Thursday, September 18, 2008

New iPod Nano Battles New Zune

Updates. OK, so the updates are here. Apple completely overhauled the iPod Nano, changing it's shape and updating it's software at the same time. Microsoft updated the Zune but as far as I can tell the new hardware looks the same as the old hardware. I picked up a black Nano 4th generation and a 3rd generation Zune, both 8gb versions. They appear to be the same length and width, but the Zune is a little thicker and a hair wider. The Nano's screen is also a little bit larger. The Zune sells for 99 cents more than the Nano. I installed the same music on each. Now it's time to see which is the best media player for the money. Nano Specifications HERE. Zune Specifications HERE.Looks. The Nano is clearly prettier. It has an anodized aluminum shell with a flat elliptical cross section. The Zune has an aluminum back and a plastic front. It remains a little brick. The weight difference between them is evident, yet barely of consequence in the hand.Both players play Music, Videos, and Photos. The Nano adds text files as Notes. You can't create them on the Nano, but you can read them. Both players have games. The Nano comes with three, and the Zune comes with two. There are more for each which can be downloaded and installed through their respective desktop software.

Shake! Here is where hardware starts to differ. The Nano has the same accelerometer in it as the iPhone and iPod Touch. It comes into play with music where tilting the Nano switches to cover flow and back. One of the included games uses it. Photos can be rotated to fill the screen by simply rotating the Nano. Lastly you can enable a shake of the Nano to advance the music app to the next song.
FM. The Zune has FM Radio including RDS data display. You can auto-seek or manually scan for stations. Stations can be saved as presets. Radio is incredibly useful, particularly in severe weather conditions. You get local news, sports and weather, and depending on what stations are within range you may have access to dozens of genres of free music to enjoy. Why Apple resists putting FM Radio in it's iPods is a mystery to me. The Zune 3.0 firmware goes one step farther with radio. Keep reading.

WIFI. The Zune has wifi, and with the 3.0 firmware takes more advantage of it than ever before. You can send a song or photo to any other Zune you're within wireless range of. I have to confess I've had my 80gb Zune for several months and haven't bumped into another Zune owner. With the 8gb Zune I can now verify that media sharing does work. Music transferred this way will play for three days before deleting itself. Four apps take advantage of the Zunes wifi. Marketplace is much the same as the iTunes store is on the iPhone. You can browse, sample, purchase and download songs directly over wifi. Social also uses wifi to find and connect you to other Zunes. The FM radio player now has an "Add to Cart" option. If a song has RDS data with it you can add it to your cart. If within wifi range the song you've tagged will download automatically. Lastly, the Zune can sync wirelessly with your PC once you've set it up.

UI. User interfaces are almost identical. Both players have a touch sensitive center controller. The Zune adds a Back/Home and a Pause/Play button. The Nano and other iPods are famous for their click wheel, but I found the Zune touchpad to be more sensitive and simpler to use than the Nano's wheel. You've got to run your finger in a clockwise or counterclockwise motion to move about the Nano's menus or volume control. The Zune pad is more intuitive with an up stroke moving you up a menu and a down stroke moving you down. Left and right also do the obvious moving you backward and forward through files or across categories to sort in the music player. The Nano gets a little more obvious with a dedicated Menu/Back and forward/back button zones on the wheel, but travelling up and down using the click wheel is more complicated. I recommend the Zune for ease of use.

Extras. The Nano comes with an Extras menu option. It includes alarms and a sleep timer, Calendar(s) with To Do's, World Clock, Contacts, Notes, a Stopwatch, and a Screen Lock. The Zune is more about media and sharing. It's Social and Marketplace menu options connect you to friends and the Zune marketplace. There is a penalty for all the extras. The 8gb Zune only has 6.41gb of media space after all the firmware and games. The 8gb Nano does a little better with 7.4gb free. The Nano wins the Extras battle if it's array of extras is useful to you. You can't enter Contacts, ToDos or Notes directly on the Nano, so their usefulness is somewhat compromised.

Audio. I spent the day listening to both players. The Nano has a crossfade feature that the Zune doesn't. Both have gapless playback. Sound quality using the same Sennheiser HD595 headphones was equally pleasing. The Zune Marketplace option opens up broader exposier to music within the player itself. The Nano offers Genius Playlists. The Zune will also generate Autoplaylists, but not so easily on the player itself. I'm calling the music experience a wash between these two devices. Each has it's unique benefits, and each wishes it had features from the other.

Video. Movies look great on both players, despite the tiny screens. The Zune has low, medium, and bright screen settings. The Nano has a 15 step brightness slider for more subtle control. Audio is comparible. I can't determine if subtitles are available on either device. In the end I have to give the Nano a small victory in this category, even though the tiny screens would not be my first choice for movie enjoyment.

Photos. Both players will display photos on their screens. The small size makes it not the best justification for either device. Both can zoom and pan around a photo. Both can play slides with variable timing between images. Both have a nice transition between images in a show. This category is a tie.

Conclusion? While tempted by the extras offered on the Nano, I have to confess I prefer the Zune. FM and Wifi, along with the more direct touchpad interface make the Zune a good deal more entertaining than the Nano. The Zune is not as cute, but both are easily pocketable. Yes, there will be more accessories for the Nano, but by not changing in two years the Zune can use existing cases while the accessory industry ramps up brand new cases for the completely new Nano. For the moment the 8gb Zune actually has more available cases than the Nano. Apple pushes me even farther toward the Zune with their policy of charging for firmware updates (iPod Touch) while Microsoft updated and improved my old Zune for free.

So what should you spend your $150 on? You'll get more life and more enjoyment out of a Zune.

Zune 3.0 Desktop Software
iTunes 8.0 for iPods.
Nano 4th Generation User Manual
Zune User Manual



  1. Wow great photos there, and review

  2. Thanks for the review. I am not sure if I should go for a Zune or IPod touch.