Apple’s almighty iPod has yet another competitor – Microsoft’s Zune Media Player. You had to have seen it coming – Bill wasn’t about to let his old friend Steve monopolize a market. That was supposed to be Microsoft’s thing. Sure, the iPod is at the pinnacle of its dominion now with many a diehard follower, but this won’t be the first time Microsoft makes a late challenge – the PlayStation was at its peak as well when the Xbox butted in and now the 360 has the edge on Sony’s PS3. The point is, Microsoft is not a company to be overlooked, and it’s media player offering is worth looking over.

As a direct competitor to the 30GB iPod video, it plays music, videos and shows photos. On the surface, my Zune is soothing to touch and nicely packaged and a lot hardier – harder to scratch and besmirch. It’s a little taller and quite a bit wider though (justified in part by a 3″, 4:3 LCD screen compared to the iPod’s 2.5″ – the larger screen is a certain plus), but much heavier – even more so than the 80GB iPod.

Regarding battery life, my Zune can play music for 12 hours and videos for about 3.5 hours, each on a single charge. It takes about 2-3 hours to fully recharge and like iPods, they don’t come with chargers, you’d need to do it over USB.

The Zune doesn’t come with a manual – everything is pretty commonsense. Turning it on reveals a colorful and energetically animated selection menu, thumbing left or right on the touch pad alternates between artists, playlists, tracks and albums, and navigating was quick and smooth.

A important issue to note is that the Zune’s software needs Windows XP- excluding those of you with MAC OS, Win98 or Linux.

Files supported include .mp3, .mp4, .mov, .wmv and .jpeg but because it uses a newer version of the WMA-DRM, it doesn’t work with tracks from stores like Napster: rather it uses its own software and store, the Marketplace where you can subscribe for a monthly flat $15 for any amount of downloads. Syncing CD burnt tracks, unprotected files and even iTunes playlists worked fine – just not those from Apple direct.

The video and sound quality is expectably good, certainly comparable to that of the iPod and it glided through my 15GB of songs smoothly – there weren’t any of the annoying little pauses the iPod suffers.

Its most distinguishing feature is certainly WiFi, so users can share media with other Zune users nearby, and shared tracks are conveniently stored in a separate folder so you don’t mix up. Its okay for now but still rather limited – songs only last for 3 days or 3 plays, whichever comes first, and it only works with other Zunes. On the plus side, though, shared pictures never expire and the Zune can link with the Xbox 360 for your own tunes replacing game tracks, which seem to be repetitive and boring at times.

So should you buy the Zune? It’s quite a bit bulkier, and the Marketplace is lacking in that it has no videos for that big Zune screen about 2mil tracks compared to Apple’s 3.5 mil. But on the plus side, it’s hardier and fits nicely in the hand, it has great sound and video quality, its media up/download and Marketplace software is user-friendly, and that larger screen is just beautiful. I’d say it’s about a 8 out of 10 in my book, and worth considering for anyone that isn’t an iPod fanatic.

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