Why should you buy a Zune? Because Bill Gates is strapped for cash. No, actually because Microsoft, to sustain its World Domination, must never allow the enemy to get too strong, in any market, including handheld media players. After watching surrogates such as Dell flounder against the mighty iPod, Microsoft decided to take matters into its own hands.
Politics and emotion aside, simply viewed for what it is — another MP3 player in a market ruled by Apple and crowded the contestants — the Zune isn't bad at all. Its screen is larger than the iPod's (measuring 3 inches diagonal versus 2.5 inches), and like the iPod it handles audio, video, podcasts, and photos. Unlike the iPod, it has built-in Wi-Fi for sharing all that good stuff as well as an FM tuner. The larger screen is probably its best advantage; by flipping the player sideways, you get a decently viewable widescreen. Moreover, the screen resolution and color are terrific; even album thumbnails are crisp.
The Wi-Fi feature is interesting, but perhaps not as big a deal as it seems. Yes, you can send files to another nearby (30 feet) Zune, but you can't do anything more substantially useful, like wirelessly connect to the Internet or even a PC. For copyright reasons, transferred songs are deleted after three days or three plays (photos stay onboard). Moreover, a few songs won't beam at all — because of additional copyright restrictions. Huh.
Operationally, the Zune is quite good. The menus look great, and navigation is fast and excellent. Using a circular four-way (plus center) button and a two other buttons, the navigation is fairly effortless, with everything you could want a scant few button clicks away. The Zune's sound quality rivals or surpasses the iPod's, and although the cool magnetically docking earbuds are serviceable, you can coax improved sound by investing in a better pair
No question about it, the iTunes store is first-rate — well stocked and easy to use. The shelves at the Zune store are, at least for now, relatively less populated. Songs are 99 cents on either, but in the Zune Marketplace (and in Xbox land too), tediously, purchases are made using points, not cents (79 points = 99 cents). Still, the Zune store offers a major deal that iTunes does not: the Zune Pass subscription service. At $15 a month for all you can eat, it's not a bad way to dine.
Does It Do Windows?
Some nitty-gritty stuff you might be fascinated to know: The player supports MP3, WMA, unprotected AAC, H.264, MPG4, WMV, and JPEG files. Not surprisingly, Zune doesn't work with Mac OS X. No AC charger is included (one's available optionally); you recharge through a provided USB cables. Battery life is rated at 14 hours for music playback and 4 hours for video, but I got a bit less for each.
At the End of the Day…
For now, Zune comes only as a 30-GB hard-disk model. Surely, as in the case of the iPod, numerous variations will appear. In particular, look for expanded wireless access to PCs and Xboxes. All in all, Zune 1.0 isn't bad. Zune 2.0 will be better. So, why should you buy a Zune? Because it's not an iPod.