This might sound kind of weird, but here it is: the iPod and the Zune aren’t rivals anymore.
The new Zune, left, trumps the iPod Nano in music discovery and downloading as it moves out of its rival's shadow.
And not just because the iPod outsells the Zune about a gazillion to one, either. No, it’s because the iPod and the Zune no longer serve the same audience.
That’s a surprising development. After all, when the Zune had its debut in 2006, it couldn’t have been more iPoddy if you ran it through a Xerox machine. Same layout, capacities, prices and product line (a big one and a Nano).
But in the last few days, Apple and Microsoft both unveiled new music-player lineups (what a coincidence — just in time for the holiday shopping season!). And Microsoft, it turns out, has added something truly new to the Zune: differentiation. The Zune has become a sensational music-discovery machine.
Over all, the players themselves haven’t changed much except for colors, capacities and prices.
The huge exception is the iPod Nano, which has undergone its fourth redesign in four years (8 or 16 gigabytes, $150 or $200). It’s now a truly gorgeous, incredibly thin aluminum stick, in your choice of nine vivid, reflective colors. It maintains Apple’s design theme for 2008: tapered edges, as seen on the MacBook Air and the iPhone.
The front and back are gracefully curved, including the glass screen. But even at its thickest point — in the middle — the 1.3-ounce Nano is the thinnest iPod ever.
Apple also rotated the screen 90 degrees, so menus and song lists fit better. And thanks to a tilt sensor like the iPhone’s, the Nano’s screen image rotates when you turn the player — great when you’re looking through photos. That sensor also permits a bit of whimsy: when you shake the Nano hard, it skips to a random song.
The Nano can now speak its menus, song names and on-screen messages as you navigate. That should assist anyone who’s blind and anyone who insists on fiddling while driving.
In short, this Nano is yet another a home run.
The iPod Touch (8 to 32 gigs, $230 to $400) gains a metal back, tapered like the iPhone’s, and a small, feeble speaker and volume keys on the left edge. (What was Apple thinking when it designed the original Touch without volume keys? Sheesh.)
The tiny, screenless iPod Shuffle (1 or 2 gigabytes, $50 and $70) comes in brighter colors, and the iPod Classic — the big one, with a hard drive inside ($250) — goes from 80 gigabytes to 120. The 160-gig version has been discontinued.
The new Zunes haven’t changed at all except in color: blue, pink, red or black for the Nano-like model (4 to 16 gigs, $130 to $200 ) and black for the 120-gigabyte model ($250). But next to the sleek, shiny iPods, Zunes still look like dark, Soviet-made bricks.
Clearly, what Microsoft spent the year working on was software. Generously enough, it’s giving a free upgrade to owners of earlier Zune models — all six of you. (Was that too mean?)
Once the time-consuming upgrade is over, the player’s new software offers better looks (also, at last, a clock and a couple of games), and the new Zune jukebox software for Windows is clean and focused.
Microsoft hasn’t made much effort to match the iPod’s universe of functions. The Zune store still lacks movies, downloadable programs, gift certificates, monthly allowances or any way to rate podcasts to guide fellow visitors. And the player still has no stopwatch, alarm clock, volume limiter, calendar, address book, note pad or external-hard-drive mode.
Yet for hard-core music lovers, it’s a gem. The Zune blows the iPod off the map in music discovery and downloading.
Now, Microsoft’s shift in direction isn’t totally altruistic. Many of the Zune’s new talents don’t make sense unless you subscribe to ZunePass, Microsoft’s $15-a-month music-download service.
I’ve always hated subscription music services. Sure, they let you download all the music you want for a flat fee — but the day you stop paying, it all vanishes. You’ve spent all that money, and you’re left with nothing.
(You can also buy Zune songs individually, as on iTunes. But you have to pay in Microsoft’s own bizarre currency — “points,” not dollars — a cheesy effort to mask how much you’re actually spending. You also waste money, because points are sold only in quantities that aren’t evenly divisible by a song’s price.)
But if anything can make subscriptions look enticing, it’s the new Zune software.
For example, every Zune has a built-in FM radio. When you hear a good song, you can click the center button to capture it, provided it’s a station that broadcasts song-title data. In a Wi-Fi hot spot, the Zune downloads the song from the Zune store immediately. When you get home, the downloaded song gets copied back to your PC. (Even wirelessly, if you like, because the Zune can sync over Wi-Fi.)
It’s addictive, awesome and completely natural. What better way to discover new performers and songs than listening to the radio?
Buy Microsoft to "think different". Really?
The Zune software also offers more than 100 “channels”— themed, weekly playlists like Billboard Top 40, hip-hop, children’s music, opera and so on, and self-creating channels based on your listening habits. And when you’re in a wireless hot spot, you can listen to these channels streaming endlessly, commercial-free, exactly like satellite radio.
Even better, these playlists can also auto-download to your player. You gain two things satellite radio lacks: the freedom to listen anywhere, even underground or indoors — and a Skip button.
These days, Microsoft barely mentions what was once the Zune’s killer feature: beaming complete songs to other Zunes nearby. (You can play a beamed song three times before it self-destructs.) Evidently, the company realized the same thing Zune owners did: outside of Microsoft, there aren’t any other Zunes nearby.
On the Internet, however, everyone’s nearby. So Microsoft has beefed up its own Zune social network. Here, you can make friends and listen to their playlists — great if you have a ZunePass.
The Zune software offers myriad ways to suggest new music that you might like, based upon what you’re listening to, or what people with your tastes have in their own libraries. Again, it’s ZunePass gold.
A similar feature, called Genius playlists, appears in the iPod’s new iTunes 8. It automatically builds a playlist of songs (either ones you already own, or suggested store offerings) that Apple says “sound great together,” whatever that means. (Basically, it seems to clump songs by their degree of rockiness: soft-rock songs, harder-rock and so on.)
Both companies say that this feature is optional and anonymous, and that they’re analyzing only data like the song titles and how often you’ve listened to them. That is, they’re not studying musical elements like tempo and instrumentation, as the Internet radio station Pandora.com does.
In short, the Zune has become almost a cross between music player and satellite radio. Wireless streaming, capturing from the radio, channel subscriptions, recommendations — if you’re a heavy music consumer and you’re willing to pay $15 a month forever, it’s just the best.
But what if you’re not?
In that case, the iPod still wins. The Zune’s features offer musical depth, but not breadth. The Zune software looks cleaner than the increasingly cluttered iTunes, but it’s just as confusing. And the Zune store offers less than half as many songs as iTunes, one-15th as many TV episodes and no movies at all.
Finally, buying an iPod means that you join an immense ecosystem of accessories, cases, Web sites — and people. Those 150 million existing iPod owners won’t look at you as if you’re some kind of weirdo.
Funny, isn’t it? In the music world, Apple and Microsoft have now completely switched roles. You buy Apple if you want to play it safe — and you buy Microsoft if you think different.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.