Daniel Eran Dilger in San Francisco
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iPod vs Zune: A Buyer’s Guide

iPod vs Zune: a Buyer's Guide
Daniel Eran Dilger
I’ve written several articles about Microsoft’s new Zune MP3 player. A number of readers have asked me to do a direct comparison with the iPod. Here it is!

[This article discussed the 2006 Zune and iPods. For an updated look at the latest models, see:

Winter 2007 Feature Comparisons Update:
Winter 2007 Buyer’s Guide: Microsoft Zune 8 vs iPod Nano

Winter 2007 Market Update:
Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing

The remainder of this article was published November 30, 2006. ]

Microsoft’s Zune and the 30 GB iPod both have the same capacity and price tag. Even the cost of accessories are all identical. So here, I’ll go beyond the specs and present a number of real world factors that define which player is a better buy.

Music Management Software
Both Apple and Microsoft ship their music player with software for managing a music library on your computer. This software has a big impact on how easy and simple it is to actually use the player. The Zune software only works on a PC running Windows XP, while the iPod works on both the Mac and PC.

iPod and iTunes
The iPod uses iTunes for managing your music library. Apple’s iTunes is also a free download for both Windows and Macs. If you already use iTunes, you can simply plug in a new iPod and it just works.

Additionally, if your household already has an iPod, any number of new iPods can all be used with the same iTunes software on your computer. Since there are different versions of the iPod at different prices from $79 and up, Apple’s iTunes offers an advantage in working with a variety of different players.

If you buy music online, this is particularly an advantage. The music store in Apple’s iTunes will allow you to copy purchased songs to any number of iPods you have. Music can also be burned to a CD using iTunes, and used in any CD player.

If you buy both the Zune and an iPod, you’ll need to manually transfer your music to the Zune and mange it separately using the Zune-specific software.

Itunes-7

The Zune
Microsoft’s Zune player does not work with either iTunes or the Windows Media Player music software that comes with a new PC. It requires new Zune software that was just released, which means it doesn’t have all the kinks worked out yet.

If you currently use the music software built into Windows or iTunes, you’ll have to move your music into the new Zune software to use it with the Zune player.

The Zune also won’t work with other players that use Microsoft’s PlaysForSure, or the PlaysForSure online music stores, including Napster, Amazon, WalMart, and MTV Urge. It also does not work with Apple’s iTunes music store. Any music you currently have that was purchased anywhere online won’t work with the Zune.

Zune Software 17

Cost and Model Options
Microsoft’s Zune costs the same as Apple’s iPod of the same capacity, but Apple also offers the larger capacity 80 GB iPod player for $100 more, and two other, smaller versions of the iPod that cost substantially less.

If you are interested in more than one music player, or have different sizes of players in your household, this is a big advantage for the iPod. The iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle allow you to carry an ultralight selection of your songs and sync with the same music library.

Microsoft only offers one model of the Zune, and no other third party players, including the popular SanDisk Sansa or the Creative Zen, will work with its music library software.

Microsoft says it broke compatibility with its PlaysForSure parters as a marketing move to make the Zune more like the iPod, but it really just makes a problem for users. It also makes it easier for users of PlaysForSure players to buy an iPod instead of the new Zune.

Accessory Options
Both the iPod and the Zune offer a variety of cables and chargers; both Apple and Microsoft have also set rather high prices on these accessories, so there is no real cost advantage either way unless you already have an iPod and have the cables, chargers and docks you need.

Apple has designed iPod accessories to all use the same connector, even between the ultra-thin Nano and the largest capacity iPod. The iPod also has a lot of third party offerings, many of which are considerably cheaper. Apple also offers some unique add-on features that Microsoft doesn’t.

The $30 iPod Camera Connector allows you to pair the iPod with a digital camera, copy your photos onto the iPod, and then continue taking pictures. This works great on vacation if you don’t want to carry a bunch of memory cards for your camera.

When you plug in your iPod afterward, it loads photos to your computer just as the camera would. The Zune is designed so that it can’t be used to store files in a similar hard drive mode. It’s possible to edit system settings in Windows to enable this, but it is not a supported feature, and there is not way to copy photos to it from a camera.

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For the Nano, Apple also offers the $30 wireless Nike+ system that allows you to track your workout in the iPod, upload it on your computer, and compare your results with other athletes.

Apple is rumored to be extending the wireless features of the Nike+ to include a handheld remote control for a Nike+iPod strapped to your arm, but that hasn’t been announced yet.

Service and Support
If you live near an Apple Store, the iPod offers another advantage of personal support and service, even if you purchased an iPod mail order or second hand.

Over the last five years, Apple has offered regular free updates that provide new functionality and fix problems. Apple recently delivered an update improving battery life and adding new features for last years’ iPods.

While the Zune is officially on its first version, it’s actually based on a device sold by Toshiba that uses Microsoft’s Windows CE software. Other devices using this software include Microsoft’s PocketPC organizers, SmartPhones, and other Mobile products. They’ve been around as long as the iPod has.

Historically, Microsoft has charged for significant updates to new versions of Windows CE software, just like it does for Office. Apple’s iPod and iTunes updates have always been free.

Longevity and Reputation
Other Windows Mobile devices have also been generally treated as disposable. Every year Microsoft announces a new generation of Windows Mobile devices and abandons the previous versions. In comparison, used iPods retain significant value, and even broken iPods are worth something, while used Windows Mobile devices are just junk.

Microsoft commonly treats its technology products as disposable items. With the Zune, Microsoft threw away all of its PlaysForSure partners, music stores, and media players, and designed the Zune to only work with its own online store and player software.

Microsoft now says that the first Zune is only a test and that next year it will release an entirely new set of hardware with new and better features. It has not committed to supporting the current Zune player or providing new software releases in the future. In view of Microsoft’s past performance, it is not a good bet they will.

Considering Apple’s history of support in fixing issues with iPods, including past complaints of battery life, and its history of adding features to existing devices, the iPod clearly has a strong advantage in vendor reputation.

Features and Usability
Apple’s iPod features are often based in software. Its pairing with iTunes makes it easy to get music online, move music from CDs to the iPod, and synchronize other information, including Notes, Calendars, Contacts and Games.

The iPod itself is simple. It uses specialized software to enable its touch-sensitive click wheel to work like a circular trackpad. Selecting songs or moving through menus is very fast and intuitive. Add-on features, including the digital camera connector and Nike+, are similarly very easy to use and don’t really distract from the iPod as a music player.

The Zune focuses on hardware features, including a larger display, an FM radio, and a wireless receiver that allows users to send songs or photos to other Zune users. However, these features really detract from the Zune as music player.

Video Playback and Display
The larger screen uses up battery life to operate, and most people using music players don’t watch a screen while they listen to music. There are a number of devices designed primarily to play back video that offer larger screens and more video features. The bigger screen on the Zune just dilutes it as a music player without really making it a good video player either.

Zune-Vs-Ipod-Screen-Size-1

Microsoft initially announced that the Zune would not play back video on launch, then later added basic playback features. However, the Zune software does not support podcasting or offer movie downloads, making obtaining video for it harder. Microsoft more recently announced that video features “weren’t a focus” for the Zune. That being the case, having a bigger screen doesn’t help a music player if all it does is run down the battery faster.

The Xbox Live movie store Microsoft announced for its Xbox 360 game console does not work with the Zune, and Microsoft has not said if they are even planning to ever make it work. Both the Xbox store and the separate Zune store require users to pre-purchase points that are then traded for downloads, but points for the two different stores are not even interchangeable.

In comparison, music and movies purchased from the Apple’s iTunes not only work on iPods, but will also work on Apple’s wireless iTV system, announced to appear in the spring. There are no pre-purchased points to buy; everything offered in iTunes can be bought individually, and purchases never expire.

How Apple's iTV Media Strategy Works

How Apple’s iTV Media Strategy Works

Wireless Sharing
Like its over-hyped video display, the wireless sharing features advertised for the Zune are also disappointing. Every transferred song is put into a special mode where it can only play three times within three days, and is then discarded.

It can’t be shared with others, and it can’t be copied to the other user’s computer. The transfer basically acts as an advertisement, leading the shared user to the Zune store to buy the song.

The only workaround is to change the file names of songs to appear to be photos; these files can then be transferred to other Zune users, but can’t be played until the other user copies them to another computer and renames the files again.

That just sounds like a very convoluted alternative to email. The wireless radio used to transfer songs also eats up battery, making wireless transfers not only impractical and pointless, but also scores a ding against the Zune as a music player.

Compared to the iPod, the Zune also offers less basic functionality: its round button looks like the iPod’s click wheel, but it doesn’t act like it. It’s only a button, not a trackpad. The Zune is also considerably thicker and has squared corners that make it feel larger than it is, particularly when put in a pocket or held in the hand.

Not having the iPod’s data sync features, nor its ability to directly copy files from a PC in a hard drive mode are also serious omissions that seem odd for a device aimed directly at competing with the iPod.

Given all its problems, its no wonder why Andy Ihnatko of the Chicago Sun-Times summed up his impression of the Zune by writing: “’Avoid,’ is my general message.” Oh the Humanity!

Next Article: iPod vs Zune: Microsoft’s Slippery Astroturf

Amazon links for 2007 models:
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Apple iPod Nano
New iPod Reviews: 3G iPod nano, iPod classic, iPod touch

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Microsoft Zune 8
iPod vs Zune: A Buyer’s Guide

Winter 2007 Feature Comparisons Update:
Winter 2007 Buyer’s Guide: Microsoft Zune 8 vs iPod Nano

Winter 2007 Market Update:
Why Microsoft’s Zune is Still Failing

What do you think? I really like to hear from readers. Comment in the Forum or email me with your ideas.

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1 comment

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