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Microsoft Hums A Hopeful Tune

Longtime Microsoft watchers agree that the company rarely gets it right the first time and sometimes takes as many as three tries before it ships a product that is truly ready for prime time.

With Zune, Microsoft's digital media player, the software giant might actually be ahead of schedule.

The first version of Zune, which came out last fall, was met with tepid reviews and mediocre sales - it was far from the "iPod killer" that some had expected. The second version, making its debut Tuesday, is a big improvement, although still no iPod killer.

Microsoft actually has three new Zunes. There's a $250 black model with an 80 gigabyte hard disk, plus a four ($149.99) and eight-gigabyte ($200) flash memory versions that come in pink, green, black and red. Microsoft sent me the 80 gigabyte and a pink 8 gigabyte model for testing purposes.

One thing I noticed about the new Zunes is better controls. They're not as fancy as Apple's iPod Touch (which is basically an iPhone without a phone) but they do have a nearly round touch-sensitive pad that is both a touch sensitive and controller and mechanical switch which gives you the best of both worlds.

The touch control on Apple iPods can sometimes be a little too sensitive, causing false clicks and mistakes. The controller on the Zune is just great because if you don't like just sliding your finger or thumb up and down the controller, you can still get tactile feedback by pushing on its mechanical switches.

Another nice touch: the 80 gigabyte model comes with what Microsoft calls "premium in-ear noise-isolating headphones." They're ear buds, but they're definitely a step above the ones that come with the Apple iPod, both in terms of comfort and in eliminating background noise.

And, in a nod to what Microsoft hopes will be former iPod users, the software that comes with the new Zune is capable of importing unprotected files from Apple iTunes. You can't play music you bought on the iTunes music store but you can use the files from CDs that you ripped in iTunes.

The Zune also plays Microsoft's WMA files and standard MP3 files as well as music compatible with Microsoft's "PlaysForSure" platform. That third option, supported by most independent digital music stores, seems like a no brainer to include but it was missing from the first version of Zune.

Of course Microsoft wants you to use its Zune software and Zune marketplace which, according to the company, has about three million songs available for purchase including some unprotected MP3 files. The new software supports podcasts and unlike the iTunes music store, Zune has an "all you can eat" option that allows you to subscribe to the music, so you can listen to any of it so long as you keep paying the $14.95 a month subscription fee.

Like its predecessor, the new Zune is equipped with WiFi wireless networking and you can still use it to try to connect to other Zune users to share music between devices. Of course that's only useful if you find other Zune users, which will be very difficult to do unless this version of Zune is a lot more popular than the last version.

To give you an idea how unpopular the first version was, my colleague Dwight Silverman, a tech columnist for the Houston Chronicle, brought his Zune to the Bill Gates keynote speech at last year's Consumer Electronics Show. Despite being in an auditorium with hundreds of Microsoft employees, Dwight's Zune found only one other Zune user to connect with.

This "social" aspect of Zune is a great idea but useless until there is a critical mass of Zune users as is now the case with iPod users.

But the WiFi on the new version of the Zune actually does something useful. You can use it to sync music wirelessly with your PC so long as you're connected to a WiFi network. Unlike the new WiFi equipped iPod Touch and iPhone you can't use it to purchase music over a wireless network.

In addition to music, you can also use a Zune to view photos and videos. Videos can be viewed in landscape mode. The 80 gigabyte device has a 3.2 inch screen while the smaller flash-based devices have a 1.8 inch screen. By contrast, the hard drive equipped iPod classic has a 2.5 inch screen and the iPod nano a 2 inch screen.

Like an iPod, you can order your Zune custom engraved, but Microsoft is doing more than letting you put your name on your Zune. The company has commissioned 18 artists to create 27 different designs that can be etched onto your Zune or you can add your own text and select among 20 smaller designs inspired by tattoo art.

I found the Zune and its software to be a little easier to use than the iPod and iTunes software which is saying a lot.

If people buy based on merit, Microsoft the new Zune should be a modest success but it does lack a couple of magical features that you can only find on an iPod: the Apple logo and the marketing genius of Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid