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Second-time-around for Microsoft's Zune

Second-time-around for Microsoft's Zune

Microsoft unveiled revamped Zune music players on Tuesday, adding its first flash memory-based models and debuting wireless syncing as it gets ready for a second holiday season against Apple and its dominant iPod.

The three new models include 4GB and 8GB flash players -- Microsoft's first -- that will retail for US$149 and $199, respectively, when they go on sale in November. Both sport a 1.8-in. color display and, while comparable in price to Apple's recently redesigned iPod nano, are narrower and taller.

A new black-only player equipped with an 80GB hard drive and a 3.2-in. screen will sell for $249. By comparison, Apple's hard drive-based iPod, now dubbed the "classic," comes in two models; a $249 player with the same 80GB storage capacity as the new Zune, and a 160GB player that retails for $349. Both of those devices sport a 3.5-in. display.

Last year's original 30GB Zune will be reduced to $199. Owners of first-generation Zunes will receive a software update, Microsoft said, that will give their devices comparable functionality to the new players.

Microsoft also unveiled new across-the-line features that include automatic wireless syncing to PCs when the player is within range of a home Wi-Fi network and connected to a charger or set into its dock. Manual, player-to-PC synchronization is still available. The other major enhancement is the hybrid navigation wheel, which works both by the traditional click and by touch. Flicking a finger over the pad, for instance, will quickly scroll through song lists or fast-forward through photos.

The Microsoft version of iTunes, dubbed Zune MarketPlace, will also sport a new design and an inventory of 3 million tracks, a third of which will be DRM-free MP3s without copy protection. Customers will still be able to sign up for the $14.95 per month Zune Pass, which allows unlimited downloading and playback as long as the subscription is in force.

Microsoft launched the Zune last November, but has had little luck denting iPod sales. In the approximately 11 months since the Zune's debut, Microsoft has sold about 1.2 million players; Apple, meanwhile, claimed in June that it had sold 41.4 million iPods in the preceding nine months.

A little less than a month ago, Apple unwrapped a holiday lineup that includes the redesigned iPod Nano and the all-new iPod Touch, a $299 to $399 iPhone-style music player and Wi-Fi device built around a touch screen. Microsoft will not have a player this year to compete with the iPod Touch.

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