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After spending several months with an iPod and a Zune, one thing has become clear: the Zune is not an iPod killer. Sure, it's a decent personal media player, but it's not going to convert the masses away from the iPod. At least not yet.

That doesn't necessarily mean that everyone should go out and buy an iPod instead. The Zune certainly has potential, particularly if Microsoft provides updates for the device that better exploit its wireless capabilities. Even now, the interface is snappier and easier to use than what you get with the iPod, and the device's finish is considerably more durable. And then there's the larger screen, which certainly gives the Zune an edge when it comes to video playback and whatever games Microsoft gets around to releasing for the device.

In fact, the screen is such a strong differentiating factor that it's almost tempting to recommend the Zune over the iPod if video playback is a priority. Except for two small things. First, you can only get the Zune in 30GB flavors, while the iPod goes all the way up to 80GB. Storage capacity becomes more important when you're loading a device with lots of video, especially if you want your entire audio library riding shotgun. More importantly, though, the 80GB iPod offers roughly two and a half times the video playback battery life of the Zune. That's a lot.

Of course, the 80GB iPod costs 50% more than the Zune. But it's smaller and lighter even with all that extra capacity and battery life under the hood. Drop down to the 30GB iPod and you may lose the capacity and run-time advantage, but you shed some weight and quite a bit of thickness along the way, making the Zune go from feeling a little chubby to downright fat by comparison.

Not that the iPod isn't without its faults. The finish looks great as long as you baby it, but it's shockingly scratch- and scuff-prone. Then there's the interface, whose touch-sensitive wheel is more flash than function. The hardware appears to be at its limits, too, as evidenced by the fact that the apparently strenuous task of navigating menus while listening to music is enough to make the interface choppy and sluggish.

In the end, I have to side with the iPod, in particular because spending an extra $100 gets you more than twice the storage capacity and battery life of the Zune in a smaller, lighter form factor. Those are the metrics that really make a difference to me when it comes to personal media players, and the iPod gets them just right, even if it does end up looking like a beat up surgical instrument. You'd be well-advised to keep an eye on what Microsoft has in store for the Zune, though. For a first effort, it's pretty impressive, showing just enough promise to make me think a second-generation unit may actually have a shot at giving the iPod its first real challenge. TR

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