Zune to go head to head with iPod

By Andrew Mitchell

Microsoft isn’t the first company to challenge Apple’s dominance in the portable music and media player market, but with cash reserves of almost $40 billion — and a guaranteed hit when the company releases its new Vista operating system in January — Apple finally has some real competition.

This week Microsoft confirmed the release of Zune in time for Christmas, likely going to market in November. Definitely inspired by iPod, it’s about the same size but boasts a larger horizontal colour screen. It also has what looks like a copy of Apple’s click wheel on the side, with a few other simple buttons.

Colours, if it matters to you, appear to be either brown, white or black.

The first model will include a 30GB hard drive, and will cost about $250 U.S. (probably about $300 Canadian). Special features include a WiFi antenna to connect to the Internet and other Zune players, and a built-in FM radio tuner, which is only available for the iPod as an add-on.

Instead of iTunes, the Zune will sync with the Zune Marketplace, allowing users to buy songs and videos individually. Users can also by a Zune Pass, allowing customers to pay a monthly fee for unlimited song downloads.

(Used the word ‘Zune’ three times in that paragraph and the name’s still not growing on me. Wish they called it something else.)

As another bonus, the Zune will come preloaded with music from about a dozen recording labels. There’s also a rumour that some exclusive free content will be available for Xbox Live subscribers, and that the device will sync with the Xbox 360 to turn your game player into a jukebox.

As always the real money will be in accessories, and Microsoft is planning three kits to go with the launch — a car kit, A/V kit and travel kit.

The battery will be built-in, with Microsoft touting a 14-hour battery life for the device — which at one point would have eclipsed the iPod. More on that a little further down.

No doubt anticipating the Zune — one can only guess just how much espionage goes on between companies — Apple got the jump on Microsoft by announcing a whole new line of iPods just three days earlier.

There’s nothing too groundbreaking in the new release — the touch-screen model and iPhone remain rumours at this stage — but there’s enough substance to make customers think twice about switching to Zune.

First of all, fifth generation iPods now have brighter screens at higher resolutions, and the 30 GB version will be available for just $299 — Apple dropping the price by about $50 to compete directly with Zune. There is also a new 80 GB version, which can hold 20,000 songs, 25,000 photographs, 100 hours of video, or any combination of media.

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