Zune vs. iPod: Peripherals

December 27, 2006

I’m not writing the Zune off nearly as quickly as most commentators, if only because I’ve seen what Microsoft is doing to Sony with the Xbox 360. Also, now that I’ve learned to work around or live unhappily with a few really annoying software glitches, I actually am enjoying the Zune more than my 4th generation iPod (if I had a fifth-generation Pod with color screen, it might be a different story). And I definitely agree with this former iPod fanatic that the Zune offers better audio quality than iPod–and this is on the exact same AAC files that I originally ripped from CD into iTunes.

But one area where Zune will have a really hard time catching up is third-party peripherals.

This Christmas is a case in point. My wife wanted a way to play music up in the baby’s room, so I bought her an iPod clock radio from iHome, and it’s one of the most thoughtful, well-designed pieces of consumer electronics equipment I’ve ever purchased. Plug an iPod into the dock and it charges while playing. The remote control controls both the iPod (to skip songs, fast forward, and so on) and the clock radio (to change the volume, switch to radio, and so on). It’s got an atomic clock with separate buttons to set the time zone and the manual minute-by-minute movement. It’s got a lighted faceplate with an intuitive dimmer switch. There’s nothing really stunning or original about it, it’s just simple, elegant, and works like you expect it to. (Shows how low my standards have gotten for consumer electronics, I guess.) 99 bucks at the Apple Store.

The other side of the coin: knowing that I’m giving my Zune a real go, my wife bought me two peripheral packs. The Car Pack with FM Transmitter, like its many iPod equivalents, lets you play your Zune through an unused frequency on your car’s FM radio. When the Zune team briefed me back in September, one of their folks bragged about the transmitter’s Autoseek function, which is supposed to automatically find the nearest blank station so you don’t have to do it manually. Let me tell the world: it doesn’t work. At all. It suggested 88.5, the local NPR station, and 107.7, an alternative station. Two of the strongest radio signals in Seattle. I finally found that 91.1 works fairly well, although all of these FM transceivers are sketchy in major urban areas with lots of radio stations.

My wife also bought me the Home A/V Pack, which is intended to let you dock your Zune (the dock has the same cool rubberized plastic finish as the device itself) and connect it to your home entertainment system, then control it with a remote. For some reason, the only cable included was an 1/8-inch (which connects to the base) to composite RCA (which connects to your home entertainment system). Fine and dandy, except I have 600 records downstairs with my real stereo and would never dream of listening to highly compressed digital audio on that system. Instead, I want to connect the dock to the small Bose in my living room, which has an 1/8 inch auxiliary input. Nope. Not supported. I had to use an iPod connector (part of a much cheaper home A/V pack I bought for the iPod a year ago), and then jam it into the base station, which was constructed specifically to accept a three-notch 1/8-inch jack instead of the standard audio-only two-notch jack. (I don’t know but am guessing that the notches correspond to the number of discrete signals transmitted. Left, right, and in the case of the A/V jack, video.) Once I got it set up, though, it did offer really nice sound through the Bose–considerably better than the iPod.

Last anecdote: my wife had to go to three stores before she found one (Car Toys) that stocked these peripherals. And the guy at Car Toys said he’d only sold one Zune, and that it had been returned the next day! Other local consumer electronics stores said they were waiting to see if it took off. And this in Microsoft’s back yard, the strongest market for Zune so far.

The point: the iPod has become a platform on which third-parties innovate. The Zune has a lot of proving to do before perhiperhal makers and retailers will give it the same level of support. Ironic given the respective history of the two companies in the personal computer space.