iPod vs. Zune: which player dances to your tune?

Apple’s iPod was first released in 2001, creating the MP3 player market and dominating it ever since.

Many companies have tried to capitalize on the device, and almost all have failed. However, five years after the original was released, Microsoft decided to take on its nemesis with its own MP3 player, the Zune. Similar to the iPod in software, hardware, pricing and marketing, it provides a viable alternative to one of the most iconic products of the new millennium. We’ll take a look at the two primary and comparable 120 GB models of the iPod and Zune.

The iPod hardware seems to only get better. From its humble beginnings of 5 GB of storage to its current flash storage and touch screens, the iPod has seen much change in less than 10 years. The extended curved bevel on the edge is subtle but engaging nonetheless. The matte finish on the front is even better for those who despise nicks that were inevitable on previous iPods, though the backside of the iPod is still the pristine but scratch-prone chrome.

The Zune has faced a variety of similarities. The recently introduced Zune 120 steered away from the 80 GB model to have a glossy front, but the same matte back of the 80 GB version. In a sense, it’s the opposite of the iPod.

The massive screen on the Zune is 3.2 inches, and its orientation automatically changes to play videos. The iPod screen is 2.5 inches. More emphasis is placed on the large scroll wheel, whereas the Zune has the touchpad that acts as a button, and two play/pause and back buttons. However, the Zune’s larger screen comes at a battery price.

The iPod has a 36-hour battery life for music and six for video, compared to the Zune’s 30 hours for music and four for video. The scrolling feature of the Zune is up and down, and it has a four directional button system as well. It also feels more accurate and intuitive than the iPod wheel since there is no single click scroll option on the iPod—the iPod simply requires more finesse.

The wireless feature of the Zune is a major selling point. A caveat is that the Zune must connect through the user’s home network, and connecting through GT Wireless has resulted in many problems. The FM feature is similar to the iPhone in that a song played on the FM radio of the Zune can be queued for purchase later on.

Lastly, both come with a sync cable and headphones. With the Zune 120, consumers are upgraded to the “premium” headphones, which are much better than the standard ones. The iPod, following Apple’s mantra of simplicity, offers the same headphones for all iPods. Though they are not as good as the Zune premiums, they are much better than the Zune standards.

The software for the iPod is iTunes, and for the Zune it is currently Zune 3.0. For Mac users, iTunes is already integrated into OS X, while Zune 3.0 is downloadable from www.zune.net for PC users. Unlike iTunes, Zune 3.0 is only available on Windows XP and Vista, cutting off Mac users unless they have access to their own PC or emulator.

Aside from obvious differences in operating systems, iTunes is remarkably slow on PCs. Zune 3.0 does not take as long to load, and inherently plays WMV and WMA formats, which are common on PCs.

The iPod is simple and classic, and with recent updates, even better when changing songs in the middle of a current song. The Zune is also simple, but with the availability to change backgrounds and its huge screen, can be easier on the eye.

The interface on iTunes is robust, but can get very convoluted with a large library. The Zune 3.0 software is still powerful, but it is cleaner and almost out of place with the glassy, eye-candy interface of Windows Vista. Zune 3.0’s simple interface is easy to use even when not a full window, whereas iTunes can be more difficult to deal with.

One of the most important issues when purchasing music exists in the software. The Zune is more integrated into Zune Marketplace. However, iTunes has the most robust catalog of licensed music of all music libraries, as well as TV shows, movies and music videos. With recent changes, iTunes also has DRM-free music from four of the top music labels and other independent ones. Zune Marketplace is the equivalent of iTunes for the Zune, but suffers from a much smaller library and DRM issues. However, users can purchase the Zune unlimited pass, which allows listeners to purchase as much music as they wish.

For Mac users, the only good option is the iPod, as it is compatible with their OS. To a slightly lesser extent, the Zune is better for PC users.

The best way to really find out is to go out and try these products in stores and use friends’ own devices and see how they work and evaluate the pros and cons of each. Regardless, both are great options for the few that are still listening to CD walkman players.