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Latest Zune boasts needed improvements

Perhaps the Zune has spent some time at a Seattle spa: The newest version of Microsoft's media player is slimmer, stronger and more intuitive than its first-generation sibling.
The new 8-gigabyte Microsoft ZUNE in four colors and the new 80-gigabyte ZUNE model are displayed in Redmond
The new Zunes, pictured here, feature considerable improvements over Microsoft's first offering. Marcus R. Donner / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Perhaps the Zune has spent some time at a Seattle spa: The newest version of Microsoft's media player is slimmer, stronger and more intuitive than its first-generation sibling.

(MSNBC is a joint Microsoft - NBC Universal venture.)

At first glance, the new Zune ($249.99) looks similar to the old, except sporting a facelift and a larger hard drive — 80 gigabytes, up from 30.

With a black matte face and brushed metal back, it also looks more like an iPod than it used to. And its slightly larger, 3.2-inch glass screen — no longer plastic — somewhat improves viewing compared to the old Zune.

But Microsoft's latest effort is easier on the brain as well as the eyes. It includes simpler touch-based navigation and software with larger fonts. And fans of old Zune features such as the integral FM radio and Wi-Fi media-sharing function will be happy to see them on the updated device — and to note that the Zune can now sync wirelessly with a PC via Wi-Fi, instead of just through a cable.

But a variety of improvements are still needed if the product wants a chance of besting Apple Inc.'s iPod Classic, such as a better display and longer battery life.

Among the most noticeable new features on the updated player is a touchpad button, replacing the button-within-a-button controller. It takes much of the clicking out of navigating the Zune and, despite some overzealous finger swiping on my part, it made using the Zune easier, especially when scrolling radio stations.

The improvements don't stop with the casing and buttons. Microsoft included a software update — also now available via download for the first-generation player. And first-generation Zune owners who download the new software should be able to enjoy the new wireless syncing feature.

The most noticeable difference is in the main screen fonts, which are larger and clearer than on the old device. Microsoft also added a "Podcast" option to the main menu and renamed the "Community" option "Social." And the "Pictures" area has a new layout that I found more aesthetically pleasing.

The PC software has been refreshed as well, with a slicker, brighter interface and larger icons that make it easier to play tunes and videos and manipulate files.

The Zune marketplace is also bright-looking, and as of this week sells music videos along with tunes.

Of course, how your tunes, videos and images look and sound is key. The Zune doesn't disappoint on the audio — though I was irked by the absence of a music equalization feature on the new model.

Visual challenges still stunt it, however. The grid of pixels on its screen was at times distractingly visible, which also was a problem with the old player. For such close viewing, a sharper experience seems necessary.

As with the old Zune, users can send each other songs and images via built-in Wi-Fi, and it was fun to send tracks between players. The previous restriction on sharing has been changed, so users who receive songs can now play tracks three times and pass them along to other Zune owners, who can also pass them on. Previously, users had three days in which they could play a song up to three times and then it would simply expire.

Microsoft updated related online social features, too, adding a Zune card users can customize with a picture or song links and then post on their blog, for example, so friends will know what they're listening to.

The included earbuds, with smaller heads than the old ones and replaceable rubber tips, are easier to wear, better at canceling outside noise and more comfortable.

Yet, for all its improvements, the Zune still has some issues, most of which are holdovers from the original. It still has file limitations. For music, the Zune supports several types of WMA files plus MP3 and AAC files, but you won't be able to play copy-protected music you purchase from iTunes. For video, it supports WMV, MPEG-4, H.264 and, with the new firmware, DVR-MS files — but not the QuickTime format. And for photos, it supports only JPEG files.

Also, the Zune communicates only with PCs, leaving Mac and Linux users out in the cold.

The player could also stand to be quite a bit thinner. Though Microsoft has unveiled smaller 4 GB and 8 GB Zunes ($149.99 to $199.99) that are about the same overall size as an older iPod Nano, I don't want to sacrifice capacity or screen size to fit the Zune comfortably in my pocket.

Finally, the updated player's battery is rated for up to 30 hours of music playing time with the wireless function off — more than twice as much as the older version. But it is still rated for just four hours of video watching.

Despite my gripes, its form and function should make the second-generation Zune a strong contender in the portable media player market. And while I'm not throwing out my iPod just yet, I will be keeping an eye on what the Zune does next.