The more time I spend with my Zune HD, the more I like it. Sound quality aside--and I know opinions differ dramatically here, but I'm stuck with my ears and my preferences--there are a bunch of features that make Apple's products seem like they've fallen behind the curve. Here are five things in particular that I miss when I use my iPhone or one of my iPods:
Zune Pass Apple has long maintained that people want to own rather than rent their music. I counter that a subscription-based music service, combined with a state-of-the-art player, is one of those features that you have to try before you realize how fantastic it is. It reminds me of the first time I beta-tested the Xbox Live gaming service back in 2002--I didn't understand how addictive online console gaming could be until I spent eight hours playing Moto GP without even looking at the clock.
Here are a couple of real-world examples from yesterday. First, a friend came over for brunch and we began talking about Gram Parsons, one of those towering influences whose music is sorely lacking in my collection. In the past, we might have talked for a minute, maybe gone online to hunt down some ancient YouTube videos, and then forgotten about it. But with the Zune Pass, we were able to walk over to the Zune HD (which I have plugged into a first-generation AV dock and connected to a Bose Wave player in my living room), connect to the Marketplace through my home Wi-Fi network, and sample a bunch of Gram Parsons songs while we ate.
Later, I ripped the nervously funky Can LP "Ege Bamyasi" to my hard drive. Curious to discover some similar music, I used the Zune software's Smart DJ function, then listened as it drew music from the Marketplace that I don't know very well, like Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Gong, and my favorite discovery, Faust. Trying the same thing with iTunes' Genius function suggested plenty of new music from the iTunes Store but to hear it, I'd have to buy each song as a download. (Note: you can't create a Smart DJ playlist on the Zune HD device itself, although I expect that feature to be added later. Instead, you have to use the Zune software, then save it as a playlist.)
These are the kinds of music-discovery features that make the Zune Pass a great deal at $14.99 a month. And on top of that, each month you get 10 MP3 downloads to keep.
Quickplay This feature lets you "pin" favorite songs, albums, playlists, or other types of content to the front menu of the Zune HD. It also has a "New" section that automatically displays the six items you've most recently added to your collection, a "History" section that displays the last six things you've played, and a spot to access any currently playing song that you've paused. I miss this instant gratification, particularly quick access to recently added music, on the iPod.
Background art Remember how cool it seemed when you could first look at album covers as you played songs on your MP3 player? The Zune HD makes this seem hopelessly obsolete--instead, it scrolls through album art and pictures of the artist as each song plays. No purchase is required--it works even with the LPs I ripped. It's similar to how the Zune software (and iTunes) can populate your music collection with album art from a database in the cloud, only more sophisticated. (You can see this feature in action starting around 2:00 into this video demo.)
Wireless sync This feature has been part of the Zune experience since 2007, and once you get used to it, you'll hate dragging your iPod to your computer every time you want to load new music. Microsoft seems to have improved the sync experience in the Zune HD and Zune 4.0 software--all you have to do is leave the Zune HD's wireless connection on, and it will periodically sync automatically with your PC, even if you don't have the Zune app open.
See what my friends are playing Zune's social-networking functions haven't been very useful because of the relatively small number of people who own a Zune. I'm hoping this changes with the Zune HD. Already, the Gram Parsons fan says he's going to buy one. Once we connect to one another, I'll be able to see his playlists as he runs through Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and all their musical neighbors. With a Zune Pass, I'll even be able to play any song that he's played, immediately, on my device, as long as it's available in the Marketplace. Again, this is an absolutely amazing tool for music discovery.
Apple's still riding high with the iPod, particularly the Touch, but the Zune HD is clearly moving ahead in terms of innovation. Now if Microsoft can open the Marketplace to third-party apps and fix the browser, Apple might have reason to worry.