So I am in the market for a new MP3 player and I have been using an Apple iPod for the past 6 years. First I got a 40gb 4th generation right upon release and then upgraded it about a year ago to a 30gb 5.5 generation. The 5g I have has had a battery problem and unfortunately was not under warranty (thanks to Amazon selling me a refurbished model without me knowing) so I have to constantly keep it on a charger as the battery drains in about 4 hours whether I am using it or not. It’s probably a firmware problem and I’m not smart enough to backdate firmware. So this means I am in the market for a new media player.
If this was 2 or 3 years ago, there would be no argument here. It’d be the iPod all the way. Zunedidn’t really show up as an honest competitor until September of last year, when it released the Zune 80, 2nd generation. Now that the Zune is one year older it continues to bring the heat to Apple’s only large hard drive based player. One other thing to keep in mind, if Apple would stick a 120gb HD in the Touch, there would be no argument. It would be the Touch all the way. But for users like me, with a large collection, these are the two best options.
The worst part about this argument is that a lot of things are going to come down to personal preference. There are a few things that can’t be argued, but there is a lot that can be debated. For starters, both players have the same storage capacity, price, battery life is pretty comporable in regards to music and both come with crappy ear buds out of the box. Now on to the differences, which there are many. I have compiled what I believe to be a very comprehensive chart of feature comparisons. I have highlighted the column I deem to be an advantage for one player over the other.
Pretty ugly chart, huh? It is, but there is some good info in there. One thing that surprised me was the number of audio and picture formats the iPod has over the Zune. Granted things like AAC, WAV and AIFF aren’t super popular formats, but the more the merrier. The audio codecs aren’t a huge impactor for me, as all of my files are MP3 format. [Also, what happened to Ogg Vorbis. That was suppsoed to be the MP3 Killer] One last thing to mention on the chart is 3 nice features in favor of the Zune. The Zune comes built in with an FM tuner and wireless capabilities. I don’t listen to the radio often, but to have the option available is great. The wireless capabilities for the Zune are pretty sweet. When connected to your wireless network at home, you can sync the Zune back to your computer. Nice feature if you don’t want to be hardwired to your computer all the time. Another great use of the wireless is the abilitiy to purchase songs from the Zune Marketplace or with your monthly Zune pass. If you hear a song on the radio that you like and want to download, your right there if you have a wireless connection and a Zune Pass. There is no question that iTunes has the best digital music library out of anyone, but you have to purchase everything ala carte. That can get pretty expensive, so having the ability to subscribe monthly to a Zune Pass and listen to whatever you want is an advantage in favor of Microsoft. Separate from either the Zune of iPod is Amazon’s MP3service. It’s super inexpensive and it has all of the new releases and usually cheaper than iTunes. If you need to buy music in a digital format, Amazon is the way to go. Also, Amazon has no DRM.
Now I am going to move onto the less tanglible things. If you want experts reviews on this stuff, check out Cnet’s Prizefight. There is some really good stuff there.
With the iPod you get iTunes and with the Zune you get Zune 3.1. The nice part about the software is that it’s free to try and you can use without even buying a player, which lets you get a feel for what you like better. From an aesthetic point of veiw, the Zune is much nicer looking that iTunes. iTunes has always been kind of bare bones in it’s approach, which some like and some so not so much. But when you step back away from appearance alone, I think that iTunes is clearly the better program. It may not be pretty but it has all the “meat” needed for any music library manager. You have a line by line (or grid) veiw of every song in your collection. You can customize the column headers to display whatever you want. Release year, bit rate, file location and etc. And because you have all of these columns available you can sort you collection however you want. Then, of course, you have the coverflow veiw which is really more for show then common use. My only complaint about iTunes is that any changes made to file tags are not written to the MetaData of the file itself. That means what ever you change in iTunes will not carry over to the Zune, Windows Media Player or whatver other media player you use. When it comes to sorting, the Zune software really lacks options and settings. You have limited view options as well as limited sorting options. The Zune software’s default set-up is 3 columns. Artists, Album covers and Songs. That’s it. There is a “Song” veiw that you can use which is kind of like iTunes line by line veiw but not nearly powerul enough. iTunes has a wealth of column headers which to use for customization while Zune only has a handful. While this results in a cleaner appearance, it also provides less functionality. I guess that’s the trade off. iTunes is very boring on the eyes, but pretty feature rich while the Zune is very clean and pretty, sacrificing some important features.
I have several other problems with the Zune software. First off it does not allow plug-ins. None at all. So if you want an easy way to submit tracks to Last.fm with your Zune, no dice. There are entirely different programs that might work for that (i.e. Zenses) but it’s not an easy task. Also, there is no support for lyrics in the Zune software. Not a huge deal but I’d rather have it than not. The smart play list feature in the Zune is crippled when compared with the same feature in iTunes. There just aren’t as many options to make a play list in the Zune Software. Even a simple play list like “Recently Played” isn’t an option. I hope that Microsoft continues to improve it’s software like they have the past few years running. If they do, I expect some of this to be cleaned up with the exception of plug-ins which I assume Microsoft would be pretty resistant to. They generally don’t like people messing with their software, but at the same time, Windows Media Player supports plug-ins so why not the Zune? Com’on MS, step up.
My last complaint might seem like a really stupid, nitpicking item, but it’s very important to me. I love rating each and every song I listen to. With the iPod they have a 6 point system. Unrated and then 1 through 5 stars. For anything I no longer wanted on my iPod I would rate it one star and then remove it later. Everything else went from 2 to 5 stars. The 4 and 5 star items went onto my “Loved Tracks” play list. With the other player you get three options… That’s it. The Zune uses a “Heart” system. There is broken heart, no heart and solid heart. This makes my 4 and 5 star play list harder to do. I would have to full heart any songs I wanted on that list while leaving everything else blank and then using the broken heart for tracks I want to get rid of. Why not use a 4 teir system at least? Add a half heart in there. That way you could visually tell what tracks are rated andwhich aren’t. With 23,000 songs in my library, it’s hard to remember what has been listened to and rated without having a visual indicator. This is something I am going to e-mail them about and they will probally ignore it, but my voice (text that is) will be heard (read)!
Now, you may think that after all of those nit-picky issues I have with the Zune software, you might be lead to believe that I hate the software, but that isn’t the case. Thankfully one of the features the Zune software boasts that iTunes does not is a biggie, at least in my book. The Zune software is extremely smart at searching and monitoring folders for you with little to no effort on your part. iTunes makes you manually add anything not downloaded from iTunes or ripped through iTunes, where as the Zune will find your music for you (as long as it’s in a monitored folder). This makes music management a little easier as I can leave the Zune software open, drag and drop a folder to my music folder and after less than 30 seconds of waiting the music is in my Zune library. Another plus is that while you are syncing, if you add a folder to your monitored folder, it will sync with what was already in process. Even if you leave the software running with player plugged in, but not syncing, when you add a file to your monitored folder, the Zune software adds it to the library and syncs it seconds later. For the life of me I will never understand why iTunes doesn’t add this feature. It’s not like Windows Media Player or the Zune software are the only two programs that can scan and watch folders. Media Monkey does it as does Winamp (I think). Mark this as a large check in favor of the Zune.
User Interface On Player:
This is something I consider to be one of the most important features on any player, as you will use it literally every time you use the player. What fun is having a large capacity media player that you can’t even navigate easily. Thankfully, both players are very easy to use and navigate with. By now I think almost everyone knows how the iPod works. They haven’t made a major innovation in navigation since they introduced the click wheel with their 3rd generation of iPods. The menus have also remained largely unchanged with the iPod since it’s inception, with the exception of being “prettied up” the last few years. The menu is very basic with album covers and photos being panned on the left side of the screen. Once you select the music menu you are taking to the standard features everyone who has used an iPod knows. Genre, play lists, artist, etc. Once you get into the Artist menu and select an artist, you get to see the various albums with covers. Then you select the song and rock out. Sometimes, while scrolling through a long list, I do find it hard to be super accurate. Not to say that its difficult to get where you want to go, but once and a while the sensitivity on the wheel seems wacky and makes this more difficult than it should be. I don’t know how many times I have tried to rate a song and it kept going 1 star over or under from what I really wanted. This isn’t a huge complaint, but it’s something you will see the more you use an iPod.
The Zune works largely in the same fashion, but the controls feel tighter and more responsive than the click wheel. The Zune Pad doesn’t use a cicrcular motion to go through lists, rater an up or down motion on the pad. When scrolling through large lists you can flick at the pad a few times and it will start to scroll faster and faster. If you want it to stop all you need to do is touch the center of the pad. Also, Microsoft has put the bigger screen to use as text is larger and much easier to read on the Zune’s display. When a song is selected, the Zune continues to show of it’s screen by having all the songs tag info along with a nice sized album cover for you to stare at. This is one of the areas that I think the Zune wins, and while it may seem minor, you are always looking at the display so it doesn’t hurt for it to be pretty. The iPod has gotten stale in this department. They have the album cover with the artist, song and album info next to it along with your rating. With the Zune the display is similar, but gives a much nicer view of the album cover. While the user interface is very similar between the 2 players, Microsoft has made it look better and control tighter. You can’t go wrong with either player, but the Zune does have some slight advantages.
The last area where I think the Zune gets it right (in relation to interface) is its click menu while listening to a song. With the Zune you get a list of options when clicking the center button while playing a song. You can shuffle, rate, go back to artist or add to playlist. I like this better than the iPod’s interface. With the iPod you need to click the center button several times to get where you want to be. Once click gets you to shuffle, another gets to rating while another gets to album art. I prefer Microsoft’s interface here, but I can’t really say that one is better than the other with a straight face. The last difference that I noticed was the fast forward/rewind commands. With the Zune you click and hold the button right or left and let go when the marker is to the point in the song you are looking for. With the iPod you click the center button once and scroll on the wheel backwards or forwards. I actually like the iPod’s commands here as I find it to be much quicker than the Zune, but again, I can’t say this is huge deal in the end. Really, it’s all going to come down to personal preference here.
Last, and most certainly not least is the sound quality. The Zune has been getting universal praise for it’s sound quality. Not to say the iPod sounds bad, it just doesn’t sound as good as the Zune, with a decent pair of headphones that is. One item always marked in reviews of the Zune is that there is no equalizer settings, but then later in the review you will get a sentence something like this:
While the Zune doesn’t allow custom or pre-set EQ settings, it sounds fantastic.
So can it really be an advantage for the iPod to have EQ settings if it doesn’t sound as good anyway? I am sure some audiophiles out there want complete control and I don’t fault them for it. But for the average listener, like myself, the Zune kicks out the jams like no other player on the market.
The Zune wins, but only a hair. If the Zune software was up to the standards of iTunes with play list and sorting options, then the Zune would win by a mile. But there are still plenty of flaws in the Zune’s software that need fixing. The good news there is that Microsoft has worked very hard at making its software better and better every year. After you get over the software, you look at the player, which is really the important thing in all of this discussion, isn’t it? And when looking at the players the Zune has a bigger screen, easier to veiw menus, slightly better control system (though that comes down to personal preference) and it sounds better. Add on the wireless features, Zune Social (a Last.fm rip off) and a monthly subscirtion option for the Zune and you got a nice little player. Does that mean the iPod is crap? No, it’s still a great player and will remain the “hot” MP3 player until something crazy happens. Each player has compelling reason to purchase, I just feel that the Zune has more in it’s favor.
If the iPod touch could give me the storage of these players, there would be no debate. The Touch has the same wireless features of the Zune and then some and access to iTunes awesome library of applications. But the Touch doesn’t have the space I need, so off to the Zune I go. I’ve been a loyal iPod customer and have no issue with it, but it’s time for a change and the Zune has done enough to warrant that change.