Welcome To The Social*
After months' worth of escalating speculation and hot on the heels of the 5-year anniversary of the iPod, Microsoft's most serious response to date, Zune went on sale Tuesday. My review unit, a 30 GByte white model, arrived that same morning. And on Wednesday evening I sat down with a key member of my product review team (my wife) to compare it against my (also white) 30 GByte iPod with Video.
This is going to be a hardware-centric discussion. I'm a bit reluctant, I confess, to toss the Zune software on either of my two primary PCs. My desktop computer is still running Windows Media Player 9 (so that I can burn CDs with the free, two-second-between-track delay-scrubbing Nero Fast CD-Burning Plug-in), my laptop PC has Yahoo Music Jukebox installed, and I've upgraded neither system to Internet Explorer 7 yet. Everything's working well at the moment and, with past experience as a guide to possible future behaviour, coupled with other reviewers' published Zune software installation problems, I worry that the Zune stack might muck up my systems. For now, I'm relying on the pre-loaded audio, still image and video content that Microsoft thankfully provides on every Zune. Don't fear, though: I have a review laptop sitting here, already upgraded to the latest Microsoft browser and media player, that I'll eventually use to supplement this writeup with a software treatise.
Contrasting Zune and the iPod from my engineering mindset, supplemented by my spouse's consumer slant, has been an interesting experience. As usual, there are no absolute winners and losers here; just reasonable cost, feature and form factor trade-offs made from the perspective of Cupertino and Redmond's differing views of what the user wants both now and in the future, coupled with Microsoft's Xbox-reminiscent willingness to lose money in the short-term in order to quickly make up ground on an already well-established competitor. On that note, the two competitors' products are comparably priced (for the nitpickers in the audience, Zune's 99 cents more expensive).
Zune's bigger than the iPod, as this Sacramento Bee writeup points out, although I'm pretty sure both units are packing the same thin HDD. It's also heavier, although it feels lighter to both my wife and I, and its translucent outer case implies that it'll be more scratch-resistant. Part of the reason for the larger size is Zune's additional circuitry; an FM radio, a Wi-Fi transceiver, and a bigger LCD. That larger screen leads to the other key building block difference between the two systems; Zune has a larger battery. Battery life between the two systems is roughly comparable; keep in mind that the Sacramento Bee article table gives estimates for the 2nd-generation iPod with Video. Zune would stack up much favourably in this respect versus the first-generation unit I own (which benefitted from the recent power management firmware upgrade, but still doesn't contain the 2nd-generation iPod's brighter but more energy-efficient display).
Speaking of displays….even though's Zune's only marginally bigger than the iPod, its display has 50% more surface area. Microsoft pulled off this hat trick by selecting a design with, in normal operation, a portrait-oriented LCD, but that you turn sideways (which, slickly, also rotates the volume controls 90 degrees) to watch still images and video. Voila…larger-screen landscape mode. The user-customizable Zune GUI is eye-catching as well; my wife loved all the little details, like how after a few seconds, the FM radio automatically picks up and reports the artist and song title being played (if, that is, the tuned-in radio station implements the modulation of this data within the broadcast signal). Yet, although the Zune screen is bigger (and therefore doesn't need to be held as close to the face for a palatable viewing experience….a popular iPod video transcoding utility is cleverly and appropriately named iSquint) it's the same resolution as the iPod's LCD….so the Zune display looks softer.
Now about that Wi-Fi. Right now it's perhaps easier to come up with a list of things you can't do with it than things you can. All that you can do right now, bottom-line, is swap pictures and tunes with other Zune-toters (Who's Zuneing Who?); a feature that won't be meaningful until there's an adequately-sized Zune installed base (which came first, the chicken or the egg?). And regardless of whether or not the audio tracks you wirelessly transmit are inherently DRM-inclusive, your mates will only be able to access them three times or for three days, whichever comes first. Akin to iTune's lack of built-in support for pulling audio off iPods (except for verified purchased iTunes Store tracks in iTunes v7, and then only to account-authorized computers), this restriction even on 'naked' MP3s and WMAs was likely put in place to appease record labels who feared consumers' abilities to easily share their ripped CD collections.
Continued with 'A Sufficient Hardware Foundation For Future Firmware Perfection?'….
*Zune's marketing tagline, in case you haven't seen the commercials yet