If exploring, rather than keeping music, is your priority, and you happen to know other Zune-o-philes, then Zune offers two other important advantages. In addition to the Zune Pass, you can receive music from other Zune users, wirelessly. After you receive a song from another Zune, you can listen to it three times before it disappears, unless of course you choose to buy it. If you don't know many people with a Zune, the Zune online community offers the opportunity to share music remotely with a much larger network of people than you may know locally.
Do you believe that video killed the radio star? The iPod still hasn't added FM radio. To get your fix you have to buy an iPod "radio remote" for nearly $50. With Zune, however, FM radio is built right into the device. You can also listen to the radio commercial-free with Zune Channels, available for free with a Zune Pass. Possibilities include the Billboard Hot 100, KROQ or a customized channel made up of your favorite artists or genres.
And here's the most interesting feature of all: Not only can you listen to the radio, you can tag the songs you like and buy them on the spot, provided that you have a Wi-Fi connection and you're listening to a radio station that broadcasts song data. This defining feature and Zune's music-sharing capabilities are some of the ways Microsoft hopes to take a bite out of Apple.
Now, for the most important part: the music. If you're not happy with your MP3 player's sound quality, then all the bells and whistles don't amount to much. After listening to a variety of songs for hours, until the Zune's battery finally faded, I couldn't shake the feeling that the bass sounded inferior. It could have been because I was using the standard headphones that come with every Zune. Without a pair of higher-quality headphones to compare these with, it's difficult to know. The songs certainly sounded richer when I played them through the speakers attached to my PC.
And speaking of PCs, you'll need one if you're considering the Zune. They aren't (yet) Mac-friendly.
Right now, iPods dominate the MP3 player market. According to The Associated Press, market researcher NPD Group said 71 percent of MP3 player sales from January to September of this year went to Apple, whereas Microsoft accounted for merely 3 percent. The Associated Press also reported that Apple had sold 160 million iPods since their 2001 launch, and Microsoft sold 2.5 million Zunes since they were first introduced in 2006.
IPods may have won the popularity contest, but if FM radio and media sharing are at the top of your list, Microsoft's 3rd generation Zune just might be the best choice.