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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

November 9, 2006 at 11:16 AM

Zune leaves Pogue & Mossberg conflicted

As expected, Microsoft gave the first Zune review opportunities to the Wall Street Journal’s crusty Apple-loving Walt Mossberg and the New York Times Macaholic David Pogue.

Dean Rutz/Seattle Times

The Zune was unveiled in a press conference in September.

Walt liked the Zune’s interface, saying it’s actually better in some ways than the iPod’s. But he was persnickety about the “big chunky” case and the battery life that he called “very disappointing.”

Pogue was even more conflicted. He said the “noticeably thicker” Zune can’t match the coolness of his iPod, he dissed its control wheel and gave it the old “Microsoft version 1.0” dig. But he acknowledged the Zune is an “excellent” player, he didn’ take issue with its battery life and he said its software is “beautiful, simple and graced by brief, classy animations.”

I’ve played with the Zune several times and didn’t find the case big and chunky, especially compared with devices like the MusicGremlin. The Zune is a bit bigger than the iPod, but we’re still talking about 30 gigabytes of music storage in something that’s about the size of a deck of cards. I think their deep and unwavering love for the iPod is revealed by their making a big deal out of 0.2 inches of thickness on a device that has a bigger screen and radio features that the iPod lacks.

Walt didn’t mention the finish, which seems like an important point of differentiation since the devices are meant to be fondled and fiddled with like a pipe or worry beads. On that front, I prefer the velvety feel of the Zune to the slick, metal and plastic feel of the iPod. That’s pretty subjective — it’s sort of like choosing to drink beer in a brown glass bottle instead of an aluminum can — so I’d definitely make sure to hold both devices before deciding which one to buy.

More objective is the battery life testing that Walt was able to do with the Zune. Microsoft hasn’t yet given this lowly Seattle journalist a chance to do this sort of test, so I was really interested in Walt’s take. He concluded that Microsoft overstated the battery life, but I wonder how much people will really care if they get 12 hours instead of 14 hours of music on a single charge.

Microsoft claims 14 hours of music playback on a single charge with the wireless feature turned off — the same as the comparable iPod — and 13 hours with wireless turned on. But Microsoft bases these claims on strict and unnatural usage conditions, such as never increasing the default volume, playing only one album over and over, and keeping the backlight on for just one second.

I tested the Zune in more normal conditions, shuffling through hundreds of songs, adjusting the volume where needed, skipping or repeating songs occasionally and using a 30-second backlight. In my test, I got just 12 hours and 18 minutes of music playback, versus 14 hours and 44 minutes from an iPod under the same usage pattern. With the wireless turned on, battery life on the Zune was worse — just 10 hours and 12 minutes, even though I didn’t send or receive any songs.

Pogue rightfully gives Microsoft the third-degree for its previous missteps in the media player business before he gets to the Zune.

As it turns out, the player is excellent. It can’t touch the iPod’s looks or coolness, but it’s certainly more practical. It’s coated in slightly rubberized plastic, available in white, black or brown — yes, brown. It won’t turn heads, but it won’t get fingerprinty and scratched, either. It sounds just as good as the iPod.

The Zune matches the price ($250) and capacity of the 30-gigabyte iPod. But it’s noticeably thicker (0.6 inch vs. 0.4), taller (4.4 inches vs. 4.1) and heavier (5.6 ounces vs. 4.8). Battery life is the same for music playback (14 hours), slightly better for video (4 hours vs. 3.5). The three-inch screen has the same 320-by-240-pixel resolution, but it’s larger (3 inches vs. 2.5), so movies and slide shows feel more expansive.

What looks like an iPod scroll wheel, though, is a fakeout. It doesn’t turn, and it’s not touch-sensitive. Instead, it’s just four buttons hidden under the compass points of a plastic ring.

Scrolling accelerates as you press the top or bottom button, but the iPod’s wheel is much more efficient. On the other hand, the Zune’s left and right buttons jump between menus (for example, Album, Artist, Genre) with less backtracking. The software design is beautiful, simple and graced by brief, classy animations.

I doubt the hipsters that Microsoft is targeting with the initial Zune marketing will pay much attention to either review, but you know the team at Bear Creek is parsing every word. The Word of Walt may even factor into their performance reviews.

Comments | Topics: Apple, Gadgets & products, Microsoft


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