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 30GB||iPod 80GB||Zune|
|Dimensions||4.1″ x 2.4″ x 0.43″||4.1″x 2.4″ x 0.55″||4.4″ x 2.4″ x 0.6″|
|Weight||4.8 oz||5.5 oz||5.6 oz|
|Battery life (audio)||14 hours||20 hours||14 hours (wireless off)
13 hours (wireless on)
|Battery life (video)||3.5 hours||6.5 hours||4 hours|
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.
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 may have a much larger screen, but you don’t actually get more pixels. Both offer a resolution of 320×240 (240×320 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.
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.
In terms of day to day use, there’s actually quite a bit of difference between the iPod and Zune—more than I was expecting. The main difference here is the user interface, which for something as simple as a personal media player, should be easy to get right. Simplicity oozes from the iPod’s stark white menus, but navigating through them with the touch-sensitive click wheel is more than just a little cumbersome. First, the wheel itself doesn’t click, so you actually have to take your thumb or finger off it to press the center button. That wouldn’t be a huge problem in itself, but when combined with the wheel’s high touch-sensitivity, merely moving your finger off it can change your selection. This takes some getting used to, and even after several months of use, it’s still too cumbersome for my tastes.
By comparison, the Zune’s standard array of navigation buttons looks a little bland. But the buttons work better. They really do. There’s no learning curve to worry about, no sensitivity to adjust to, and little chance that you’ll accidentally hit one of the buttons and inadvertently change your selection. Holding down the navigation buttons for a few seconds invokes a fast scrolling mode similar to that of the iPod, but you don’t have to keep spinning your thumb or finger around to keep it going.
Scrolling is much smoother on the Zune, as well. In fact, the whole interface feels much lighter and more responsive than that of the iPod, despite the fact that Microsoft makes use of several fancy visual effects to smooth menu transitions. You don’t get visual effects with the iPod, and that’s probably a good thing, because it feels like Apple has pushed the iPod’s hardware to its limits with the current UI. The interface just doesn’t feel as, well, agile as the Zune’s. And it gets worse when you’re playing music in the background. That doesn’t seem to slow the Zune down at all, but the iPod’s interface gets noticeably choppy, especially when fast scrolling.
So despite its clean looks and fancy touch-sensitive wheel, the iPod’s interface feels like a slightly uncoordinated fat kid trying to outmaneuver a considerably more energetic and athletic Zune. But then I’ve been using MP3 players for years, and maybe the click wheel was too much of a change for me, so I sat down with an impartial subject: my mom. Like most moms, mine’s never owned an MP3 player, owes no allegiance to either Apple or Microsoft, and is just savvy enough to get her email, web surfing, and word processing done.
Watching my mother play with the iPod confirmed my reservations about the touch-sensitive wheel. She wasn’t comfortable spinning it around fast enough to accelerate scrolling, and would often scroll right past what she was looking for. Additionally, she found that menu selections changed when she took her thumb or finger off the wheel to hit the center button, calling this behavior “very annoying.” She didn’t seem to care that the interface slowed down when music was playing in the background, though.
The Zune’s simple button-based interface fared better with mom, who immediately figured out fast scrolling and seemed to have no problems with navigation. She even commented that the Zune’s interface was “prettier” than the iPod’s stark white menus, but that the device itself was a little dull, and “more plastic, you know.” The overall feel of the iPod did appeal to her, though; she called the design sleek and “almost sensual,” and that’s where our impromptu test session ended. Sensual is not a word I need to be hearing in conversation with my mother.
Once you actually get some music queued up, the iPod and Zune offer nearly identical playback quality, provided you use the same set of headphones with both. I listened to scores of 320kbps MP3s back to back on each device, and would be hard pressed to rank one over the other. If anything, the Zune’s bass response sounds ever so slightly sharper to my ears, but that’s about it. Of course, if you swap in the stock headphones that come with each device, playback definitely favors the Zune.
Moving to video, there’s even less difference in playback quality. Video playback is smooth, screen brightness and color reproduction are comparable, and even the resolutions are the same. The big difference here is screen size and orientation. Watching video on the Zune is done at 90 degrees, so you actually have to rotate the device. It’s worth it, though, because the difference in screen size is definitely apparent. There’s simply more to watch on the Zune.
With both screens offering the same number of pixels, I expected the Zune’s larger display area to highlight flaws inherent to lower resolution compressed video, such as jagged edges and overall blockiness. That wasn’t really an issue, though. Sure the jaggies are bigger on the Zune, but they’re no less annoying on the iPod, if your eyes tend to notice that sort of thing.
Of course, if you are picky about quality, you’ll likely be dissatisfied with video playback on both devices. It’s not so much that the resolution is inadequate (which it is) but that even the Zune’s 3″ screen is woefully tiny. Cartoons were about the only things I could stand to watch on either device, since so much detail is necessarily lost with other content. So the Zune may be technically superior here, but in the same way that the GeForce 8400 GS is superior to the 8300 GS—you wouldn’t want to play games on either. Personally, I’d sooner listen to music than watch video on either the iPod or the Zune.
Battery life is an important consideration for portable devices, so I ran the iPod and Zune through a couple of tests so see how they fared. The screen brightness, volume, and backlight timers were set at the same levels on each device, and each had a fresh charge after draining the batteries completely. Audio playback was tested with a random playlist, while video cycled through an episode of Top Gear compressed in MPEG4 format.
We’re comparing the Zune to an 80GB iPod here, so Apple does have the advantage. The 80GB iPod’s battery is bigger than what you get on the 30GB model, and Apple claims significantly longer playback time.
With audio, the 80GB iPod manages nearly 20 hours of battery life, beating the Zune by more than six hours. Note that disabling the Zune’s wireless capability gets you nearly an extra hour and a half of battery life, too—a gain of close to 13%.
The Zune’s wireless capability has less of an impact on battery life with video playback, perhaps in part because the wireless component is only powered for about four hours. Predictably, the iPod is way out ahead again, but what’s striking here is that it also lays waste to Apple’s claimed 6.5-hour battery life for video playback. Apple only claims 3.5 hours of video playback for its 30GB iPod, but if its estimates for that device are off by the same margin, you could be looking at more than five hours of battery life.
Software and supported formats
I could go on and on about the apps associated with the iPod and Zune, but I won’t—software really isn’t our thing. Suffice to say that both suites work, but they do have their issues, and they’re both incredibly bloated. Sadly, it appears that neither Apple nor Microsoft is willing to simply let users copy music to their portable media players without the intervention of intrusive software. It’s as if they think granting users that kind of freedom will make it too easy to pirate music.
And just look how effective that’s been thus far.
Amusingly, the iPod comes covered with a sticker urging users not to steal music. The Zune, however, makes no such plea; it just wants to get started. And getting started with either device is pretty easy. Installation was a snap with both the iPod and the Zune.
I should note that while Apple and Microsoft would like you to use their software to interface with the iPod and Zune, respectively, you do have options, at least on the iPod front. Recent versions of Winamp, for example, can easily transfer DRM-free audio and video to the iPod without having to mess around with—or even install—iTunes. Winamp doesn’t yet work with the Zune, although it’s conceivable that someone will create a plug-in if official support isn’t forthcoming.
Speaking of lacking support, it’s disheartening to note that the Zune isn’t compatible with Microsoft’s previous PlaysForSure DRM scheme. You can still get access to a subscription-based music service through what Microsoft calls the Zune Pass. This Zune Pass gives users unlimited access to most of Microsoft’s online music store for $15/month, with the option to burn tracks to CD for an additional fee.
Subscription-based music services aren’t for everyone, but since the Zune still supports a la carte purchases, the Zune pass simply gives users more options. You won’t find any subscription services compatible with the iPod, though. Apple has never shown interest in offering music on a subscription basis, so you’re left with individual downloads, or whatever MP3s you can rip from CD or otherwise obtain. The iPod at least gives you extra options when ripping your own music. Unlike the Zune, which only supports lossy audio file formats, the iPod can handle the Apple Lossless format to preserve as much of an original recording as possible.
Of course, our biggest issue with file format support on the iPod and Zune has nothing to do with lossless audio or subscription services, it’s that the DRM schemes from Apple and Microsoft are incompatible with each others’ players. This kind of lock-in is particularly disturbing given Apple’s effective monopoly in the MP3 player market, but with both companies looking increasingly willing to offer DRM-free music in MP3 format, it may become less of an issue over time.
All the little things
When Microsoft launched the Zune, it played up the device’s wireless capabilities. Unfortunately, those capabilities are limited to sharing songs between Zune devices. That’s a novel feature, but since next to no one actually has a Zune, being able to wirelessly transfer songs between them is like walking around with a giant Laser Disc collection looking to swap movies. You’re not going to find many takers. I have Lou Reed’s This Magic Moment queued up just in case I encounter Scarlette Johannson rocking a Zune, though. But then, she’d probably have the wireless disabled to save battery life. Yeah, that’s why she won’t talk to me.
More disappointing than the lack of Zune-sporting celebrities with which to share songs is the fact that Microsoft hasn’t extended the device’s wireless capabilities to syncing or tapping songs shared over Wi-Fi networks. If you’re going to bother putting a Wi-Fi chip into a portable media player, you might as well make the most of it being there. Instead, it feels like Microsoft held back, either intentionally, or because it simply didn’t have the time to give the Zune more robust Wi-Fi functionality before the device’s holiday launch.
The iPod can’t match the Zune’s wireless capabilities, but Apple does throw in a few extras, such as support for games, a stopwatch, and simple contact list, calendar, and note applications. These little touches don’t make the iPod by any means, but games are particularly appropriate for the device’s small screen. Indeed, Microsoft has already pledged to bring games to the Zune, and that device’s button layout and larger screen should be an even better fit. However, Microsoft hasn’t committed to a timeline for Zune games, saying only that they will be released before July of 2008, some 14 months from now.
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.