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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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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