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It looks like the Microsoft iPod-killer won't be released in Europe for a year, by which time it will almost certainly be a different player altogether, so my interest in this is just pure curiosity and geekiness.

I really want the Zune to be successful. I own an iPod, you see, and I buy things from the iTunes Music Store from time to time. Right now, Apple has zero competition, which is why they can sell "near-DVD quality" downloadable movies without subtitles nor alternate languages nor any kind of bonus features for $14.99, which is a joke. But it is cheap enough that people who're too lazy to walk to an actual store or too impatient to wait for a DVD delivery will actually buy this stuff, so the only way the price is coming down is if somebody else comes up with a real alternative. (Amazon Unbox isn't it.)

Anyway, music is good for the soul, diversity is good for the market, and a compelling alternative to the iPod is A Good Thing. Is the Zune it ? A few hands-on reviews have come up recently :

  • Engadget : "Do we think there's potential for betterment of the platform and especially the player through software updates? Given enough time, absolutely. Would we recommend the product for purchase, like, right now? Not a chance."
  • i64x : "Where the iPod makes use of black text on a white background, the Zune lets you customize the background via a JPEG pic of your choice. The unit comes with several demo pics that are easily able to make great wallpapers, but the customization of the interface is what’s nice.[...] After using the Zune for a few hours I posted my iPod for sale online to cover most of the cost of the Zune and haven’t really looked back."
  • Paul Thurott's : "Overall, the Zune is absolutely decent [...] but you can buy a lighter, nicer-looking, and more capable iPod for exactly the same amount of money"
  • NYT's David Pogue : "The Zune 1.0 player is pretty barren, too. It doesn't have a single standard iPod amenity: no games, alarm clock, stopwatch, world clock, password-protected volume limiter, equalizer, calendar, address book or notes module. [...] Version 1.0 of Microsoft Anything is stripped-down and derivative [...] It may be quite a while before brown is the new white."
  • WSJ's Walt Mossberg : "With the wireless turned on, battery life on the Zune was worse -- just 10 hours and 12 minutes, even though I didn't send or receive any songs. [...] Overall, the iPod and iTunes are still the champs. Still, I expect the Zune to attract some converts and to get better with time."
  • Chicago Sun-Times' Andy Ihnatko : "Has it really come to this? Am I really about to manually create and install a .dll file? [...] The Zune will be dead and gone within six months. Good riddance." (Hyperlink mine.)

Doesn't sound too good. Just about everybody agrees that the big Zune feature, wireless sharing, is useless right now and unlikely to become great anytime soon. The other differentiating features are as follows :

  • Interface customization

  • Slightly bigger screen

  • Subscription model on the zune store

  • FM Radio out of the box

All of these are nice, but the Zune lacks :

  • Podcast subscription and syncing

  • Audible compatibility

  • Contacts and calendar syncing

  • Equalizer

  • Games

  • USB mass storage

As I spend more time listening to podcasts and audiobooks than to music, the absence of these features on the Zune kills it for me. Other people won't miss them, and they may care more about interface customization and screen size than I do. For them, the Zune might be a slightly better deal than the iPod.

But it was supposed to be The-iPod-Killer. You don't "kill" a product by being "about as good" for some segment of the market. You have to be much better for most of your customers. It's pretty obvious that the Zune doesn't achieve this. Heck, even Bill Gates agrees.

Oh well. We'll just have to wait for Zune 2.0.

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