Microsoft announced its third-generation Zune MP3 players and software this week. Zune 3.0 is a free download (Windows only) and many of its features are available to nonsubscribers and device owners. If you're tired of your current desktop media player, the Zune 3.0 player may be worth downloading if only for its nifty visual effects.
In the US, Microsoft will offer a new 120GB hardware model and a 16GB flash Zune in new blue-on-silver and all-black colour schemes. The Zune 3.0 media player software for Windows will be available for download from tomorrow (September 16), and will work with all generations of Zunes - and as a desktop media player.
A firmware update will also be available for first- and second-generation Zunes (third-generation firmware is preinstalled). Microsoft hopes to outshine its competition by offering innovative ways for customers to discover music. Both Zune models integrate an FM tuner--a feature that no Apple iPods have. The Zune takes advantage of its tuner and its built-in wireless connectivity with its new "Buy from FM" ability. Have you ever heard a terrific song on the radio but failed to figure out the title and artist? Buy from FM will make tracking it down easy: just tag the song you like, enter a Wi-Fi hotspot, and immediately purchase and download the song. If Wi-Fi isn't available, the Zune sets up a queue of songs you tagged ready for download.
Another appealing new feature of the Zune 3.0 software is MixView. Zune's MixView is Microsoft's answer to Apple iTunes 8.0's new Genius ability to generate playlists automatically. We saw a preview of MixView this week, and found it a visually stunning way to listen to and find new music.
For example, if you pick an album or artist in MixView, images of related content will blossom around it. Click on one of the surrounding images, and a new display will appear. Double-clicking on the image allows you to hear the full song and to purchase it.
Images of like-minded listeners from the Zune Social community will also pop up along with the recommended music. Connecting music fans to one another is a nice personalisation feature. Like Genius, MixView makes recommendations based on songs within your library and the online store (the Zune Marketplace in this case, versus the iTunes Store for Genius). But the Zune algorithm engine also draws from the Social community, an element that Genius lacks.
Unfortunately, both Buy from FM and the full MixView experience - the coolest new Zune features - are available only to Zune Pass subscribers. Nonsubscribers can use MixView, but can hear only 30 seconds of the song.
Available to nonsubscribers is a new section in the Zune Marketplace called Picks, which suggests albums, artists, and tracks based on music the user has been listening to. It's also a way for users to keep up-to-date on new songs from their favorite artists.
Ultimately, Zune seeks to draw in new customers and iPod converts through its software. Zune 3.0 is certainly more aesthetically pleasing and offers a greater array of opportunities for music discovery and social interaction than iTunes 8.0.