Aesthetic options and other bits
There are plenty of elements of the iPod and Zune that we can easily compare with a spec sheet, but other less tangible attributes also govern the appeal of these devices. Aesthetics matter for electronics accessories like personal media players, and in that realm, few are as striking as the iPod. Just look at it.
The iPod is sleek, stylish, and with a metal back plate polished to a mirror finish, it's even beautiful. Color options are limited to black and white, and while that's not terribly exciting, it does enforce a level of stylistic conformity. This is classy by careful design.
Almost too careful design.
I'm surely in the minority here, but the iPod's aesthetic has always struck me as something more befitting of dental equipment than a personal media player. The whole look is very clinical, sterile, and almost completely without soul. And that's not the worst of it. The iPod's polished, shiny finish might look great in product shots and fresh out of the box, but carry it around in your pocket for a few weeks and you'll find the finish marred by countless scratches, smudges, and fingerprints. Some of those aren't going to buff out, either.
The idea of buffing an MP3 player seems ludicrous, but that's what it takes to preserve the iPod's shiny finish. That is, unless you're going to forever shield the device with a protective case, but then what's the point of having a fancy finish you'll never see?
Clearly, the iPod was designed to look good on the shelf with little concern for how it will look after a few months of even casual use. That's apparently quite different than the approach Microsoft took with the Zune, which doesn't appear to have been designed to look good even fresh out of the box.
Many were excited when it was learned that the Zune would initially be available not only in black and white shades to match the iPod, but also in a third color. Microsoft could have gone with a flashy fire engine red, a more reserved British racing green, a generic sky blue, or even an eye-searing fluorescent chartreuse, but they settled on brown. Mind you, it's a deep, chocolate brown, but one whose color just about perfectly matches that of my morning bowel movement.
I'm not sure who decided brown was a good idea, but I've yet to encounter a single person who finds the brown Zune attractive. Perhaps, if you wear a lot of corduroy and tweed, it'll match your outfit. But for the rest of us, it just sort of looks like, well, poo. Microsoft appears to have taken notice, as well. Redmond has already rolled out a special edition Zune in pink, and red and orange models have been spotted making the rounds in the wild.
Microsoft might have botched the Zune's third color option, but they didn't get the design's look completely wrong. In truth, there's nothing really flashy or impressive about the plastic body and dull finish, but also nothing to get scratched, scuffed, or marked up with fingerprints. You still have to worry about protecting the screen, but that's it; the rest of the finish holds up remarkably well to abuse.
So the Zune doesn't even come close to looking as good as the iPod out of the box, but a few months down the road, it doesn't look so bad in comparison. As long as you don't get it in brown.
Screen scratches are a problem for both devices, though, so you'll want to use the included cloth cases if you're going to throw either into a bag with a bunch of other toys. I actually thought the cloth cases were a little silly at first; I've had MP3 players for years, but never once have I cared about a scratch or two on the screen. Those were old MP3 players where the screen was little more than a gateway to a series of black and white menus. The iPod and Zune both feature color screens that can display pictures and play back video, so scratches not only blemish the device's interface, but its content as well.
Speaking of blemishing content, I would be remiss not to address the headphones that come with each device. Bundled headphones are rarely of high quality, so the ones Microsoft includes with the Zune were a pleasant surprise. They don't sound fantastic, but they're reasonably comfortable, discrete, and don't actually look half bad. Those metal bits aren't just for show, either; they're magnetic, allowing you to stick the left and right buds together. That reduces their tendency to tangle, which is a nice little attention to detail on Microsoft's part.
The earbuds included with the iPod are another story, though. I've owned a number of personal audio players over the years, from walkmen to discmen and MiniDisc to MP3 players, but none have come with headphones as flimsy or cheap as those that come with the iPod. The iPod earbuds absolutely refuse to stay in my ears, as well, and sound noticeably worse—more tinny, less bass—than the Zune's buds.
What bothers me even more about the iPod's earbuds is that they're white, regardless of the color of your iPod. Now if you buy a black iPod, it's probably safe to say that you did so because you didn't want one in white. Why, then, must Apple stick you with white earbuds? It's not like they aren't moving sufficient volume of black iPods to justify carrying a second earbud color.