My last visit to the States coincided with two major computer launches. The Asus EEE notebook and Microsoft's latest version of the Zune. One was available while the other lived up to the hype and sold out everywhere. So I came back home with a Zune and quite frankly, I'm glad that I did.
The new Zune comes in two main flavours, full fat and lite. The lite version goes up against the Nano and is the one most will want. Design wise it's Apple's first generation Nano rebadged. Although that may sound like a negative, the first-gen Nano was, and still is, stunning. Available in a range of colours (although at launch the shop only had black), it's angular, light and on the whole quite smart.
Having spent the best part of a year utilising the iPod functionality on my iPhone, it would be easy to dismiss a non-touch sensitive screen interface on any music player. However the fact is Apple have been out-done in what they do best, interfaces. The Zune is an absolute pleasure to use, and in my view far better than click-wheel iPods. It's surprising and shocking to say that Microsoft have created an interface which is at worst, on par and at best, better than something from Apple.
Microsoft haven't just put all their effort on creating a snazzy interface either; the hardware is fairly decent too. Available in 4Gb and 8Gb options with radio, WiFi and video playback means that it's quite a handy little device. The 1.8" 320x240 colour screen is covered with a thick crystal which while adding to the weight also adds a feel of quality. Colour wise, there's black, olive green, a unmanly nailpolish red and the obligatory pink for the ladies. For blokes, the matt black is your only real option. On the back a rough sandy texture still features "Hello from Seattle". However if you do buy this off Microsoft's site then you can have your pick from a large number of quite impressive artwork engraved on it. Unlike its predecessor, this Zune is no turnip.
In recent years a lot of praise has been heaped onto the "unboxing" process when you purchase a piece of Apple equipment. The whole emphasis on it being an event meant that all the bargain basement flimsy cardboard, egg tray packaging simply doesn't cut it any longer. With this Zune, Microsoft seemed to have got it right. The packaging is stylish, unravels very nicely and is minimalist. Once you get inside you find headphones, the sync cable (which doubles as a charger cable) and some very simple instructions.
The first thing any Zune owner has to do is download software which acts both as driver and device management (ala iTunes). For me it is here where the Zune surpasses it's Apple rival. It beggars belief that this is the same company which produced Vista. The software is clean, easy to use and doesn't try to control your whole life. In short, it's everything that iTunes is not.
Playback quality is perfectly fine, with no real quality differences between Zune and iPod. As always do yourself a favour and invest in decent headphones to get the most of either device. MP3, MP4, WMA, WMV, h.264 and AAC (without Fairplay DRM) are all supported so you shouldn't have any major headaches with your current library of music and video.
Because the Zune is limited to America the "Social" is somewhat anti-social for us. However the ability to share music and other bits is a minor blemish in owning a Zune. The whole tagline with the Zune was "Welcome to the Social" and quite frankly the idea is great on paper but nothing more. The ability to share songs, tune in to what others are listening to (just as long as they are within 30 feet) is very quaint. The only vaguely useful aspect of WiFi is the ability to sync your Zune wirelessly.
So would I get this over a current generation iPod nano? Yes, because I like to have things that most others don't. Certainly I think it looks better, more features and has better software than Apple's product. Another seemingly curious comment is that it's also a lot more unique, even within the States and certainly here. Price wise, Prices are on par with the respectively sized Apple offering too. Although the nano does have an extra 0.2" on the screen, both have the same resolution and for watching videos neither is exactly home cinema like.
The only problem for Microsoft is while the Zune is perfectly capable and even better in some areas compared to the nano, it isn't too far ahead in order to make a huge dent in a market which may have already peaked. If you want a small music player, don't discount the Zune, it's a worthy product which does a lot of things better than Apple's iPod nano.