New Zune Software Slated For Release

A significant software upgrade for Microsoft’s Zune music player will be available next week. It will not garner the attention of Apple’s recent iPod news, but the changes are notable and worth consideration if you want a new portable music option.

Zune and other music competitors remain well behind the iPod in market share, yet Microsoft is doing some interesting things and have a more robust view of music that Apple has so far overlooked. Zune’s software upgrade will be available to download and shipped on new devices starting Sept. 16.

Here’s what’s new:

Buy from FM. The Zune has a built-in FM radio. So if you hear a song you like while listening to the Zune’s radio, you can tag it and the song will download to the Zune the next time you dock the device. This is similar to the HD Radio feature called iTunes tagging. I’ve tested that and it works great.

Zune Pass improved. Microsoft has always embraced the music subscription approach (Apple does not), and if you pay $15 a month for the Zune Pass, you’ll find that the feature for discovering new music has been significantly enhanced. You can download songs that stay on your device, as always; but with a subscription, you also can choose among 3.5 million songs to listen to at anytime.

Channels. These are programmed playlists that will change regularly. Channels will include songs suggested by top music programmers at radio stations, a selection from the Billboard Top 100, genre categories like folk, rock, hip-hop, etc., and even music for workouts. If you have Zune Pass, these channels will be refreshed with new music weekly.

Picks. These are songs recommended for you, based on what you like. In one respect, this is similar to the Genius program Apple offers on iTunes 8, but the difference is that when Apple suggests a song you like, you need to buy it. If you have Zune Pass (yes, you pay $15 a month), you can download and listen to full versions of as many songs as you want.

Social. You can listen to what your friends like. If one of your buddies always is the first to listen to some cool music, Zune can deliver those songs to your device.

There are more capabilities, but the real news is that Microsoft continues to distinguish Zune as an alternative approach to music. It’s a fine player if you take the traditional approach — load your CD collection onto the player or buy digital music online — but if you really like music discovery, Microsoft’s subscription plan is a great bonus.

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