Aside from a glossier faceplate, there are really no new design features on the third-generation Zunes. The 16GB model shown here also includes a black metal backing--but that's not exactly groundbreaking. The real improvements are all under the hood in the firmware and PC software.
The earbud-style headphones included with the 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB Zune MP3 players include three pairs of colored foam sleeves. Aside from the Zune logo on the side of the earbuds, Microsoft sneaked in another little design detail: magnets on the back of each 'bud that snap together for easy storage.
The design of the Flash Zune predated the iPod Nano 4G by about a year. Granted the Flash Zune probably took its design cues from the first generation iPod Nano, but you have to hand it to Microsoft for beating Apple to the sideways screen.
Microsoft had a whole year to react to the 2-inch screen included on Apple's third-generation Nano, yet the screens on the Flash-based Zunes still fall short at 1.8 inches. Granted, the Zune screens give off a bright and crisp picture, but a slight size bump could have given shoppers one less thing to criticize Microsoft for.
The glossy finish on the third-generation Zunes looks great, but it shows fingerprints much more readily than the matte finish found on last year's model.
One of the biggest assets for the Zune MP3 player is the Zune Pad navigation interface. That quarter-size circle (squircle?) on the lower half of the Zune works as both a touch pad and a four-way click pad with a center select button. It sounds complicated, but it's actually very intuitive. Buttons for the menu and for play/pause sit in the top left and right corners of the pad. Is it just us, or does the Zune navigation look like Mickey Mouse's head?
It's easier than ever to mistake the flash-based Zune for an iPod Nano. The Zune differentiates itself with its built-in Wi-Fi and FM radio, while the iPod touts its superior battery life and built-in tilt sensor.
Another subtle change on the third-generation Zune players is the use of a black window, instead of a mirrored window, to conceal the player's Wi-Fi antenna. Without the window, the Zune's wireless reception wouldn't be able to penetrate the device's mostly metal construction.