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Review: Zune's fascinating potential

Microsoft's media player is sometimes compelling and largely incomplete

By David Haskin
November 14, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Looking at Microsoft Corp.'s much-discussed, just-released Zune as just another media player misses the point. The player itself has its virtues, but it is clearly only one part of Microsoft's effort to replicate Apple Computer Inc.'s wildly successful iPod/iTunes media ecosystem.

While Apple has sold millions of iPods, their real value to Apple is how tightly intertwined the devices are with the iTunes music service and iTunes software. If you own an iPod and want to download music, you must use iTunes, which has sold more than a billion tracks in its relatively short life.

Microsoft Corp.'s Zune
Microsoft Corp.'s Zune
Courtesy of Microsoft Corp.
The Zune, which was released today, isn't yet a compelling enough device to pull many customers away from the iPod. But if you look at Zune in combination with the Zune Marketplace online store and the software that connects the device with the store, Microsoft's effort is more compelling. It's still a work in progress, but in a few ways it already equals and even surpasses the iPod/iTunes juggernaut.

Beautiful interface

Zune is, overall, a competent 30GB player that is particularly attractive in some areas, misses the target in others and strikes out entirely with one of its most visible features.

To start with the positive, Microsoft succeeded at something no other media player vendor has: It has created a graphical user interface that is, subjectively, as compelling as the iPod's. To do that, Microsoft took a minimalist approach, offering relatively few options but giving users fast, easy and eye-catching access to media.

The main menu offers the top-level options such as access to music, videos, images and FM radio (which is one of the few features the Zune has that iPod doesn't). To move through the list, you press the up and down arrow buttons in the circular central controller, then press the larger button in the middle to accept the option.

If you select music, for example, a list of all CDs appears on-screen with additional options, such as switching to a list of artists or genres, that are displayed horizontally at the top of the screen. You use the right and left arrow keys to cycle through those options. The result is that you can move through a specific path of options a bit faster than you can with an iPod, which requires you to cycle through more separate screens.

The transitions between screens are an attractive combination of fades and effects, and the screens themselves are quite visually appealing. When you play a song, for instance, the album cover is far larger on-screen, providing more of a connection with the album.



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