MicroSoft challenges iPod again

Don't look now, but Microsoft might finally be getting the hang of hardware.

The company's overall track record for designing gadgets is pretty awful. Remember the Smart Display? The Spot Watch?

The Ultra Mobile PC? The original Zune?

But Microsoft's new second generation Zune music/photo/video player is a pleasure to use. It fixes a long list of things that made the original Zune such a pathetic wannabe.

Best of all, the new Zune is starting to develop its own identity. The echoes of Microsoft executives saying, "It'll be just like the iPod, only ours" aren't quite as loud on this one.

The family includes three new models. First, there's an 80 gigabyte hard drive Zune ($250) whose size, design, shape and price are intended to compete with the 80gig iPod Classic. Then there are the flash memory based models, which resemble last year's iPod Nano: thin, tall slabs that hold 4 or 8 gigabytes of music, photos and videos (for $150 and $200, like the Nano). The original, 30gig Zune is still available, too, at $200. (There are no Zune equivalents to the tiny iPod Shuffle, the wireless Internet iPod Touch or the capacious 160gig iPod Classic.) Confident design steps are evident in all the new models. The back is metal like the iPod's, but textured and therefore far less likely to show scratches and dings.

Then there's the new control pad. You can navigate the Zune's bright, clear, animated software by clicking the dial at any of its four compass points; select something by clicking the center; and here's the twist scroll through lists by rubbing the pad's face. Music player companies have struggled for years to come up with a controller as good as the iPod's click wheel; Microsoft, in Zune 2.0, has finally done it.

The sound quality is very good, especially if you use the 80gig Zune's included earbuds. They're not hard disks like iPod's and those of the smaller Zunes; they're soft rubber bulbs that snuggle into your ear canals, sealing out the outside world.


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