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Infrastructure // PC & Servers
02:58 PM
David  DeJean
David DeJean

Real Zune Now

New models of Microsoft's Zune media player prove that Microsoft is still Microsoft: It's one of the best companies in the world at doing the difficult job of learning from its mistakes.

New models of Microsoft's Zune media player prove that Microsoft is still Microsoft: It's one of the best companies in the world at doing the difficult job of learning from its mistakes.The new Zunes are 4- and 8GB Zune Nanos and an 80GB Zune Classic. They aren't called the Nano and Classic, of course -- that's what Apple calls the comparable models of the iPod. And the Zune Nano and Classic aren't even comparable to the iPod Nano and Classic. They're really very good takes on last year's Nano and Classic.

While that still leaves Microsoft playing catchup to Apple, the new Zunes do what they had to do, which is fix a lot of what was wrong with the original 30GB Zune. Where the original Zune was a plastic brick, the new Zunes are slim, sleek, sexy-to-the-touch objects. Where the original Zune had a cheap five-way rocker-switch control, the new Zunes have a touchpad that lets you scroll and set volume by sliding your finger across it, the way the iPod has taught us a player should work. Where the original Zune was wireless, but wouldn't sync wirelessly with your PC, the new Zunes do, and the setup is a breeze. Where the original Zune software didn't support RSS feeds and podcasts, the new Zunes do - and they even call them "podcasts" in the onscreen menu, which I find very . . . interesting. (Are Apple's lawyers taking the year off?)

The things that were good about the original Zune are still good: The desktop software is easy to use, and typically just does the right thing. It finds album more album art automatically that it did last year when I reviewed the original Zune, too.

The Zune store (which wasn't operational when I wrote last year) is up-to-the-minute with a clean, easy-to-use look and DRM-free MP3 files for sale, and the subscribers who pay a monthly fee can download a wide variety of the latest music (but not everything - I could get Annie Lennox's "Songs of Mass Destruction," but I couldn't get The Eagles' "Long Road Out Of Eden," which is still a Walmart exclusive.) This year there are a lot more Zune accessories, too, which is important is a world drowning in iPod docks. Particularly nice are the $39.95 Zune Premium earbuds.

Perhaps best of all, the incomprehensible "Welcome to the Social" advertising campaign is gone. There's not much that's social about being one Zuner in a sea of iPeople and that hasn't changed much in the last year. (Has anybody with a Zune beamed a song to another Zune yet?)

The new Zunes, like Version 2 of so many Microsoft products, fix much of what was wrong with last year's Version 1 compared to last year's competition. But what they don't do is compete with the current crop of iPods - the jewel-like new Nano, the 160GB Classic, the to-die-for Touch.

In a year, Microsoft has learned a lot. How much? This much: last year if somebody had given me a Zune as a holiday present it would have probably wound up in a drawer. This year if somebody gives me a Zune I'd probably use it. That's a big improvement. But Microsoft still has to make an even bigger improvement if it's going to do more than just expend ego in the media player market - next year it has to make me want to buy a Zune. So far I'm only ready to reach for my wallet for the earbuds.

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