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.

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