Microsoft Introduces Innovative New Zune Software

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Microsoft quietly announced its third-generation Zune MP3 players and software this week, news that got lost amid the din of Apple’s “Let’s Rock” event. As expected, Microsoft will offer a new 120GB hardware model and a 16GB flash model in new blue-on-silver and all-black color schemes. The models will be available for purchase on September 16; Zune 3.0 media player software for Windows will be available for download on the same day and will work with all generations of Zunes.

A firmware update will also be available for the first and second generation Zunes (the third generation firmware is preinstalled). The new models will replace the existing 80GB and 4GB Zune (identical to the 8GB Zune that PC World reviewed last year), which will continue to sell for $ 230 and $ 130 respectively until they are sold. exhausted. The Zune 120GB sells for $ 250, the same price as Apple’s new 120GB drive.

Microsoft hopes to outperform its competition by providing customers with innovative ways to experience music. Both Zune models have an integrated FM tuner, a feature that no Apple iPod has. Zune takes advantage of its tuner and built-in wireless connectivity with its new “Buy to FM” capability. Have you ever heard a great song on the radio without understanding the title and artist? Buying on FM will make tracking easier: just tag the song you like, enter a Wi-Fi hotspot, and immediately purchase and download the song. If Wi-Fi isn’t available, Zune sets up a queue of songs you’ve marked ready to download.

Another cool new feature of Zune 3.0 software is MixView. Zune’s MixView is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s new Genius iTunes 8 ability to automatically generate playlists. I saw a preview of MixView this week and found it to be a visually stunning way to listen to and find new music.

For example, if you choose an album or artist in MixView, images of related content will flourish around it. Click on one of the surrounding images and a new display will appear. Double-clicking on the image allows you to hear the entire song and purchase it.

Images of like-minded listeners from the Zune Social community will also appear with recommended music. Connecting music fans to each other is a cool personalization feature. Like Genius, MixView makes recommendations based on songs in your library and online store (the Zune Marketplace in this case, versus the iTunes Store for Genius). But Zune’s algorithm engine also taps into social community, something Genius lacks.

Unfortunately, Buy from FM and the full MixView experience – Zune’s coolest new features – are only available to Zune Pass subscribers for $ 15 per month. Non-subscribers can use MixView, but can only hear 30 seconds of the song.

A new section of the Zune Marketplace called Picks is available for non-subscribers, which suggests albums, artists, and tracks based on the music the user has listened to. It’s also a way for users to keep up to date with new songs from their favorite artists.

Ultimately, Zune is looking to attract new customers and iPod converts through its software. Zune 3.0 is a free download (Windows only), and many of its features are available to non-subscribers and device owners. If you’ve had enough of your current desktop media player, Zune Player 3.0 will be worth a download, if only for its nifty visuals.

Zune 3.0 certainly looks better and offers more opportunities for music discovery and social interaction than iTunes 8. Since iPod currently has 70 percent of the MP3 player market, the new features won’t suffice. probably not on their own to make Zune a real threat.

Coming next week: PC World reviews of the new Zune 120GB and 16GB devices, and Zune 3.0 software.


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