Zune HD Does Touch With Some Twists

While they may improve over time, the software's recommendations are not particularly spot on, particularly compared to services such as Pandora.

While using Zune Pass is effective for discovering and enjoying lots of new music, there are plenty of tracks that were available only for purchase. Zune Pass allows for 10 MP3 downloads per month, but that seems like a pittance when you get hooked on downloading album after album at a time.

Also, while the Zune Pass service integrates well with the Zune device -- one of the rationales for the whole Zune effort -- it lacks the breadth of device support of Real's Rhapsody service, which can now stream music on demand to iPod touches and iPhones. And while there is still no Zune software for the Mac, Mac and PC users can now stream music on demand from their Zune Pass account via the Web.

Microsoft has also outfited the Zune with a Web browser based on the mobile version of Internet Explorer as well as some basic apps, all of which are free for downloading as of now. The former may be helpful for doing a quick bit of information within a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Zune Provides Fresh Music on the Go

The latter are mostly simple games for now; there is also a weather application. But in addition to being far behind Apple on this front, apps take longer to load and are far less sophisticated and plentiful than those in Apple's booming app store, which recently passed the 2 million downloads mark.

In the end, the Zune HD is the most attractive buffet table in the world of all-you-can-hear music. Microsoft continues to create inventive ways to exploit the value of subscription music.

For those who want to have as much fresh music as possible on the go, it is worth the premium over Apple's 16 GB iPod nano, but falls far behind the breadth of functionality of Apple's iPod touch.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin on Twitter) is director of industry analysis at The NPD Group (@npdtech on Twitter). He blogs at The NPD Group Blog as well as his own blog, Out of the Box.

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