Zune is much improved, but still catching up

The media player has yet to surpass iPod, other competitors

The first-generation Zune media player that Microsoft released last year was a me-too product with a few nice touches. So the question with the new, second-generation Zune is whether Microsoft is ready to surpass its competition, most notably Apple and its iPods.

In a word, the answer is no. The 8GB flash memory, Wi-Fi-enabled Zune I reviewed is quite a decent media player. Microsoft obviously worked hard to get it to compare favorably to the iPod Nano, and it does do that, but only if you compare this second-generation Zune to the previous-generation iPod Nano.

In other words, this is the Zune Microsoft should have introduced last year. The new Zune is well executed and has a notably intuitive user interface, but it's not particularly compelling when compared with the new iPod Nano and some of Zune's other competitors.

Out of the box

Perhaps the biggest news is that Microsoft released a flash-memory-based media player at all. One complaint about first-generation Zunes was that Microsoft released only hard-disk-based players, which account for a minority of media player sales. Besides the 8GB flash player I reviewed, Microsoft is also releasing a 4GB flash player and 30GB and 80GB hard-drive based second-generation Zunes.

Opening the box of the second-generation Zune flash player evoked a serious flash of deja vu. In particular, I found the packaging and the size and shape of the device to be reminiscent of the previous-generation iPod Nano. To be fair, that was only a first impression. In fact, at 3.5 in. high by 1.6 in. wide and 0.33 in. thick (and weighing 1.7 oz.), the new Zune is a smidge bigger than the old Nano. That slight bit of extra bulk is largely used for Zune's generous 1.8-in. screen.

The display is clear and bright, although it's smaller than the new Nano's 2-in. display and significantly smaller than the recently released Creative Zen's excellent 2.5-in. display. A nice touch is that Microsoft uses glass rather than plastic to cover the display, which makes it a bit more smudge- and scratch-resistant.

Navigation is somewhat iPod-ish, but with some slick improvements. The Zune has an oval-shaped clickwheel, which Microsoft calls a Zune Pad. It has two buttons above it for moving forward or back to a previous screen, and for playing and pausing tracks. You can progress through menus either by pressing the up and down buttons on the clickwheel or by running a finger up or down its surface. While playing a song, you can increase or decrease the volume by using the same two methods.

The Zune Pad works particularly well with Zune's clear and intuitive interface. The top-level menu has, in large type, the main features offered by the device, such as music, video, still images and settings. After selecting one of those top-level options, a group of submenus appears horizontally across the top of the screen.

For instance, if you select Music, the next screen lists subcategories such as Artist, Genre and Playlist horizontally across the top. You cycle through those options by using the right or left buttons of the clickwheel (or by sliding your finger horizontally). After selecting a subcategory from the horizontal list, the contents of that subcategory appear vertically below the horizontal list. This slick system makes the Zune easier and more fun to use than its competitors.

Before using the Zune, you first must load the Zune software, which you download from the Web. The software enables you to not only sync with the Zune wirelessly or via a USB cable, but also to manage your media collections and to participate in what Microsoft still calls The Social, which will be discussed a bit later. Overall, the software is simple and intuitive.

Battery life is rated at 24 hours for uninterrupted audio playback, about the same as all of the Zune's major competitors.

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