The ubiquity of the iPod must vex Bill Gates something rotten. With every other MP3 player manufacturer in the world opting to make its devices compatible with his Windows Media Player, you'd think he'd hold his hands up and allow Apple one small victory. But instead he launched the Zune, with its own proprietary software and music format, to attack the formidable iPod and iTunes combo head-on.

Luckily for Apple, the original Zune was disappointing – great to use, but too bulky and with insufficient battery life. The second generation promises so much more. Here we're checking out a new Nano rival – the pocket-sized Zune 8.

Nano-rivalling looks

First impressions are excellent. The red version we tested looks gorgeous – to some, sexier than the iPod – though the plastic frontage isn't quite as flawless as the aluminium of the new Nano. However, the Zune’s scratch-resistant metal backing goes some way to levelling the playing field.

Things only get better when you switch the Zune on. The menu system is fantastic – very intuitive and attractive, with only the slightest hint of lag  – and the QVGA screen is crisp and bright, if small.

One of the new Zune’s upgrades over the original is its touch-sensitive ‘ZunePad’ control. You can click around or brush your fingertips over it to guide yourself through the menus. It’s responsive and simple to master, plus its inertial scrolling (the faster you move your finger the faster you scroll through tracks) feels next-gen in a way the original Zune failed to do.

Warm sound

Of course, performance is rather important, and we’re pleased to report that the Zune does a fine job. Music sounds warm but propulsive, if somewhat more congested than the Nano. Pair it with headphones that dig up plenty of detail (the included ones aren’t special) and you’ll have no complaints.

That screen is great for video, too. The Zune packs enough grunt to play at a smooth frame rate and the pixel density means movies always look sharp. However, being a 1.8in job, it’s not suitable for prolonged viewing.

The built-in radio sounds OK but has trouble getting signal. This is true of every compact media player we’ve seen, so it’s no reason to mark the Zune down. After all, the Nano doesn’t even have one.

One thing that frustrates is its lack of support for gapless playback, while the process of getting hold of album artwork for tracks imported from old libraries is complex. But these are niggles, not deal-breakers.

Wi-Fi: why?

The feature that excited every tech-headed individual when the Zune first surfaced was its built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. This is well realised in the second generation, allowing you to swap tracks with other Zunes quickly and easily – for a maximum of three plays, of course.

But, like the wireless PC syncing the Wi-Fi also allows, it’s not terribly useful. Sending someone a track isn’t any easier than letting them borrow your headphones, and Wi-Fi eats battery.

As for Wi-Fi syncing… well, it’s neat, but pointless. You have to queue up the tracks you want to sync on your PC, so you’re going to be close to your PC – you might just as well plug in via USB and get a charge while you’re at it. It would only really be useful if you could select the PC tracks you wanted via the Zune’s interface.

A sparkling experience

The Zune’s greatest triumph is the overall experience it provides. It’s a fine piece of hardware and, like the iPod, is complemented by equally excellent software.

The software is as graphically rich as iTunes is sparse, allowing simple navigation, attractive, skinnable backgrounds and a powerful media player with movie, music and image organisation. It’s better than Windows Media Player, so even if you have no Zune, it’s worth a download.

Zune Marketplace (like the iTunes store) is great for getting podcasts, though tunes aren’t yet available for purchase outside of the States. ‘Social’ allows you create a online identity that can be seen by others. This should really appeal to the Facebook generation and makes the Zune seem somewhat friendlier than the austere iPod.

This rich experience is a theme, providing an excellent counterpoint to the slick minimalism of the Nano. Where iPods are white, the Zune is technicolour: all big fonts, glowing progress bars and funky backgrounds.

All this means that, like the iPod, but unlike any other MP3 player currently available, the Zune has something ineffable about it: it’s cool. Different cool from the iPod, but cool nevertheless. Anyone who wants to escape iPod ubiquity will therefore find it a fine MP3 partner.


Stuff says... 

Microsoft Zune 8 review

Brilliant performance and a stunning user experience in a gorgeous package. The iPod has finally met its match.