Zen Vs. iPod Vs. Zune Inbox

Q: Can you tell me the differences between the Zen, the iPod and Microsoft’s new MP3 player? -Jonathan

A: The portable digital music player category is starting to heat up with some new competition from Microsoft.

Apple has owned this category since it launched its iPod line and a big part of the success had to do with the iTunes store.

Just playing digital music back on a portable device is not enough to capture a substantial portion of the market, as was proven by the forgotten pioneer in this segment: Diamond Multimedia’s Rio PMP 300, which was introduced in September of 1998.

Often referred to as the first “mass-market” digital music player, it was all the rage during the holiday season in 1998 even though it could only hold ten to twelve songs and cost $200.

This better than expected launch was what caught the attention of many (including Apple, obviously), and it spawned an onslaught of similar devices.

Many other companies including Compaq, Creative Labs, and iRiver began releasing their version of the digital music player well before Apple got into the game.

The primary thing that catapulted the iPod to the top and has kept it there was that Apple negotiated a deal with a large percentage of the music industry to make it easy for folks to buy songs one at a time.

Prior to iTunes, most folks had to buy standard CDs, convert them to MP3, then transfer them to their music players.

Apple understood that it needed to make it easier for folks to buy and transfer music and to this day, it has what is considered to be the standard for music downloading systems.

Every player released since Apple’s rise to the top has been proclaimed the “iPod Killer” by the competitor, but none have succeeded as of yet.

Creative has a solid, but distant second position in the market with its Zen line of players, and Microsoft is hoping to capture market share from both Creative and Apple with its new Zune player.

In general, here are my recommendations:

If you are buying it as a gift, the safe bet is to stick with the iPods, especially for teens that are brand conscious.

Very technical users will often prefer the Creative Zen because it is more flexible and frankly it’s easier to swap (pirate!) music with their friends because they are not restricted by the DRM (Digital Rights Management) in iTunes.

The new player from Microsoft called the Zune is a much closer competitor to the iPod because it also has its associated music store, but it is very early in its development.

The Zune has a couple of very interesting features, including a bigger display that plays videos sideways and built-in wireless connectivity, but it really has not fully developed either of these features.

In the future, it may be possible to buy music directly from the Zune through the wireless connection, but for now, it can be used to send non-copyright protected songs from one Zune player to another.

Apple does offer refurbished units at a substantial discount (typically 40% – 60% off retail) through its Web site but it is a little tricky to find, so just type refurbished ipod into Google for the quickest access to the current offers.

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services
Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show
Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers

[tags]ken colburn, data doctors, Zen, iPod, Zune, mp3 player[/tags]