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Microsoft Zune (third generation, 16GB)

>> Thursday, January 8, 2009

The design of the flash memory Zune models offered in 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB capacities at $129.99, $149.99, and $199.99 respectively is almost entirely unchanged from the Zunes we reviewed last year. The face of the player is now covered with a glossy plastic that, although pretty, is more prone to smudges and scratches than the matte finish on last year's model. The flash based Zune measures the same 3.6 inches by 1.6 inches by 0.33 inch as last year's. Also, no changes have been made to the Zune's navigation controls, headphone jack, hold switch, dock connection, or 1.8 inch glass covered LCD.

Considering Apple's strategy of altering its iPod design every fall (for better or for worse), it's a little unnerving to see the Zune's hardware design at a standstill. The upshot of the Zune's lack of design tinkering is that it maintains the product's compatibility with the handful of accessories designed for the player. The Zune comes packaged with a proprietary USB cable and a pair of earbuds with three sets of replaceable foam pads.

The bulk of the third generation Zune's improvements are found by flicking through its main menu. New menu items for Games and Marketplace have been added alongside existing selections for Music, Videos, Pictures, Social, Radio, Podcasts, and Settings. The Zune's primary purpose as a high quality portable music player hasn't changed.

If anything, the enhancements offered by the third generation firmware have bolstered the unique music discovery and sharing features that have differentiated the Zune from the very beginning.

One of the more notable new features on the Zune is a Marketplace selection in the main menu that allows you to browse, preview, and download music directly from Microsoft's Zune Marketplace online store. Within the Marketplace submenu you can choose between browsing Top Songs, Top Albums, and New Releases, or search for specific music by keying in a few letters. Songs can be previewed for 30 seconds with the option to add them to your virtual cart or purchase and download immediately.

By signing up for Microsoft's Zune Pass music subscription service (a free 14 day trial is available), you can download unlimited music to your Zune for a flat fee of $15 a month. Otherwise, you'll need to purchase songs a la carte by setting up a payment account in the Zune desktop software.


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