New tunes for Zune's players

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Microsoft unveiled Tuesday new versions of its Zune portable music player that look a lot like Apple's iPods, and it beefed up its strategy for linking Zune to the social networking craze.

Two new Zunes embrace flash memory like iPods and are sleeker than the original $249 device released 11 months ago that featured a hard drive with 30GB of capacity. There's also a new 80GB hard-drive version coming, which could hold 20,000 songs, 250 hours of video or 25,000 still photos.

The announcement of new Zunes, which won't be available to consumers until next month, comes one month after Apple unveiled a host of new iPods that embrace some of the features that are on Apple's iPhone.

Zune trails Apple — as every digital music player does — having sold 1.2 million units as of June compared with the more than 100 million iPods that have been sold.

New features for Zune include the ability to sync over a home wireless network when placed in a dock so that existing music playlists are automatically imported.

Also, zapping songs from one Zune to another gets less restrictive. The feature, which Microsoft has been aggressively touting since Day 1, now lets users play songs others have shared with them three times with no time limitation as well as lets them zap those songs to other Zunes. Previously, songs shared could not be reshared, and they disappeared after three days.

"It's now a virtuous cycle of sending," said Chris Stephenson, GM of global marketing for Microsoft's entertainment business.

Microsoft has so far concentrated on music, though the Zune and corresponding Zune.net online store is widely expected to soon compete with the video offerings at iTunes.

The new Zune is a step in that direction, giving users the ability to import TV broadcast content that has been recorded on Microsoft Windows Media Center for Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate.

About 5,000 music videos are available at Zune.net, but games, TV shows and movies are still in the works.

The new products and upgrades available next month also include a beta of Zune Social, where users can build "Zune Cards" that they can post at their own blog or, presumably, their social networking site of choice. The virtual cards contain a record of your digital music behavior.

"It keeps your friends up to date. It's your overall history, not just what you're listening to today," Stephenson said. "There are three pivots here: hardware, software and community — and it's community that differentiates us from the others."
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