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Zune 2.0

When I write a blog post to accompany a just-published column, I usually wait until mid-morning to see if any questions keep coming up in reader e-mail. This morning's review of Microsoft's new Zune hardware and software, however, has yet to draw any reaction in e-mail.

So Microsoft's iPod rival may face an even tougher challenge than I'd thought. (Note that I didn't call it an "iPod killer"; not only is that not true of the Zune, merely describing an MP3 player in those terms has traditionally ensured its imminent demise.)

Just in case you haven't gotten around to clicking the "send" button in your e-mail, I thought I'd share some other details about the Zune players, software and online store:

* The new Zune flash-memory models come in a broader choice of colors than before: dark gray, scarlet, olive drab and a bright shade of Pepto-Bismol pink. Guess which color my review unit came in?

* Microsoft didn't make any mistakes with the Zune's packaging. You don't have to saw through any "blister-pack" plastic, and on the inside you aren't greeted with a sheet of paper imploring you to call tech support before returning the product to the store.

* The company also didn't cut corners with the Zune's headphones. The flash models come with three different sets of colored foam pads (Apple no longer includes any with iPods), while the 80 GB Zune includes noise-isolation headphones that did a remarkable job of shutting out the din of the outside world.

* The old 30 GB Zune that I reviewed last year is still available and selling for $200, but it now looks distinctly lame next to its thinner siblings. A free firmware update gives it the same software features as the new model.

* Each of the two Zunes loaned by Microsoft for this review -- an 8 GB flash-memory module and an 80-GB hard-drive unit -- also required an incremental firmware update. Installing that would have taken close to half an hour in the horrible old Zune software, but in the new software it finished in minutes.

* The Zune's battery, like the iPod's, is sealed inside the case. Microsoft, however, doesn't seem to have any sort of battery-replacement service available.

* The Zune's Windows XP/Vista-only software does, however, come with some high hardware requirements in the graphics department: Microsoft recommends 256 megabytes of video memory to run this thing.

* The Zune Marketplace, as before, still suffers from the annoying habit of responding to a music search by listing songs that it doesn't sell.

* Among the songs that it does sell, copy-restricted Windows Media Audio downloads come at a bit rate of 192 kbps, while its unrestricted MP3 downloads have at least a 256 kbps bit rate, and some go as high as 320 kbps.

* I didn't spend much time in the review talking about the Marketplace's "Zune Pass" subscription service, mainly because so few people seem to be using these rental options. At a briefing last week, Zune product manager Scott Erickson said the "vast majority" of Zune users only buy songs. The Napster music service, which has promoted a subscription option more aggressively than anybody else, doesn't seem to be doing any better.

Still have questions? Ask away in my Web chat, starting at 2 this afternoon.

Meanwhile, I'll close with a question of my own: Do any of these new Zunes interest you? If so, what media player were you thinking of buying earlier--an iPod, or one using Microsoft's older "PlaysForSure" technology?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 15, 2007; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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