I just finished getting my hands on the new Zune players and trying out their new software features, which let you do things like buy a song off the radio and download tunes directly from the device via the Internet.
The latest software update reinforces the notion that Microsoft is aiming the Zune at hard-core music enthusiasts. Outside of music, very little has changed, with the exception of the addition of two new games and Audible audiobook format support. The devices themselves are similar in physical size and shape, adding improved capacity options (16GB on the flash model and 120GB on the hard drive version) as the only changes.
As for music, Microsoft has added several things aimed at making it easier to discover and acquire new tunes. In addition to being able to buy songs directly over a Wi-Fi connection, subscribers to Microsoft's $15-a-month Zune Pass service can also stream music over the Web.
Also new this time around is the notion of channels, which are kind of like playlists that get regularly updated. Some playlists are programmed by Microsoft, and some by outside music authorities like radio stations and Billboard magazine. Still others are generated by the Zune software itself, based on the music each Zune owner is listening to.
And, as noted by my colleague Donald Bell, all of these features will also work on older Zunes via a free software update. On the downside, the Zune still doesn't have a browser like the iPod Touch. That not only means no Web browsing, but also the challenge that the device can only work on Wi-Fi networks that don't have a browser-based interrupt page, something that's common not just on paid networks, but also a growing number of free commercial Wi-Fi networks.
I've included a video I did with top Zune executive Joe Belfiore that shows the devices in action. I also talked with Belfiore off camera about the Zune's broader future. I hope to have that interview up later this week.
Microsoft's just-issued press release has a couple of other tidbits, including the fact that Clear Channel, CBS Radio, and a number of other big radio station owners are supporting a new data format that will make it easier for the Zune's new "Buy from FM" feature to track which song is playing. More than 450 stations will be live at launch with the enhanced data format, Microsoft said. The software can sometimes deduce what song is being played from other types of metatags, but it can also get hung up on the formatting.
Although Microsoft was planning its Zune announcement for next week, I think the leaks that prompted its early disclosure were fortuitous, allowing Microsoft at least one day in the sun before Apple's event on Tuesday.