September 26, 2006

iPod vs. Zune: Get, Set, Go!

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The Apple vs. Microsoft war has moved away from the desktop to the user's pockets with Microsoft finally making an official announcement of the Zune digital media player and platform, screaming up in the rear view mirror of Apple's reigning iPod. After months of rumors and possible capabilities being posted all over the web, Microsoft has finally spoken and put down the real deal on paper for the world to see. Everyone is pretty kicked about it and eager to find out which is better. We'll drag the current king of digital audio players with the new kid on the block, spec by spec, and tell you who will win.

Starting from 0, each spec comparison gets the players either a full point, half a point or nothing at all. And it gets added to its existing score.

First up, storage capacity
The iPod is currently available in two sizes, 30GB and 60GB. In time, we will also have the recently announced 80GB version. The Zune will only have a 30GB version when it releases and as of now, there have been no announcements about a higher capacity version to be released down the line. In terms of size options, the iPod is clearly the winner, because the 30GB iPod is likely to be phased out as the Nano approaches that territory. When that happens, the Zune will be less than half the capacity of the iPod. Both claim to be able to store up to 7,500 songs in their respective formats (AAC and WMA), but if you take standard quality, 128kbps, 3-minute MP3s, you can pump in almost 10,000 in both.

So, iPod 1, Zune 0.

Next, color
Both the iPod and the Zune are available in black as well as white, but the Zune is also available in an earthy brown color, which is quite off beat compared to mainstream DAPs. Microsoft says that the brown color will appeal to artists and musicians alike. The Zune will also be involved in co-branding during music concerts and other events. I must say I am rather intrigued by the color and I guess I'd actually want to buy something like that, but not everyone is equally enthusiastic about the choice of the third color. Hey, at least it's not Pink!

Just half a point for a minority favorite brown color. iPod stands at 1, Zune goes ahead a bit at 0.5.

Battery life
The 30GB iPod shouts around 14 hours of music playback time, 4 hours of picture slide shows along with music in the background or around 3.5 hours of video playback. The Zune's performance is a sort of a mixed bag, with around 12 hours of music playback, which is 2 hours less than the iPod, but it bumps up during picture slide shows to around 4.5 hours, while keeping video playback time around the same at 3.5 hours. However, it's not known if the 4.5 hour slide show time also includes music playing in the background.

The race is still on; but no overtaking here. iPod still 1, Zune still 0.5.

Screen size
Both the iPod and the Zune have a 240x320 resolution color display, but the iPod has a 2.5-inch one while the Zune has a larger 3-inch one. The orientation of the screen on the iPod is landscape (1.33:1), while the Zune makes use of the space more effectively by having a portrait orientation (1:1.33), where big CD cover art is displayed on top while still having place for the track info below that. The orientation can be switched from portrait to landscape in the Zune, which races ahead!

iPod 1, Zune 1.5!

Control and User Interface
The Zune has a scroll wheel or "dial" if you want to call it that, which is not half as cool as the iPod's touch wheel we've all grown used to. Still, I don't think it would be any less intuitive or less usable than the touch wheel. In fact, if this actually clicks like a combination safe lock, the tactile feedback may make it more user friendly. To each his own, but the iPod touch wheel still makes you go "cool!" and hence catches up to the Zune.

iPod 1.5, Zune 1.5!

Size and Weight
Does the Zune fit in your pocket better than the iPod? No, because the iPod is 4.1 inches tall, 2.4 inches wide and about 0.43 inch thick, compared to the Zune, which is 4.4 inches tall, the same 2.4 inches wide and around 0.58 inch thick. The Zune is a wee bit taller and thicker than the 60GB iPod. Weight wise, the Zune is 5.8 ounces, or around 165 grams, while the iPod is around 4.8 ounces, or around 136 grams. These dimensions make the 30GB Zune a bit bigger and almost heavy as the 60GB iPod.

The lighter iPod speeds by the Zune; iPod 2.5, Zune 1.5.

Format support
The iPod jigs to tunes in AAC, protected AAC, MP3, Audible, Apple Lossless, WAV and AIFF formats, photos in JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, Mac PSD and PNG formats and plays back video in H.264 and MPEG-4 formats. The Zune does AAC (but not protected AAC), WMA (but not PlaysForSure WMA) and MP3 music, only JPEG photos, while playing back WMV, H.264 as well as MPEG-4 video.

In audio playback, I think AAC, MP3 and WMA are the only formats to actually consider, so both the iPod and the Zune are loyal to their own turf (AAC vs. WMA). Photo capabilities are clearly in favor of the iPod's SIX format support vs. the Zune's singular JPEG support. The Zune snags the video points by adding WMV format support to common H.264 and MPEG-4. Audio/Video is almost a tie, but the additional photo support increases the distance between the two.

iPod 3, Zune 1.5.

FM Radio
FM Radio support is definitely one of the most important things as far as the Indian market is concerned. The junta is going to judge all portable media players based on this! The Zune has an FM radio tuner built in. Yep, all your mirchi and red and city, 24/7 on your Zune wherever you go! With the iPod, you're restricted to only the music that's on the hard disk.

The Zune inches closer. iPod 3, Zune 2.5!

The Zune also supports RBDS, or Radio Broadcast Data Standards (like RDS or Radio Data Service), that displays textual information like the name of the station and the song that's currently playing, however, that doesn't mean a thing to us Indians because its not available here. There's no word on whether the Zune will be able to record FM, like most third-party east-Asian made MP3 players, but at least it has FM!

This is where it gets really interesting. The Zune connects to your PC via USB and it also offers WiFi for wireless connectivity! The iPod only does wired, with USB and FireWire/IEEE 1394 support. The Zune's WiFi also enables personal Zune-to-Zune networking so you can wirelessly send a track that you like to your friend's Zune, much like you can with cell phones using Bluetooth, opening up a whole new world in music sharing.

But there's a downside to that - all tracks get sent in a DRM-wrapped WMA (presumably) that can only be played back three times over a period of three days, after which you can either delete the track or flag it for purchase on the online Zune Marketplace. There's a growing concern over what happens to free, legal music when you send it to your friend - something we'll only find out when Microsoft actually lets someone use the Zune for once! Hence, only half a point for the Zune in this rev making it nudge the iPod, side by side!

iPod 3, Zune 3.

The Zune can also connect to your Xbox, letting you play music from the device on your gaming console, but seeing that almost any USB mass storage device can be connected to the Xbox, this is not something as jaw-dropping a feature as WiFi support is.

Online and Software
A very important aspect of digital media players is their online counterpart. The Zune Marketplace is to the Zune, what the iTunes Store is to the iPod. Very little is known about the Zune media manager software (that connects to the online Zune Marketplace), other than the fact that it lets you transfer music and media (including photos) to your Zune, and lets you browse, preview and buy songs from the online library of music. The new iTunes 7 also lets you buy movies online, whereas the Zune Marketplace will not be selling movies or TV shows, at least not this year. Naturally, this should happen down the line, they have a 3-inch screen that plays back WMV files, for cryin' out loud!

Music in the Zune Marketplace can be purchased either by credit card or Microsoft Points, which are the same points that you can use to buy stuff on the Xbox Live Marketplace. Like Xbox Live Tags, the Zune Marketplace will also allow for Zune tags, so you can expect some interaction between users when online. Maybe not voice chat, but the ability to browse another user's music and perhaps also download tracks and/or flag them for buying... stuff like that. Can't do that with iTunes!

Each gets equal points for movie purchasing and Zune Tags' community potential, so they still scrape each other's doors. iPod 3, Zune 3.

Both the iPod and the Zune have firmware updating capability.

It's probably easier to count the number of birds in the city sky than to actually sit down and count the number of third-party, official as well as unofficial accessories that are available for the iPod. The usual speaker docks and car adapters aside, the iPod also doubles up as a breathalyzer, a toilet paper dispenser accessory and can also be controlled by your denims. As of now, the Zune only has three official accessory packs like the car pack, the home A/V pack and the travel pack, but you can't blame a device that hasn't even come into stores yet. The iPod has had half a decade's worth of a head start, so it's not going ahead of the Zune just yet.

iPod 3, Zune 3.

Maybe in the near future we'll do an actual comparison of the 6th generation iPod vs. the 2nd generation Zune, which would be a level playing field by then, since accessories from Altec Lansing, Harmon Kardon, Griffin, Jamo, Logitech etc. are lined up.

The iPod works on the Mac as well as the PC. As of now, the Zune seems to work only with PCs.

Besides the lack of support for a competitor's operating system, the Zune is also going against Microsoft's own PlaysForSure program, so any DRM-wrapped files you may have already purchased and downloaded from PlaysForSure stores like AOL Music Now, MTV's Urge, Napster as well as Microsoft's own MSN Music, will NOT be playable on the Zune. The Zune will only support music purchased from the Zune Marketplace, which in turn will not work with existing PlaysForSure devices that you may own, such as a Creative Zen or an iRiver, because the Zune Marketplace media will be wrapped with a different, incompatible DRM scheme. For most of the users who have an existing library of CDs and music on the PC that they'll be copying on to the Zune, this may not be a huge drawback, but for everyone who bought in to Microsoft's PlaysForSure initiative, it's quite disappointing.

Windows Media Player connects to PlaysForSure compatible devices to let you transfer music to and from them, but the Zune is not one of them. Microsoft's Windows Media Player doesn't support Microsoft's Zune? This makes the Zune pull the brakes, almost.

The new pricing for the 30GB iPod stands at $249 (converted, around Rs. 11,700), while early rumored prices of the Zune are pegged at $299 (converted, around Rs. 14,000). If the recent Wal-Mart "leak" is to be believed, then it may cost $284 (converted, around Rs. 13,400). Update: According to some more recent news, the Zune might just be up on the racks for $229 ! Today, you can buy a 30GB iPod off the street for around Rs. 13,500, so if you calculate the price for the Zune, it should be somewhere between Rs. 15,300 to 16,000. Yes, the 30GB Zune is around Rs. 1,800 to Rs. 2,500 more than the 30GB iPod, but you're getting a) a bigger screen, b) FM radio and c) Wi-Fi connectivity. On the other hand, just around Rs. 2,500 to Rs. 3,200 more than the Zune will get you the 60GB iPod (at Rs. 18,500), so you have to decide if the specifications are more important to you, or capacity. Personally, I would prefer a media player with as much as storage as possible, so I would be attracted to the 60GB iPod (or the 80GB once it comes to India), but if you pit the 30GB ones head to head, the Zune catches up again.

iPod 4, Zune 4!

Both the iPod and the Zune cross the line at the same time! After a careful, spec by spec comparison of the two devices poised to become the most talked about gadgets in the history of personal technology, we've come to the conclusion that both have an equal chance of winning over the other. But if you just look at it from the general perspective, the FM radio tuner, bigger screen and WiFi capabilities might just boost the Zune ahead a little bit. Like they say, it doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile…

Update: After the $229 price "news", you're going to talking about a portable media player that has WiFi, FM, larger screen AND it costs around $20 less than the iPod. What do you think of that?



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