Zune, the next generation, is enhanced

A year after the first Zune media player arrived to so-so reviews, Microsoft msft is back for the sequel. Three new Zunes have been added to the lineup, along with revamped software and a new Zune Social online community that lets folks share listening habits.

Zune, of course, is Microsoft's so-far failed attempt to knock Apple aapl off its digital media pedestal. With Zune players and online Zune Marketplace store, Microsoft adopted the kind of closed end-to-end system made famous by the iPod and iTunes. Zunes don't work with Napster naps, Rhapsody or other services.

Microsoft has addressed some criticisms associated with the original Zune while ignoring others. It has slightly loosened restrictions when you swap music wirelessly with another Zune owner. Podcasts and music videos are now available in the Marketplace. But you still must buy stuff there using the silly Microsoft Points currency — 79 Points for a typical track adds up to the same 99 cents you pay elsewhere.

Worse, I encountered at least one maddening snag trying to get an otherwise welcome new wireless syncing feature to work with my Internet router.

On balance, Zune deserves a far better reception this go-round. While I'm not retiring my iPod, the new Zunes are creditable competitors. They're good looking. They boast features I've long wanted in an iPod, notably an integrated FM radio and monthly subscription plan that lets you listen to downloaded tracks as often as you please, provided you keep your account current. Then again, the iPod Touch and iPhone one-up Zune in the ability to wirelessly sample and buy music through Wi-Fi.

Let's zoom in on Zune:

•Meet the Zunes. The new lineup starts with 4-gigabyte and 8-GB flash-memory models, priced at $150 and $200, or what same-capacity iPod Nanos cost. The 1.7-ounce devices come in black, pink, green and red, and have a rectangular shape that is closer to previous-generation Nanos than current models.

The larger 4.5-ounce $250 top-of-the-line Zune is in black only. It comes with an 80-GB hard drive, and slightly better ear buds than its less-expensive cousins. It has a large, 3.2-inch screen that's bigger than the displays on the iPod Classic series that is its most natural competitor.

Free, for now: the ability to laser engrave artwork onto the devices.

After a brief learning curve, I generally found it easy to navigate and rapidly scroll through Zune's menus using a new touch-sensitive Zune Pad controller. You slide your finger up and down or right and left on the Pad or press its center or edges to make things happen. Play/pause and back are the only other controls.

Meanwhile, the chubby original 5.6-ounce, 30-GB Zune is still around, in black, white, brown, pink and red. It's at $200, or $50 below where it started. Through free software upgrades, it can take advantage of most new Zune features.

•Wireless sync. One of the new features is the ability to wirelessly synchronize music, pictures and other content with a PC through your home network. After the initial set-up in which you connect Zune to a computer through USB — that's the conventional way to sync — you can proceed without the cord, in one of two ways. You can set it up so the device automatically syncs whenever it is plugged into power, through an optional dock or AC adapter. When unplugged from power, you must manually initiate a wireless sync.

Only it didn't work out for me until I replaced my nearly 3-year-old Linksys router with a new model.

•Share a tune. One wireless feature that did work right away, within limits, is sending a song to another Zune owner, provided their Zune device is within about 30 feet of yours. You don't have to be near a Wi-Fi hot spot, but the person you are sending the song to has to click to accept it. Alas, they don't know the name of the incoming track ahead of time. The original Zune was capable of this stunt, but Microsoft has loosened the noose. Previously the person you were sending a song to could listen to the track just three times or over a three-day period, whichever came first. Now, they can play the song three times over an indefinite period. (It's considered a "play" after a person has listened for one minute or half the length of the track.)

The three-and-out restrictions apply even if you want to share music you've composed yourself. Moreover, rights restrictions imposed by the labels prevented me from sending Frank Sinatra tunes from one test device to another.

Likely challenge: finding another Zune owner with whom to share tunes in the first place.

I wish you could preview and purchase songs wirelessly from the Marketplace, as is possible with the iPod Touch and iPhone via the iTunes Wi-Fi store.

•Slicker software. The revamped Zune online interface is classy looking and pretty easy to get around, with four main menu headings at the top of the screen (Collection, Device, Marketplace and Social). It makes good use of album cover art, though there's nothing quite as visually arresting as the Cover Flow view in iTunes.

Through a $15 monthly Zune Pass subscription, you can download unlimited tracks to three PCs or up to three Zunes. But the Marketplace has around 3 million tracks, only about half what iTunes offers. More than a million are MP3s, not saddled, Microsoft says, with digital rights restrictions. There's a skimpier selection of podcasts and music videos than Apple has. The Marketplace doesn't sell TV shows, movies or audio books, though you can watch shows synced from a Media Center PC.

Microsoft has a long history of going through two or three versions before its products measure up. So Zune is better and can get better still.

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com