Zune is much improved, but still catching up

The media player has yet to surpass iPod, other competitors

Some nice extras

The Zune also comes with some extras, some minor, some more significant. It is colorful -- it comes in red, black, pink and olive green. That makes it about as colorful as the iPod Nano and more colorful than the new-generation Creative Zen and Sansa View, which come only in black.

The Zune switches automatically between portrait mode for basic operation to landscape for video and images. It supports WMV, .MP4 and even H.264 video files, which means you can record TV shows with Windows Media Center and then sync them with the Zune software. However, while video playback was smooth with few, if any, dropped frames, even the youngest eyes won't watch many videos on such a small screen.

Audio support is also strong, with playback of, not surprisingly, Microsoft's WMA format, MP3 and, somewhat surprisingly, unprotected AAC. AAC support means you can listen to music on a Zune that you've purchased from iTunes and burned to a CD, although you can't listen to music that has simply been downloaded from iTunes. However, if you want to join a music subscription service, your options are limited to Zune Marketplace -- it doesn't support other subscription services, such as Rhapsody or Napster.

Audio playback quality was solid. I found the midranges particularly solid, and the low end well defined, but I detected some flatness at the high end. For instance, high-hat symbols didn't sound quite as alive as they do on other players, such as the iPod Nano and the Creative Zen.

A feature that recommends Zune compared with the iPod Nano is the FM radio. However, Zune's other wireless capabilities are more of a mixed bag.

The first-generation Zunes were dissed because although they were Wi-Fi-equipped, all you could do with that Wi-Fi was exchange songs -- with a lot of restrictions -- with nearby Zune users. That assumed, of course, that there were nearby Zune users.

Some of those sharing restrictions have been lifted, but, practically speaking, this type of sharing is still not likely to happen often. However, you can now use the built-in Wi-Fi to sync with your desktop computer rather than using a cable, which is a nice convenience at times. Synchronization can be launched either from the PC software or from the Zune itself, although launching wireless sync from the Zune means going a couple of layers deep into the Settings menu.

High user demands

But while wireless syncing is nice, a more useful wireless capability is still missing -- the ability to acquire online music via Wi-Fi. SanDisk Corp.'s Sansa Connect can do that with Yahoo Music Unlimited, and Apple's iPod Touch can do that with the iTunes store. The ability to acquire music wirelessly makes a media player far more useful, and fun, while you're mobile.

The Zune's inability to perform that task is particularly curious given how vigorously Microsoft is aping the iPod/iTunes closed ecosystem for acquiring media. That is, like iPod/iTunes, Zune doesn't work with services other than Zune Marketplace. The ability to acquire music wirelessly would be an important future addition if Microsoft is serious about catching Apple.

Another omission is the fact that Microsoft isn't offering -- yet -- a 16GB version of the flash-based Zune player. New-generation players from SanDisk and Creative Labs are offered with that capacity, although Apple's iPod Nano, which Microsoft is most obviously aiming at, doesn't.

Microsoft has, however, made some progress in addressing one notable failure from the first generation. Previously, The Social primarily consisted of exchanging music with nearby Zune users. Now, it primarily focuses on the Web, with Microsoft hoping that a community of Zune users will emerge online to share playlists and music, which can be synced to the Zune using the Zune software. You can still share music with nearby Zune users, but Microsoft's new idea is more realistic in terms of creating a community.

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