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You're about to enter ... the Zune zone
Seattle Times senior technology reporter
It's exhilarating when you first discover the way digital music players let you fly through a music collection with your thumb and carry a room full of albums in your pocket.
The polish and simplicity of Apple's iPod, and its clever marketing, brought this experience to tens of millions of people over the past five years.
Yet despite all the buzz, most people still don't have an iPod or any other digital media player. Only 27 percent of Internet users have one, according to a comScore Networks report last week.
Microsoft's Zune will give you that same rush, if you're among the majority of the population that's still new to digital music.
It has a bigger screen than the comparable iPod, slightly simpler controls and a larger case. Those things could make it easier for newcomers to get the hang of sifting through a thousand songs with a few clicks.
The Zune also has a great FM radio that displays song names if they're broadcast by the station. That alone could tilt me toward buying a Zune over an iPod, since I listen to KEXP more than anything else.
Dissecting the Zune
Screen: 3-in. LCD
Capacity:30 gigabytes (up to 7,500 songs or 100 hours of video)
Trick feature: Shares songs and photos wirelessly with nearby Zunes.
Unlike iPod: Has FM radio, no scroll wheel, comes in brown.
Optional accessories: Car and home connector kits; remote; external speakers; covers and connectors.
Battery: Up to 14 hours per charge. Using wireless cuts battery life about 10 percent, according to Microsoft.
More info: zune.net
If you're loving your iPod, you won't be blown away by the Zune. But none of the iPod users I showed the Zune to rejected it out of hand, which seems like a pretty good showing for Microsoft's first attempt.
Even a clerk at the Apple Store at University Village seemed impressed with the Zune, but he wasn't keen on the brown color of the one I was carrying, and he noted that it's significantly bigger than the iPod. Another clerk walked by, saw the Zune, and said, "Cool."
The Zune's funky colors and textured paint are also more smudge-resistant than the shiny plastic and chrome cases of the iPod, which seem to immediately get smeared with fingerprints.
But the downside to the Zune's design is that it doesn't feel as much like an exquisite little device as the iPod. In comparison, the Zune feels more dense and utilitarian than you expect, like a Chevy Camaro.
The sturdiness is probably deceptive. Inside, the Zune has a 30 gigabyte hard drive that will break if you bang the device around too much, just like the comparable iPod.
For young kids, a better option is probably a player with Flash memory. They hold much less music — a slice of your music collection, and not the whole thing — but the inner workings have no moving parts to break.
PC can bog down
Zune's free software jukebox works fine, but it has the same shortcomings as Apple's iTunes. Both make it easy to organize music and load players up, but they can bog down a PC and they use sly tricks to establish themselves as your default media player, take over your digital music experience and lure you to their online stores.
The Zune software is set to automatically add all the music, videos and photos on your computer to its library. That makes it easy to get going with a Zune, but I turned this off because I didn't want to load family photos onto a portable device, especially one that I'll be returning to Microsoft.
As for the Zune's big selling point — that it makes music social because it has a wireless song-sharing feature — I think that's mostly marketing hooey. It is not social to listen to music with headphones, even if you occasionally send songs to nearby devices.
But the wireless feature does have great potential to make portable media players less isolated and easier to connect with other devices, home networks and the Internet. The Zune is designed so Microsoft can upgrade its software to do more with this hardware.
Unfortunately Microsoft is being secretive about its plans. Zune was developed by the same group that created the Xbox and took a similarly coy approach — the console was obviously designed to do more than play games, but they wouldn't acknowledge those capabilities until long after its debut, when they decided it was time.
I had to tone down the skepticism, though, after I showed the Zune to Matthew Wolf, a 12-year-old iPod nano user in my neighborhood.
If Microsoft can win over young music lovers like Wolf, it should do fine with the Zune. He warmed right up to it.
"I like the brown color — the iPods don't have cool colors like brown and stuff like that," he said while hanging out in pajamas and a Death Cab for Cutie T-shirt.
It took Wolf a minute to get used to the Zune control — its main control looks like the iPod scroll wheel, but it's actually a four-way switch — and he didn't like that it's heavier than the iPod. But he liked the interface that displays album art more than the iPod's.
"The artwork is really big — that's nice. I like how it's laid out," he said. "I like the picture quality. It would be nice on an airplane or in the car — you could watch a movie."
Of all the people I showed the Zune to, Wolf was the most enthusiastic about wireless sharing. When friends want to listen to the same song on the bus, for instance, they'll share iPod earphones, he explained.
"If I had one and my friend had one, I would definitely use the wireless thing," he said. "This way you can just beam it over to the next person and they can listen to the same song as you."
The feature works as promised, but the shared songs arrive with so much copy protection, I think it's a stretch to call it sharing. You can play a song three times within three days, after which you have to buy a copy if you want to keeping hearing it. Microsoft hopes you'll like the song so much that you'll pay 99 cents to buy it from Zune's online music store.
The store is similar to Apple's, but Microsoft hasn't lined up as many songs yet. I don't think that matters much at all. Both stores have millions of songs, and most people get their music elsewhere, anyway.
You don't have to fill your Zune or your iPod with music from Microsoft or Apple, by the way. You can load them with music from CDs.
I think it's preferable to buy CDs because you have a backup copy in case of a computer catastrophe. You can also make your music experience more social by lending the discs to friends.
It is simple and straightforward to buy and organize music when you embrace these services — you don't have to mess with loading CDs onto your computer and storing them somewhere; you just download with a click. But the tradeoff for that convenience is that you're locked into a particular format.
You can't play songs bought from iTunes in Apple's format on the Zune, for instance. Strangely, you can't load the Zune with music bought from Microsoft's now-defunct MSN music store, either.
What's more, you've got to buy blocks of "points" from Microsoft that are then used to pay for music at the Zune store. This draws users into the world of Microsoft micropayments, where points are used to download games and goodies for the Xbox. It also lets kids buy music without a credit card. The downside is the points are kind of misleading. Songs cost 79 points, which makes you think they're cheaper than the 99 cents they really cost.
My advice is to use the jukebox to organize your digital music and use its attached stores to research music. Then buy your music offline.
Zune's jukebox took about 45 minutes to install and severely bogged down my two-year-old Windows XP laptop. Annoyingly, it requires you to restart the PC and register with Microsoft's Live ID authentication service to proceed.
I also showed Wolf another new media player, the Samsung K5, which has built-in loudspeakers like a tiny boombox. It's an apples-to-oranges comparison, because the $179 K5 only has 2 gigabytes of Flash memory and its touchscreen controls are much finickier than the Zune's crisp buttons. But I think it truly makes portable music social by projecting songs into the room.
The K5 uses Plays For Sure, a software package that Microsoft provides to hardware companies so their devices easily connect to a PC and synchronize with Windows Media Player.
Microsoft developed the Zune in part because Plays For Sure wasn't working as a response to the iPod. But the software worked like a dream when I plugged in the K5 — it instantly recognized the device, then helped me fill the player with music in just a few minutes.
The K5 made Wolf and me both look at the Zune in a new light.
"Oh that is so cool," he said. "I like this one much better."
Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company