The good: The Zune HD's brilliant OLED display, HD Radio tuner, long battery life, movie rentals, and subscription music integration finally give iPod expatriates something to shout about.
The bad: You still can't use the Zune with a Mac; Marketplace purchases require "Microsoft Points"; video format support is limited; audio quality lacks advanced controls; you'll need to purchase a dock accessory for HD video output; application and game selection stinks; and the recommended music subscription plan puts the real-world cost higher than the iPod.
The bottom line: The Zune HD delivers one of the best portable music and video experiences money can buy. At a time when many people have shifted their focus to games and applications, providing a killer media experience may not be enough for potential Zune buyers.
The good: The third generation of Apple's iPod Touch is still the king of the hill when it comes to portable, Wi-Fi-wielding media players. New additions such as Voice Control, graphics enhancements, improved accessibility, higher capacity, and a faster processor help to refine an already excellent product.
The bad: The video cameras found on the iPhone 3GS and iPod Nano remain conspicuously absent. The lack of refinements to its audio quality, hardware design, and video playback leave us feeling just a little uninspired.
The bottom line: Though the updates are subtle, the third-generation iPod Touch leaves its competitors in the dust.
The good: The second-generation Apple iPod Touch has it all: music, videos, photos, podcasts, e-mail, Web browsing, Internet radio, games, Nike+, Wi-Fi music downloads, and an App Store for adding thousands of custom features.
The bad: The second-generation iPod Touch may be overwhelming to users looking for a simple music player; audio quality is average; and iTunes software is required.
The bottom line: The second-generation iPod Touch includes features that are light-years ahead of the competition, its design has improved, and its price has finally come down to earth.
The good: Altec Lansing's iM600 speaker system offers a compact design, great sound, video output, auxiliary input, remote control, FM radio, and a rechargeable battery rated at seven hours of continuous playback.
The bad: The iM600 does not secure your iPod from falling out; its alarm clock feature only works with the iPod; the rechargeable battery is not removable; and the FM radio band is wider than necessary.
The bottom line: Altec Lansing has been in the iPod speaker market longer than anyone, and it shows. The inclusion of a rechargeable battery and an FM radio makes the iM600 incredibly versatile.
The good: The iPod Nano has a gorgeous, superslim design with a bright, photo-friendly screen. It is easy to operate and works seamlessly with iTunes and the iTunes Music Store, which has the world's largest selection of music. It boasts a nimble processor and system performance with no skipping, thanks to flash memory.
The bad: The iPod Nano suffers from unspectacular battery life, and though the device is durable, it scratches easily; blemishes show up more drastically on the black version. The Nano is pricey in terms of gigabytes per dollar, and its 4GB maximum capacity is not a good fit for many power users. The player skips many sought-after extra features such as FM radio and AV-out, and it doesn't work with Camera Connector. The USB power adapter ($29) is not included.
The bottom line: Thanks to its limited capacity, the gorgeous iPod Nano isn't for everybody, but it sets the standard for MP3 players to come.
Microsoft Zune 120GB (third generation, glossy black)
The good: The 120GB Microsoft Zune MP3 player has expanded the usefulness of its Wi-Fi and social music-discovery features, added support for games and audiobooks, and maintained enviable features, such as a 3.2-inch glass LCD, a friendly interface, exceptional navigation control, audio- and video-podcast support, superlative FM radio, wireless syncing, good audio quality, and a built-in composite-video output.
The bad: Battery life isn't great; high-quality earbuds are no longer included; the glossy plastic front is more prone to scratches and smudges; and using many of the new features without a Zune Pass music subscription can be disappointing.
The bottom line: The Zune 120, with a unique focus on music discovery, is a fierce competitor to the iPod Classic. The Zune's substantial storage capacity combined with its Zune Pass music subscription makes it an ideal solution for restless music fans with large appetites.
The ever-popular touch-screen device is much more than just an MP3 player. It's great for on-the-go video playback, and with more and more third-party developers jumping on the app train, it's becoming quite the portable gaming machine.
The good: The Sony S-Series Walkman is nicely designed and has a high-quality feel; it offers a load of cool extras, such as integrated noise-canceling, an FM tuner, podcast support, and a smart playlist creator. The display is bright and crisp, and the interface is customizable and easy to navigate. The player sounds great right out of the box and features several sound-enhancement options. It has Rhapsody DNA and works flawlessly with Amazon Video On Demand. Battery life is superb.
The bad: The S-Series Walkman maxes out at 8GB and doesn't include memory expansion. The packaged earbuds, which are necessary for the noise-cancellation feature, may not be comfortable for all users. There's no voice-recording option.
The bottom line: Thanks to excellent sound quality, integrated noise-canceling functionality, and several smart music sorting options, the Sony S-Series Walkman is a superb choice for music aficionados.