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How to get a Zune 3G for $0

CNET's Donald Bell reveals his favorite new features for the third-generation Zune.

Photo of Blue Zune.
Don't let the new color fool you. The third-generation Zune update is all about the software.

The best thing about the upcoming third-generation Zune? I already own it.

Just like last year's free update for first-gen Zune owners, Microsoft has confirmed that all existing Zune owners will get a free third-generation firmware upgrade once the product sees its official launch on September 16. Not "Apple free"--but "free" as in zero-cost.

As earlier articles have already shown, the details for Microsoft's third-generation Zune MP3 player hardware have been revealed as a few of the devices have accidentally hit the shelves. This year's Zune hardware offers a new color option (blue) and 120GB hard drive and 16GB Flash capacities, but is otherwise unchanged from the hardware we saw with its second-gen players. This means that side-by-side, it should be nearly impossible to tell a third-gen Zune apart from an updated second-gen Zune.

So, what will the new Zune update get you? Let's recap the leaked features.

Device to Cloud
Finally, the Zune's Wi-Fi feature does something worthwhile. With the ability to access public and password-protected Wi-Fi hot spots, your Zune can now update itself on the fly and download tracks directly from Zune Marketplace. Zune Pass users will get the most from this feature since they'll be able to stream as much music as they want directly from Zune Marketplace as an added value. Pair this feature up with a speaker dock and you essentially have a killer commercial-free jukebox.

Photo of Zune FM radio download feature.
New firmware updates for the Zune allow you to tag songs on FM radio to download later. Microsoft

FM radio tagging
We've been a longtime fan of the Zune's RBDS-enhanced FM radio, but the third-generation firmware promises to make the feature even better. So long as the FM radio station you're listening to supports RBDS or RDS song data, you'll be able to earmark any song you hear and download it later when you connect your Zune to your computer or over Wi-Fi in the Device to Cloud scenario. Seems like a great feature for folks who often use the radio to discover new music, and again, Zune Pass subscription users will now have a new way to milk the most new music from their monthly fee.

Zune Channels
If you've already played around with your Zune's Social and Zune Card features, you probably know that you can automatically download recently played songs from folks you've befriended using Zune Social. Think of Zune Channels as the Friends feature on steroids (or better yet, think of it as Rhapsody Channels). You get regular and automatic updates of new music from channels you select based on artists, genres, DJs, and celebrities. You'll also get a personal recommendation channel based on ratings you've made to your music library.

Channels can be updated by connecting the Zune to your computer or using a Wi-Fi hot spot, and content will refresh weekly by flushing old songs out and bringing new tracks in. Zune Pass users will have the option to hold onto any of the Channel content, while non-subscription users will be bound by the Zune's three-play rule with the option to buy.

Microsoft has been threatening games on the Zune for quite some time. Texas Hold 'em and Hexic will be included free of charge with more games on the way.

New PC software
The Achilles' heel of the Zune is its attractive, yet buggy PC software client. As Apple has shown with its iPod and iTunes combo over the years, making a closed hardware and software system for a portable media player requires attention to detail on both parts of the equation.

There was no shortage of headaches when Zune made a radical overhaul of its PC software last year, with many users losing their playlists, album art, and even having their library's ID3 tags scrambled. This year, I'm optimistic that Microsoft has an impressive update in store and has learned from its vocal user base. Of all the new features listed above, there's no update more critical to the Zune's continued viability than presenting its users with solid, useful software.

Update: Microsoft has confirmed that its third-generation software and firmware will be available to download on Tuesday, September 16. In addition to the features detailed below, the firmware upgrade will add support for Audible audio books, and content from Overdrive.com.