Microsoft Zune: A Worthy iPod Rival

Could this be the iPod competitor we've been waiting for?

The Microsoft Zune ($249.99 list) is a shot across iPods bow. I got a first-hand look at the Toshiba-built, Microsoft-designed digital music player and the associated software and supporting Web site and all I can say is "Wow."

For years, the Apple iPod has taken Microsoft to school. Microsofts responses, up until now, have been tepid, at best. Remember the first portable media players and that gosh-awful feeling that way too much had been crammed into the devices (the first Creative Zen being a prime example)? Forget that. In fact, forget everything you know about how Microsoft builds consumer electronics products—the Xbox notwithstanding.

The Zune is clear proof that Microsoft has learned something from Apple and virtually every other music player manufacturer thats come before it. The 5.6-ounce device feels good in your hand. At first, Microsoft will just offer a 30GB model. Nonetheless, its a bit heavier than the 80GB iPod with video. At 0.6 inches, its also thicker—the remaining dimensions are 2.4 inches wide by 4.4 inches long.

Offered in three colors—white, black, and brown—the Zune is not nearly as shiny as an iPod. In fact, the plastic casing has a subtle texture. My unit initially looked all brown, but then I noticed green piping along the edges. Oddly, it seemed to disappear when I turned the player this way and that. Microsoft execs explained that I was seeing the real color of the outer plastic covering—its green. The translucent plastic covers the device, which is painted brown. This is a nice feature and means you cannot scratch the paint—though you could conceivably scratch the plastic. Microsoft told me they expect the fine texture to get sort of burnished from people holding the Zune, which could personalize these players. Well see.

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