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Zune or iPod? Picking the Right Player

By Aaron Vronko MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Dec 15, 2008 4:00 AM PT

With the holiday season suddenly upon us, consumers are searching for the right digital media devices to suit their loved ones. Apple has led and continues to lead the market with its iPod series, posting sales figures as high as 11 million units sold in Q3 of the current financial year. Although these figures are just less than half of Q1 sales numbers, a single quarter of iPod sales still equals more than five times the collective number of Zunes that Microsoft has sold since the brand's inception. Sales numbers aside, consumers should make a decision based on the overall quality of each product. Does it make more sense for you, the gift-giver, to purchase a Zune or an iPod for your loved one?

Zune or iPod? Picking the Right Player

Let's examine how the two devices compare when it comes to features, display, interface and general usability, content management and download compatibility, and hardware quality.

The Features

While both iPods and Zunes support the standard audio, video, photo and gaming capabilities, the Microsoft Zune brand embraces two features that the iPod does not support. The Zune's FM tuner allows users to receive FM radio signals in their areas and tag specific songs for download later (only with the new Zune 3.0). Additionally, Zune users can network over WiFi with nearby Zunes to sample songs they have, for up to three days.

While it may seem that you will never need an FM radio with thousands of songs at your fingertips, it gives you the chance to break your bubble of isolation and tune into the latest music or catch news from the outside world. This is supported by the many iPod users who have clamored for built-in FM in the past, and a vocal minority will probably continue to do so.

Not as useful at this point is the Zune's WiFi music sharing feature, which is unfortunately rendered ineffective by the need to have ... another Zune in beaming distance. Combine this will the digital rights management (DRM) limitation of 3 days or 3 plays, and some question if this addition is even worth it. We still expect this will be a fun and interesting feature if Microsoft ever figures out how to steal some of the iPod's market mojo.

The Display

The iPod Classic's 2.5-inch color LCD screen is a significant drawback for the Apple device when compared to the Zune's 3.2-inch screen. The size difference affects the quality of the video media experience, putting Zune well in the lead for visual content superiority.

Earlier generation Zunes and iPods had front panels constructed of polycarbonate plastic. These panels were impact-resistant but scratched easily and transmitted force to the LCD screen. Front panels and lenses wouldn't break often, but LCD screens -- the most expensive of the three visual hardware components -- would take much of the force, ultimately breaking much more often.

New-model Zunes and iPods have moved to laminated glass for the lens over the LCD, which is more scratch resistant but more easily broken. If the device is dropped, the lens takes much of the force, in turn sparing the LCD. We rarely see broken screens with Zunes, most likely due to a safer design.

Replacing a lens is far less expensive than replacing an LCD screen. Remember, neither company covers screen damage under warranty.

Interface and General Usability

While the Zune might have more features, the iPod gains a unique advantage in its simplicity, allowing a less savvy user to navigate and utilize the included features. But a huge contributor to the iPod's success has been the click wheel, which has been the navigation key since the release of the iPod mini in 2004. Customers simply love the interface; you can scroll large lists quickly, with as yet unmatched precision. Thousands of songs, organized by any major category, can be accessed depending on how quickly you move your finger.

In contrast, the Zune began without touch-sensitive functionality. Manipulating early generation Zunes provided users a quick mode of transportation but very little precision. Newer generation Zunes come equipped with the "squircle" (square-circle hybrid), which is touch-sensitive and enables users to navigate large lists more precisely. Still, with a few years of trial and error, the iPod click wheel is more refined.

Content Management and Download Compatibility

The usage of all included features and the simplicity of accessing all the content you could want and loading that content to your device are a few of the iPod's greatest perks. The Zune's content management platform isn't quite as universal or comprehensive.

The iPod/iTunes package integrates and simplifies the content loading process. Both iTunes and Zune Marketplace are software installations that integrate with the device that each program supports. Because of its notoriety and the length it has been on the market, iTunes is a one-stop shop for almost all media, providing music, tons of movies and television shows.

Zune Marketplace, on the other hand, is not as well organized and isn't nearly as extensive with its content offerings. Therefore, Zune owners have to find other ways to find content that the Zune Marketplace might not offer, like ripping owned CDs and movies and converting downloadable media purchased from other outlets.

Both programs accept plain MP3s, but neither device is compatible with its competitor's content. So if you use iTunes, you won't be able to load or play iTunes content on a Zune device.

Hardware Quality

Audio Processor: The audio processors on new Zunes integrate power management directly onto the chip, which allows it to sip slowly and offset the extra power usage from its added features. Advantage iPod, but not by much.

Batteries: Neither the Zune nor the iPod is built for consumers to easily replace a worn-out battery, which is part of the device's built-in obsolescence. However, with some bravery or professional help, you can easily get your battery replaced.

Low Insertion Force (LIF) Cable: The new Zune uses a Low Insertion Force (LIF) cable that connects the hard drive to the system board. Due to a design flaw, the LIF is flimsy and breaks much easier than the iPod's well-positioned cable. Therefore, trauma or force effects the connection to a greater extent with the new Zune.

The iPod has also had its share of LIF cable issues. With the fourth- and fifth-generation iPods, the LIF cable would lose connectivity over time. The iPod's LIF was held into the socket with a clip, which would dig into the pin leads and create divots. However, the manufacturer has attempted to fix this flaw with the new generation of iPod, which features a redesign that appears to address the problem. We won't know for about another year if the redesign will factor into the device's built-in obsolescence.

Built-In Obsolescence: iPod and Zune manufacturers have learned from design flaws over time, and it appears that most of the significant problems have been fixed with their latest iterations. Still, neither company has made changing the device battery any less difficult for consumers. Consumers who find that a broken device doesn't fall under warranty can employ any number of professional repair services to perform an affordable fix.

Remember, the industry standard is that fifteen percent of electronics devices will fail in the first year. Don't let designed obsolescence get you down; talk to a professional about how you can salvage your device.


Aaron Vronko is the service manager for Rapid Repair.


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