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Future sounds?

Microsoft has revealed more details of its highly anticipated Zune media player, just in time to dampen excitement surrounding Apple’s new iPod range.

This article appears in the December 06 issue of PC Advisor. Available now in all good newsagents.

The digital media player market gets more exciting by the week. First came Showtime – Apple’s announcement of its revamped iPod range (see iPods get an update, below) – and then Microsoft hit back by releasing more details of its Zune range of digital audio players and related services. Which company holds the aces?

You saw the whole of the Zune

We now know that the first Zune player will have a 3in screen, a 30GB drive, Wi-Fi and an FM tuner, and will come in black, white and brown. It’ll be here for Christmas.

The UK price is yet to be announced, but with Apple’s (possibly Zune-related) price drop on the 30GB video iPod to £189 including VAT, it’s clear what Microsoft’s maximum asking price will be. The company has already revealed that accessory manufacturers such as Griffin will be making Zune add-ons – good thinking on Microsoft’s part, since the substantial range of iPod-related products is a major reason for buying an Apple player.

As with any new music player, the inevitable temptation is to begin by obsessively comparing its specifications with those of the iPod. Zune’s got a bigger screen (3in as opposed to 2.5in), the FM tuner the iPod lacks (but which can be added as an external accessory), and wireless. There will be a Zune music store with both subscription and purchase options, and the device will come preloaded with some music. It apparently won’t launch with full-blown video download capability, but this will be added later.

Why-Fi?

For now, the Zune’s most interesting distinguishing characteristic – the brown model aside – is that Wi-Fi connection. Microsoft is pitching it as a more community-oriented gadget than the iPod, and the Wi-Fi will let owners beam songs to other Zune owners, who will then be able to listen to them up to three times over three days before having to purchase them. This sounds pretty cool – if enough people buy Microsoft’s player.

There are a few more questions we still have about the Zune, which we haven’t yet managed to see in the flesh.

  • How’s the design? Microsoft has showed the device to music bloggers, some of whom have said it’s okay but a tad chunky and heavy compared with the iPod. Interestingly, they seem to like the brown model.
  • How’s the user interface? Early word from those aforementioned bloggers seems to be reasonably favourable. It sounds iPod-esque in the broad strokes, with some twists. There’s a round control pad that you expect to work like the iPod clickwheel, but it doesn’t.
  • What else will the Wi-Fi function be used for? Presumably the sharing feature won’t be the end of it. At first, you won’t be able to buy and download songs directly from the Zune, but it seems likely that this feature is on its way in one form or another.
  • Will the lack of TV and movie downloads be perceived as an impediment? Hardware-wise, the device is ready, and Microsoft says it’s working on them, and presumably it’ll be able to strike lots of content deals if it chooses. But even though thousands of songs are listened to for every one video that’s watched on an iPod, it remains a significant selling point that Apple has and Microsoft doesn’t – yet.
  • What other Zune products are on the way? Microsoft is already talking about a phone.
  • Does preloading music make sense? There’s almost nothing as personal as a person’s taste in music. We’re not yet sure whether the music that’ll come with the Zune targets a buyer with one particular set of musical interests, or whether it’ll offer a variety of genres.
  • What does this mean for other music services? Microsoft’s last go at taking on the iPod involved focusing on enabling music services such as Napster and Rhapsody to provide subscription services that worked on a variety of devices from different manufacturers. The Zune service, by contrast, is tied to the hardware. Does that mean Microsoft has given up on third-party music services?
  • Can Zune get millions of people to buy into subscription services? So far, the music subscription model seems to be one that everyone likes. Except customers.
  • The bottom line: will Zune work? We’ve tried a load of services and devices that use various Microsoft music technologies, and their track record for simply working well enough that we can listen to music we’ve paid for is poor. Microsoft’s DRM still feels more like an obstacle than an enabler. We are curious to see if Zune makes music enjoyment seamless, one of the key things that the iPod does so well.

Like many a Microsoft product before it, Zune sounds attractive in theory. But Microsoft’s execution doesn’t always live up to the concept. Zune comes from the team behind the Xbox 360, one of Microsoft’s most successful and innovative products beyond the world of Windows and the PC, so there’s grounds for hope, at least.

iPods get an update

Apple updated the iPod range at its recent Showtime event, introducing larger capacities, brighter screens and lower prices across the range. But there were no touchscreen, wireless or phone iPods on show, as had been rumoured.

The new standard iPod features a 60 percent brighter 2.5in colour display and a brightness control. It’s available with a 30GB capacity for £189 or 80GB for £259. The 30GB model features up to 14 hours of battery life for music and up to three-and-a-half hours of video playback, while the 80GB model’s battery should last up to 20 hours for music playback and five-and-a-half-hours for video. Sadly, Hollywood movies and TV shows aren’t available for sale through iTunes in Europe. The company hopes to deliver such features by “early 2007”. The firm also unveiled its revamped nano – now available in 4GB and 8GB flavours – and the shrunk iPod shuffle. The 1GB device, which costs £55, measures 41x10x27mm and weighs just 16g.

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