iPod vs. Zune: January 2008 High End MP3 Player Roundup

With the Christmas tree chopped up and the New Year's resolutions made (and probably broken) the holidays are officially over and the new year has begun. But if you're on the receiving end of a gift from one of the 60% of Americans who purchased a gift card as a present this year, the Christmas season may not be quite over. Now you need to decide what to do with those gift cards and they probably won't be to a place like Newegg where you can geek-out on exotic hardware; instead you're shopping retail.


So what do you do with those gift cards before they begin to self-deduct? If you're thinking of an MP3 player, then you're in the right place. We're re-launching our coverage of MP3 players here at AnandTech, and to start things off we have a roundup of high-end MP3 players from juggernauts Apple and Microsoft, who between the two control the vast majority of the high-end high-margin market for MP3 players in the United States.

Apple of course needs no introduction in the MP3 player market, as while they were originally a couple of years late to the game they have managed to become the unlikely 800lb gorilla in the MP3 player market. iPod has very nearly become synonymous with "MP3 player" in common vernacular, a short-but-succinct summary of Apple's dominance (and a possible trademark nightmare for the company in the future). They're the company to beat, they have no desire to hide this, and they have no intention of letting it happen.

Meanwhile we also have Microsoft, a far newer competitor that has done surprisingly well or surprisingly poor in the market so far, depending on who you ask. Their first Zune was panned by critics for various perceived inadequacies and the Zune did not dislodge Apple from being the king of the hill as Microsoft had hoped. Yet on the other hand, the first Zune was enough to catapult Microsoft to the #2 supplier of hard drive based MP3 players in the United States, shooting past entrenched players like Creative practically overnight. They came nowhere close to beating Apple in the MP3 player market, but they got closer than anyone else in recent years and are willing to throw the money and leverage that is Microsoft to try again and again.

It has been no accident that Microsoft has chosen the past year to break in to the MP3 player market. Issues of company diversification aside, as an established market the MP3 player market has in the past year finally matured. For Apple this is a troubling news, as they must now compete with themselves to sell new iPods since they can no longer bank on market growth to keep their sales high. Meanwhile for Microsoft this is great news, as Microsoft's is often at its best when it's time to compete in a mature market where breakthroughs are slow and the risk of competitors blind sighting them is low.

The MP3 players we will be looking at today represent the shifts in product styles that come with that maturation. From Apple we have the old guard and the new guard; the iPods Classic and Touch respectively. From Microsoft we have the Zune 80, a product that is both the old and new guards at the same time, striving to fix what ailed the first Zune in the process. How do these MP3 players stack up? Let's find out.

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30 Comments

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I thought the reviews were pretty good, and about what I would have written (if i were much of a writer).

It basically comes down to:

* Get the iPod Touch if you really want the web browser. That is about the only worthwhile feature. I understand why people want it, don't get me wrong. But if you want a device solely for playing music than the Touch is not for you.
* If you want to watch a lot of video on the go, the choice is obvious: get the Zune! Touch would be good for video, but needs to have a larger capacity IMHO.
* For music, iPod Classic vs Zune is almost a toss up. It really comes down to iTunes vs Zune software. I prefer the Zune interface over the iPod's, but this review favored the iPod's interface. Its really a matter of personal preference at this point. Both devices are awesome and the price is just right.

One part of the review that I didn't like was about CoverFlow. While they claimed it was pretty pointless to have, it's basically how I find my music. I don't know the names of the albums, but I know the images, and I know which songs are associated with which images. If people put just a little effort into getting their music they can learn to like CoverFlow. It's like a flat-top stove, or a GPS device: not everyone has it, not everyone wants it, but it's pretty useful to have.

"Yet on the other hand, the first Zune was enough to catapult Microsoft to the #2 supplier "

Yea, they are at #2 at a amazing 9% of the market. Considering their 95% desktop market share, massive advertising budget and a R&D company that goes by the name of "Apple", you'd think they could have done better than that. The more interesting question would be to offer the existing Zune customers an iPod in exchange. That number would tell us the REAL Zune customers.

The Zune, like all of MS's pervious products are a poor clone (crapgadget) of someone else's idea. (Netscape, Stacker, Lotus123, Windows, PalmOS, Java) Don't get me wrong, MS has it share of innovative products like BOB.

Don't mind me, I've been working with MS products a little too long...

Hehe, it's the guys like you, who usually have no idea what they're talking about, that I personally despise. But don't take that as a personal statement..

First of all, Apple has no technology. Actually, its exactly the company that does what you said Microsoft does in your comment. Tell me one Apple product that has true "new" technology that wasn't possible. Don't give me sissy answers like "scroll wheel" or "touch screen", because they were out way before Apple's market entry. The fact is, Apple is a company that takes a product, makes it noob friendly, slams a bitten fruit on the back, and sells it for a ridiculously premium price.

The iPod line has been around since the start of the decade. It's had much time to have an imprint on culture, as had Microsoft with Windows and Office. Sure, the new Zunes can be a million times better, the market won't care. Not immediately, that it. Consumers slowly adapt from one product to another, as was seen in the reception of Windows Vista (or XP for that matter, but no one cares now because XP is awesome now for some random reason, even though the same idiots claimed it was trash 5 years ago).

I think you have a better understanding on what the heck to say next time. Remember, use that brain!

(Swordnyx said @ #9.1)
Not immediately, that it. Consumers slowly adapt from one product to another, as was seen in the reception of Windows Vista (or XP for that matter, but no one cares now because XP is awesome now for some random reason, even though the same idiots claimed it was trash 5 years ago).
so true lol people need something to argue about. They are so passionate about bashing windows that you would think they were fighting an evil tyrant. I know it may sound crazy to them but vista was designed on a modern pc so if you want to use it then have one if you don't use xp. I know several people that have used vista with no problems. When I listen to linux fanatics its even worse they make it look like windows is an enemy to the future of computers and anyone that uses it is an idiot.

(Swordnyx said @ #9.1)
Hehe, it's the guys like you, who usually have no idea what they're talking about, that I personally despise. But don't take that as a personal statement..

You'll see what I'm talking about around the time your acne clears up.

Had my Z80 since lat November and have loved it. Have not had a single problem and the thing works surprisingly well. I mean I never expect something from Microsoft to work flawlessly but for me those recent Microsoft products have been my Zune and OneCare. I just hope they can continue to deliver software that works well.

From all the reading I did cowon seems to be the best mp3 players atm. I own 2 sandisk players though. One e250 and one c250 and I'm happy with both although the screen on the c250 seems kind of low res.

that was a joke right. the samsung p2 and the zune are better then the cowon even the ipod and i am shocked in actually saying the ipod is good lol. please no applefanboys dissing me. lol

I have a Cowon D2. It sure does have a lot of "sound enhancement" features. So if you want really fine control of an equalizer or, whatever, you've got those features. The interface is god awful though. And the physical dimensions are crap for that small of a music player.

I'd take a Zune or an iPod over a Cowon anyday. Cowon did come with some good headphones. Still not as good as you can get from sennheiser or whatever, but better than the stock iPod headphones.

That's the funniest thing I've read all day. :P The iPod Classic is a lot more appealing than the Zune, in my opinion.

(Galley said @ #5)
Zunes are like the Nintendo 64. I know they exist, but I've never met anyone that actually owned one. ;)

I think it is a location thing at the moment. Around town here, the Zune 80GB is hardly ever in stock. As soon as a store gets more in, they sell out. I always see iPod's on the shelves, however.

(Shadrack said @ #5.3)
One thing I forgot to point out is that I also own a Nintendo 64. And know several people who owned N64's back in the day.

+1

-Spenser

+1 here. Its awesome! The form factor has improved so much over the 30GB Zune.

However, the differences between the iPod Classic the new Zune make the choice come down to personal opinion and taste. In fact, I would say the choice is more dependent on how much you like (or hate) iTunes over the Zune Software more than the actual PMPs.

Nice looking review, although they conveniently ignore a lot of the criticisms for the iPod Classic.

There have been a lot of people complaining about the audio quality of the classics vs the previous generation (5G's). I remember reading somewhere that they changed DAC chips in this model (probably to a cheaper one). Although they do do a sound quality review, I would like to see the 5G ipods included in this.

Also there is no mention about a lot of the newly introduced issues with the 6th gen Classic iPods. My girlfriend owns an 80gb Classic and has had several issues with it so far. She turned it on one day to find her music completely gone. Not only that, but several times now now she has been using it with a Logitech iPod dock and the iPod would just freeze completely and require a manual reset. 2 of these times, after being reset manually, her iPod went into a continual restart loop - no way out except to put the iPod into disk mode. The iPod could not be restored, the firmware could not be changed - they were bricked. We're sending her iPod to Apple for the second time now (the first time they gave her a replacement, only to have the same issue again). These problems with the continual restart loop have been experienced by hundreds of people on the Apple forums, yet Apple has yet to acknowledge the issue that i've seen - they're more interested in releasing firmware updates to add the ability to play movie rentals and stupid stuff like that so they can make more money.

Anyway, iPod Classics are complete crap in my opinion until Apple acknowledges these issues and does something about them. Too bad this review doesn't mention any of these problems.

Yes I too agree that it's bugs are noticable. I had a Classic before I returned it in 4 days and ordered a we'll have to see how this goes.

Although I'd be unhappy if my iPod had these issues just because yours is doing it does not mean that everybody's is or that apple needs to "acknowledge these issues"...

I think you've mistaken a DAC with DSP (Digital Signal Processor). High quality DSP chips are VERY costly, according to my DSP professor. He said all these electronics usually have really crappy DSP chips (less expensive, more profit) so it produces "low" quality sounds.

Although things like IPODS have DAC's but it's usually for extracting your stored info(BITS) into waveforms which is then modulated by the DSP chip to produce sounds. Althoguh a high quality DAC will play an important role as well but what you hear usually comes from the DSP.

(bobbba said @ #2.2)
Although I'd be unhappy if my iPod had these issues just because yours is doing it does not mean that everybody's is or that apple needs to "acknowledge these issues"...

As i noted in my post, Apple's own support forums are riddled with hundreds of people experiencing these same issues - hence why i believe that Apple should acknowledge these problems and deal with them...

(kouhii00 said @ #2.3)
I think you've mistaken a DAC with DSP (Digital Signal Processor). High quality DSP chips are VERY costly, according to my DSP professor. He said all these electronics usually have really crappy DSP chips (less expensive, more profit) so it produces "low" quality sounds.

Although things like IPODS have DAC's but it's usually for extracting your stored info(BITS) into waveforms which is then modulated by the DSP chip to produce sounds. Althoguh a high quality DAC will play an important role as well but what you hear usually comes from the DSP.

Thanks for the clarification. I'm not too knowledgeable about that stuff - I just remember reading a post by someone whose professor compared the audio output of a Classic with that of the 5th-gen iPods and found the Classics to have some issues compared with the 5th gens. Sorry, cant remember where i read this so I can't link to this post. He tested a few aspects of the sound quality and from what i remember found issues with frequencies around 22khz and above in particular (among other things). After some investigation, it was found that one of the chips responsible for the sound output (I thought it must've been the DAC but I suppose it must be the DSP) had been changed from the 5th gen to a different one (which i assume is probably cheaper). Wish i could remember more details.. sorry.

sorry I need to correct myself. Since bits are stored digitally, it can be modulated by the DSP without further conversion and then using DAC to converted back into sound outputs. I am guessing, that if there are issues with 22kHz sampling frequency then it is the crappy quality of the DSP chip (it make sense that professional musical synthesizers cost an arm and a leg). Wonder why sometimes your band sounds more clear on the CD than in live that's the DSP at work for ya. Although there's more to musical synthesizers than that but the core is still that.

As for DAC's depending on the quality, whenever you convert from digital to analog there is always some loss of information or in some cases error-bits (usually CRC takes care of this). However, DAC's are very efficient now a days; e.g. DVI-2-VGA cable, sometimes you notice almost NO difference when comparing DVI and VGA cables. Therefore, kinda hard to believe that DAC's are the culprit.

Although I might be wrong, DSP is not my area of specialty. I am more of a component(capacitors, resistors, FETS, BJT's, and etc) level design guy.