player, Zune Marketplace and the software that connects the device and the online store, are combinations of good, bad and indifferent. However, if you put together all three elements, Zune's promise becomes more obvious.

One major Zune Marketplace feature that iTunes doesn't have is a subscription-based service. Like iTunes, users can purchase music and download it to their Zune. But like subscription services such as Rhapsody and Napster, users also can pay about $US15 a month and download all the music they want.

Mostly because of iPod's massive market share and the large investment many iPod owners have in music purchased from iTunes, adoption of the music subscription services has been anemic. And, arguably, Microsoft's PlaysForSure digital rights management scheme used by the subscription services is clumsy to use at times.

Still, subscription services as a concept are appealing: For roughly the price of a CD each month, users can download as much music for your media player and PC as they want. By combining both the purchase and subscription models, Zune Marketplace offers something compelling that Apple does not.

True, Napster, Rhapsody and the other subscription services offer the same combination of media for sale and rent, but, like iPod/iTunes, connecting a Zune to the Zune marketplace is a truly unified experience. In the left pane of the Zune software, for instance, there are controls for managing the Zune device.

The Zune software itself is nicely done. Like the Zune player, it is simple and uncluttered, with bright, attractive graphics. This simplicity translates into ease of use.

Incidentally, if a user already subscribes to a music service, they won't be able to play that music on their Zune or connect the Zune to the service. Microsoft, which powers those services with PlaysForSure, has gone to a separate, proprietary DRM scheme for Zune Marketplace.

Beyond offering a subscription service, though, Zune Marketplace isn't nearly as advanced as iTunes or, for that matter, some of the other subscription services. Besides not offering videos, podcasts are unavailable, and, with just over 2 million tracks, it offers far less music than iPod's 3.5 million.

That summarises Microsoft's entire Zune effort: It has some strong, even compelling features but also many areas that are underwhelming. It is the beginning of a work in progress that will be attractive to some users now. But many users will find that it is not quite ready for prime time.

Local info: Zune is not yet available in Australia.

RRP: $US249


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