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The Microsoft Zune has legs. And believe me, I’m as surprised as anyone. I finally got my hands on the device this week. Although it was only for a few hours and the press event was very Microsoft-controlled, I liked what I saw. This is more than just a rebranded Toshiba gigabeat. There is some genuine innovation here.

The Zune is designed with simplicity in mind. It has just a few buttons, and the center-set directional toggle is dead simple. I still don’t think it touches the scroll wheel in terms of functionality, but it works.

The 3-inch QVGA screenlooks great. Even the feel of the device is appealing. I will need to carry it for a while to be sure, but the plastic shell seems far more scratch-resistent than the iPod’s exterior. The Zune’s interface isn’t as quite as elegant as the iPod’s, but it is close. And the Zune is more customizable, complete with wallpapers. The FM tuner is a nice touch, as well. But that isn’t what really impressed me. Nope–I am a sucker for the file sharing…

Click on any song or picture, and within two clicks you can send it to any other Zune player within a 30-foot radius. This ad hoc Wi-Fi is fast; it takes just seconds to transfer a 4MB file. Unfortunately, the songs expire after “three days or three plays.” That is unfortunate, to be sure, but it is still a pretty cool apllication. You can’t share video this way though, and I have yet to hear a good reason for that.

The Zune Store looks remarkably like iTunes, but it offers more payment options. You can purchase songs per track or sign up for a $15/month subscription plan for the entire library of 20 million songs. I have always been partial to single-song purchasing, but I’m even more partial to choice. I think Apple is going to have to offer a subscription plan zune… er, soon.

No, I haven’t finished drinking all the Kool-Aid just yet. The Zune isn’t going to take much market share from the iPod this year. After all, the coolest features are essentially networked applications; you need other people with Zunes to make the most of them. The Zune’s capacity is a relatively stingy 30GB, and it is a bit bulkier than the iPod. I need to get a shipping unit, probably two, and test it before I can really render a judgment on the Zune.

The Zune isn’t an iPod killer–at least not version 1.0–but it is legitimate competition. At the very least, it has made sure that the next iPod will be a lot more intersting than tht last one.


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