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Apple's iPod and Microsoft's Zune face off

David vs. Goliath, the other way around

LAUNCHED BACK IN 2001, Apple's iPod has arguably become the most iconic electronic device of the 21st century. With sales of over 100 million units, the iPod has dominated the market for portable audio—and now video—players. What's more, it's become a cultural phenomenon, and it may have ultimately saved Apple from the clutches of obscurity and irrelevance. That's not bad for an MP3 player that looks like it belongs in a dental office.

Of course, Apple's command of the portable audio market hasn't gone unchallenged. Just about everyone has taken a shot at the iPod, from consumer electronics heavyweights like Sony and Toshiba to PC alum like Creative and Dell. However, none have managed more than a shallow dent in Apple's grip on the hearts and minds of consumers.

During the iPod's ascension, Microsoft worked with various hardware partners on all sorts of would be iPod killers, with little success. Then Redmond took matters into its own hands, creating the Zune media player to directly challenge Apple's iMonopoly. On paper, the Zune looks like a competent challenger, too; it has a much larger screen than the iPod, integrated wireless capabilities, and support for subscription-based music services. But is it any better than Apple's status quo? I've spent three months with an iPod and a Zune to find out, and the answer might surprise you.

Stacking them up
Although flash-based nano and shuffle models make up the bulk of Apple's iPod lineup, Microsoft is going after the original hard drive-based iPod with its first Zune offering. The Zune is positioned directly opposite the 30GB iPod, offering the same capacity and $249 suggested retail price. However, the Zune is only available in that 30GB capacity, leaving it rather ill-equipped to compete with the iPod's 80GB sibling. The 80GB iPod only commands a $100 price premium over the 30GB model—an entirely reasonable margin given the 50GB boost in capacity—so it, too, is a reasonable alternative to the Zune. Here's how all three models stack up.

 iPod 30GBiPod 80GBZune
Dimensions4.1" x 2.4" x 0.43"4.1"x 2.4" x 0.55"4.4" x 2.4" x 0.6"
Weight4.8 oz5.5 oz5.6 oz
Display size2.5"2.5"3"
Display resolution320x240320x240240x320
Battery life (audio)14 hours20 hours14 hours (wireless off)
13 hours (wireless on)
Battery life (video)3.5 hours6.5 hours4 hours
Street price

Despite packing only 30GB, the Zune is larger and heavier than either iPod model. The weight actually isn't that noticeable, but the size definitely is. Take the 30GB iPod, for example. It's 33% smaller by volume than the Zune, and more than 28% thinner. Even the relatively portly 80GB iPod is slimmer than the Zune, which is also a third of an inch longer.

Even the 80GB iPod is thinner than the Zune

Now in absolute terms, we're not talking about huge differences in size. However, these devices are meant to be carried around in your pocket, so the fact that the Zune is so much larger than the 30GB iPod is something to consider. To me, even the difference between the Zune and the 80GB iPod was easy to distinguish in the front or back pockets of my jeans, although not so much in jacket or cargo pockets.

While the Zune's larger form factor makes it more cumbersome to carry around than an iPod, you do get a bigger screen by half an inch. That doesn't sound like much, but it translates to close to 50% more screen area, which makes quite an impact when you look at the face of each device.

The Zune's longer, too, but it has a much larger screen

The Zune may have a much larger screen, but you don't actually get more pixels. Both offer a resolution of 320x240 (240x320 for the Zune, if you want to be nit-picky), so while images and video are certainly larger on the Zune's screen, they're no more detailed than what you get on the iPod. In fact, the brightness of the iPod's screen can actually be cranked up higher than that of the Zune. You might not want to bother, though; both displays are more than acceptable with their medium brightness setting, and cranking the display will reduce battery life.

How's that for a segue?

Battery life looks pretty even if we just compare the Zune with the 30GB iPod; both weigh in at 14 hours of audio playback and close to four hours of video. The 80GB iPod has a bigger battery than the 30GB model, though, and Apple says you can squeeze a whopping 20 hours of audio playback and more than six hours of video from the device. We'll actually test battery life in a moment, so you won't have to go on manufacturer claims alone.

Microsoft is quick to point out that the Zune's battery will last longer if you disable the device's wireless component, and that's just fine by us. Wireless functionality is currently limited to transferring songs between Zune devices, so unless you actually run into someone else with a Zune, the W-Fi isn't going to do you any good. You might find the device's FM radio useful, though. The radio is just a tuner, so you can't actually transmit playback to your car stereo, but it's one more feature the iPod doesn't have.