MP3 Player: Microsoft vs. Apple

The Apple iPod has for sometime now seen dominance in the MP3 player market. Its ease of use, wide array of iTunes downloadable content and various designs have made it a must have for many a gadget loving person and beyond. Apple computer rival Microsoft, long seeking to gain greater market share through its PlaysForSure alliances with third party companies like Creative and SanDisk, has grown tired of the white player and is now aggressively preparing its own entry: the Zune. This portable media device has some of the same features as the iPod and is also designed to let you wirelessly share music with others. Which will win you ask? The odds on favorite is the Apple iPod given its current loyal following. That being said, Microsoft is known for pecking away at a competitor's lead through learning by example and producing a better product with each new generation The Zune is a sure sign Microsoft has learned from their PlaysForSure mistakes and is looking for a fight.

Which player should you choose? That really depends on what you want out of a portable media player. To help you get started, we've provided below a brief comparison of key related sets of features of the Zune versus the primary iPod 5G (video). There are also some links to more indepth articles and photos of the new iPods and Zune.

Storage Size & Price
The Apple iPod, now in its fifth generation, prices at $249 for a 30GB model (7,500 songs) and $349 for an 80GB model (20,000 songs). The Microsoft Zune offers up a first generation 30GB (7,500 songs) model for $249.

With this pricing as it is, Microsoft is looking to go head to head with the smaller sized iPod in terms of both storage size and dollars you will be spending.

Audio/Video/Picture Files Supported
The Apple iPod supports the common music file type known as MP3 as well as others such as the AAC format (or, more specifically, a copy-protected subset of this format), which is what you get when you download a tune from iTunes. The Microsoft Zune supports MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA), among others. WMA is Microsoft's traditional music file format and will be the type of audio you download from the Zune Marketplace (or, more specifically, a copy-protected subset of this format).

It should be noted iPod users won't be able to enjoy Zune Marketplace content because it is in a copy protected format not compatible with the iPod. Zune users also will not be able to enjoy iTunes Store music because of similar copy protections on these select AAC files from that online music store.

Neither will Zune users be able to enjoy music from online music subscription services like Napster, Yahoo or MTV's URGE, which are PlaysForSure certified. PlaysForSure is a program Microsoft runs separately to guarantee ease of use between third party MP3 player makers like SanDisk and compatible online subscription services like the ones previously mentioned. Microsoft plans to run the Zune as a separate entity for the time being and is not allowing crossover.

As for digital video, the Zune will support Microsoft's Windows Media Video format but looks like it will not support subscription video from any source but the Zune Marketplace. The Apple iPod, meanwhile, supports a wider array of formats and is capable of playing back the hundreds of hours of video available through the iTunes Store.

With regards to digital photos, both the Zune and iPod support viewing of JPEGs, which is the most common digital image format out there.

Display and Controls
The Apple iPod sports a 2.5-inch QVGA transflective LCD display and uses as its primary control the multi-directional and generally easy to use Click Wheel. The Microsoft Zune sports a 3-inch LCD which can be oriented vertically or horizontally and has has its primary control a four way, simplistic D-Pad.

The iPod screen, while small, makes for great viewing of digital images and movies. The Zune's screen, while not yet tested, should also offer a nice viewing experience. The ability to change the viewing angle of the Zune's screen will make viewing videos especially a treat.

iTunes versus Zune Marketplace
The Apple iTunes Store currently offers (and is ever growing) a collection of more than 3.5 million 99¢ songs, 65,000 free podcasts, 20,000 audiobooks, 200 TV shows and over 75 movies. The Zune Marketplace is set to offer at launch over 2 million songs through either individual music purchases to own or a monthly subscription plan to rent as many songs as you can handle at once. No video looks to be initially available.

Dimensions and Weight
The Apple iPod (30GB) measures 4.1-inches (height) by 2.4-inches (width) by 0.43-inches (depth) and weighs 4.8 ounces. The Microsoft Zune measures, in the same dimensions, 4.4-inches by 2.4-inches by 0.6-inches and weighs 5.6 ounces. These dimensions make the iPod smaller then the Zune, which will be something to consider for ease of pocketing your player.

Worth Noting
Apple iPod: Established leader in portable media player space, largest amount of accessories, search and scroll functions for more quickly finding music selections, body color choices of black or white.
Microsoft Zune: Backing of one of the world's largest computer companies, key iPod accessory makers are making Zune accessories, built-in wireless technology so one can share full length sample tracks (with restrictions), playlists, pictures and personally recorded audio directly from Zune to Zune, body color choices of black, brown or white.

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Blackberry aims to bite into Apple's juicy iPhone

Research in Motion unveiled Monday its latest BlackBerry smartphone with new styling and technology that aims to bite into Apple's juicy iPhone sales.

Called the "BlackBerry Bold," it is the first in the handset series to run on high-speed HSDPA networks and comes with integrated GPS, Wi-Fi and a "rich set of multimedia features," the Canadian-based firm said.As such, users can faster download email attachments, stream video or render web pages. As well, its added processing power allows the BlackBerry Bold to run more sophisticated business software, said RIM, based in Waterloo, Ontario.

This combination of guts and glitz, with its "vivid and bold" display, "lustrous black exterior, satin chrome finished frame and stylish leather-like back-plate," appears to be a nod to its mostly business users and wooing the personal users of its rival, iPhone.

In the United States, BlackBerry mobile devices, which combine telephone, email and Internet capabilities, have long been strongest among business users.

Reliance on the BlackBerry is so fierce that they have been jokingly dubbed "CrackBerries," in a reference to a tendency for their owners to compulsively check and send email as if it were an addiction.But iPhone quickly picked up the lion's share of the US personal use market since its launch in 2007, and by taking steps recently to try to appeal to business users too, it has become the biggest threat to BlackBerry's dominance.

"The new BlackBerry Bold represents a tremendous step forward in business-grade smartphones and lives up to its name with incredible speed, power and functionality, all wrapped in a beautiful and confident design," said RIM president Mike Lazaridis in a statement.

The new BlackBerry smartphone, which will also allow users that manage their music collection with iTunes to sync with it, will be offered worldwide in the coming months, the company said.

Some 14 million people around the world use RIM's BlackBerry and the company has said it aims to sign up another 2.2 million by the end of the next quarter.

Also Monday, RIM, the Royal Bank, Thomson Reuters and several private Canadian investors announced the launch of a 150 million dollar (Canadian, US) venture capital fund that will invest in new mobile applications and services.

Apple TV

Once known as iTV, Apple TV was officially unveiled at Macworld 2007 and arrives in February. With its built-in hard drive and 802.11n wireless streaming, this little white box finally brings together iTunes and the TV.

Apple TV is a network media box that streams movies, music, TV shows, podcasts, and photos from the iTunes library on your PC or Mac to your HDTV. The box, which looks like a squashed Mac Mini and measures 7.7 by 7.7 by 1.1 inches (including an integrated power supply), connects to your TV via either HDMI or component video and audio, and wirelessly syncs content from your iTunes library so that you can enjoy it in the living room using the included remote. As promised, Apple TV will be available in February for $299; you can order it online now.

Another big question mark was the file formats that Apple TV would support, and here we have some clear answers. It goes without saying that Apple TV will work with any standard iTunes format. Audio formats include AAC, protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3 and variable bit rate MP3, Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV. But the bigger news is it supports wide-screen, high-definition video, more specifically 1,280x720 at 24 frames per second, aka 720p. That means you will be able to view movies and TV shows at better-than-DVD quality--as long as you can get them from the iTunes Store. Other video formats include H.264 and protected H.264 (from iTunes Store), 640x480 at 30 frames per second; 320x240 at 30 frames per second; and MPEG-4, 640x480 at 30 frames per second. Finally, Apple TV supports all standard photo formats, including JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, and PNG; you can view photos in slide shows on your TV.

Right now, the movie selections on iTunes Store are limited to Disney and its affiliated studio brands, such as Touchstone and Miramax. But at Macworld, Apple CEO Steve Jobs also announced a deal with Paramount that makes an additional 250 movies available for iTunes, the iPod, and now Apple TV. That's a great step, but with the exception of a few "season passes," Apple still charges a flat fee for movies ($9.99 to $12.99) and TV shows ($1.99 per episode). The introduction of Apple TV makes it more apparent than ever that Apple should rapidly expand the video offering of iTunes Store, make more of it available in wide-screen HD formats, and especially provide the option for a monthly subscription fee like many of its competitors do.

Featuristic iPhone

Macworld reported that the iPhone brings together several features of the iPod, digital camera, smart phones and even portable computing to one device, with a widescreen display and an innovative input method. Featuring a new input technology called “Multi-Touch” the iPhone features only a single physical button, called “home.” You control the phone by sliding a finger across its touch-sensitive 3.5-inch display, which has a resolution of 320-by-480 pixels at 160 pixels-per-inch display.

The iPhone, which runs Mac OS X, has full iTunes integration and can seamlessly sync data with a Mac, PC, or Internet service, including music and videos from iTunes, contacts, calendars, photos, notes, bookmarks and e-mail accounts.

The 0.46-inch (11.6-millimeter) thick device weighs 4.8 ounces (135 grams) and sports a 2-megapixel camera, volume control, ring-silent switch, 3.5-millimeter headset/audio jack, SIM tray, “sleep-wake” switch, speaker, microphone, and a 30-pin iPod dock connector. The quad-band GSM (850MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, and 1900MHz) + EDGE phone also has 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.0 capabilities. Jobs noted 3G capabilities will come in the future.

Three smart sensors also help control the iPhone’s behavior. A proximity sensor shuts down the display and touchscreen when the phone is held to the ear. An ambient light sensor automatically adjusts screen brightness to save power. Meanwhile, an accelerometer lets the phone know whether to display in portrait or landscape mode.

A Visual Voice-mail feature allows users to skip directly to voice mails they want to hear. An easy-to-use conference call feature lets users connect two calls with one touch of the screen. Text messaging on the iPhone is similar to iChat, with user dialogue encased in bubbles and with familiar iChat sounds, and a touch keyboard appears below for entering text.

The iPhone uses its Wi-Fi and EDGE capabilities to automatically connect to the Internet. Internet connectivity includes HTML-capable e-mail that works with any IMAP or POP3 e-mail service. Jobs also announced that Yahoo will offer free push e-mail—similar to the e-mail system on a Blackberry—to all iPhone customers.

Apple also included its Safari web browser, and the phone can use its Internet capabilities to view standard Web pages, rather than WAP versions of pages. Integrated Google Maps functionality lets users look up locations, search for local businesses, and view satellite imagery. The iPhone also supports Dashboard widgets, and Apple announced it will include weather and stock widgets.

The iPhone’s photo management features are equally interesting. Its software enables users to use a “pinching” motion to zoom in and out of pictures, and to orient pictures in standard or landscape mode. When playing music, the iPhone can automatically adjust levels up or down as calls come in.

The iPhone will come in two versions: a 4GB, $499 model and an 8GB, $599 model. Both will require a two-year contract with Cingular, the exclusive U.S. carrier. Both models will be available beginning in June from Apple Stores and from Cingular.

It looks promising to me! But when is it going to be available in other countries?

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