Microsoft has launched three new Zune portable digital media players featuring touch-sensitive buttons, the ability to sync with wireless networks, and flash memory in two of them.
The company plans to release the three Zunes in the US by mid-November, in time for them to compete against Apple's iPods among holiday shoppers.
Microsoft trails behind the market leading iPod. The company said it has sold about 1.2 million of the first-generation Zune players that were released last November. In contrast, more than 100 million iPods have been shipped since it was introduced in 2001.
The company also launched Zune Social, a beta online music community that gives people a place to share their music tastes, knowledge and experiences with others. It has also restocked and redesigned its Zune Marketplace online store to include over 1 million MP3 files that are not protected by DRM (digital rights management), and can be played on the Zune and other devices.
The redesigned Zune Marketplace
The move to offer content that is not protected by DRM is in line with similar strategies by Apple, which offers both DRM-protected and unprotected music, and Amazon.com which last week launched the beta of its Amazon MP3 music download service.
The three Zunes include at the high-end an 80GB hard disk drive model that carries a suggested retail price of $250 (£125). The other two models use flash memory. The 4GB model, described as ultraportable, is priced at $150 (££75), while an 8GB version is $200 (£100).
Two of the new devices have a new touch-sensitive button, called the Zune Pad navigation button, which allows users to move through lists of songs or albums or to fast-forward through picture slide shows or videos, Microsoft said. For those who need to pause, advance or adjust the volume on the device without looking, they can also navigate the Zune Pad using physical cues by pressing on the four sides or the centre of the button to adjust the volume or choose the next track, it added. New Zune software automatically imports broadcast content recorded on Microsoft Windows Media Center for Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate, so consumers can sync them onto their Zune media player and watch them offline.
Microsoft has also enhanced content sharing features on the Zune, by for example removing the time restriction on users listening to a song. Customers can now share select full-length songs, albums, play lists, pictures and audio podcasts from device to device. They can listen to any song received up to three times with no time restrictions, and they can now also pass along songs to other friends who have a Zune, Microsoft said.
Current Zune owners will automatically receive new software features, the redesigned PC and device software and access to the new Zune Marketplace when they are released to the US public in mid-November.