Microsoft Zune Still Playing Catch-Up

Why have Microsoft’s Zune media players failed to make even the tiniest of dents in the iPod’s market dominance? There are multiple reasons, but one stands out: They’ve been stuck in a hopeless game of catch-up, and they’re always way, way behind.

The original Zune was a hard disk player that debuted in 2006–right when Apple’s flash-based iPod Nano was becoming the world’s best-selling MP3 player. In 2007, Microsoft announced Nano-like Zunes that used flash storage–a couple of months after Apple shipped the sexier touch-screen iPod Touch. And now Microsoft is releasing the Zune HD, a touch-screen model, but one without the awesome power of the iPhone/iPod Touch App Store. To riff on the famous Wayne Gretzky quote, Microsoft is like a hockey player who keeps skating to where the puck was…not to where it is right now, and certainly not to where it will be.

But wait. The Zune HD may be a mere media player, but it’s anything but a retread. It packs worthwhile technologies that no iPod does, such as an OLED screen and HD output. It’s very much its own device in terms of industrial design and user interface, both of which are nicely done. In short, the Zune HD is cool in ways that no previous Zune has been. And even though the HD has its share of imperfections and limitations, it’s easy to imagine some folks preferring it to any media player that hails from Cupertino.

Sizewise, the new Zune is noticeably more pocketable than the iPod Touch and its soulmate, the iPhone–it’s a midsized gizmo, in an aluminum-and-plastic case that fits your hand easily and looks good in it. (The jokes about the homely brown Zune can end now.) Here it is flanked by the new iPod Nano and an iPhone 3GS:

Naturally, a noticeably smaller player is going to have a noticeably smaller screen: The Zune’s is 3.3?, vs. the 3.5? display on the Touch. The difference is more striking than those two numbers suggest: The screen is plenty big enough for tasks like managing audio and video, but movies feel less expansive than on the Touch, and the on-screen keyboard requires that you tap with more precision. Some folks are bashing the HD for its lack of the Touch’s embarrassment of app riches, but even if it could magically run all 70,000-odd iPhone OS apps, it wouldn’t run many of them very well–the screen is too little.

Which is not to say that the 480-by-272 pixel screen looks bad. The OLED display boasts vivid, bright colors; it’s not a total revelation compared to the LCD on my iPhone 3GS, but it’s pleasing by any standard, and particularly nifty for video content. The nicest thing about it isn’t how it looks, though–it’s the multi-touch interface, which is every bit as fluid as that on the iPod Touch and iPhone. Just as with Apple’s interface, you use your fingers to scroll, tap, pinch, and pull; it’s smooth, responsive, and fun, and the fancy animated menus you use to jump from feature to feature are as intuitive as Apple’s equivalents even though they don’t look or work like them.

As a music player, the most interesting thing about the Zune HD is a holdover from previous Zunes: Microsoft’s Zune Pass subscription service. For $14.99 a month, you get full access to Microsoft’s entire catalog of music; you can download albums and tracks directly to the HD, via its built-in Wi-Fi, or download them to a PC first and then sync them to the Zune via USB cable or Wi-Fi. You can also stream unlimited music in your Web browser (even if that browser is on a Mac–a platform which Zune doesn’t otherwise support).

Of course, when you subscribe to a music service you’re renting, not buying: If you cancel your Zune Pass subscription, all this music goes away. But in an obvious response to the utter domination of iTunes’ pay-per-track pricing, your fifteen bucks also lets you download ten DRM-free MP3s a month that are yours to keep and will play even if you dump your Microsoft audio player for a competitor.

Consumers have consistently failed to show much enthusiasm for subscription music plans, so it’s possible that real people won’t find Zune Pass a significant point in the HD’s favor. Then again, the HD is probably the best subscription-music player ever; it may help subscription music’s cause simply by being a device that people want.

If you still don’t want to commit to Zune Pass, you can buy songs a la carte from the Zune Marketplace, as you would from iTunes. (Microsoft continues to needlessly complicate matters by pricing everything in Microsoft Points, which are worth 1.25 cents apiece in real-world currency, and which you buy in blocks.) Or you can rip songs from CD using the Zune software. Or listen to the player’s built-in HD radio receiver, which provides static-free reception and extra variant versions of some stations. (Too bad the radio doesn’t offer the new iPod Nano’s TiVo-like pausing and rewinding of live radio.)

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