There's a controversy afoot about the Zune 80, Microsoft's new high-end portable digital media player. That is, you can't buy one right now. Microsoft is celebrating the Zune 80 as "sold out," but the reality is that very few units were made, thanks to a manufacturing issue that was discovered over the summer. That was since rectified, but in the meantime, Microsoft's hardware manufacturing partners were able to produce a ton of Zune 4 and 8 units, but very few Zune 80s. I'm told that the device should be shipping in volume by mid-December. I'd be surprised if that were the case, and it's unclear what effect this will have on the device's popularity.

Unlike the Zune 4/8 (see my review), but like last year's Zune 30 (see my review), the Zune 80 utilizes hard disk storage, instead of flash RAM. The result is a bigger player, but one that includes a beautiful screen that rivals almost anything Apple will throw at you. As with last year's model, the Zune 80 competes most closely with a traditional iPod--in this case, the 80 GB iPod classic--but Microsoft's new offering also has what it takes to take on the iPod touch, struggling along as it does with a screen you have to touch and a UI that can't be accessed when the device is in your pocket.

No, the Zune 80 doesn't take any iPod touch-like chances. It's a traditional, almost conservative portable media player, with a larger than average screen, decent battery life, good ergonomics, and that excellent Zune user interface. It makes the iPod classic look positively outdated by comparison, and while it lacks some of the supposedly "cool" iPod touch features, it delivers on what really matters most to digital media lovers. I like it, and quite a bit.

As was the case with the Zune 4/8, I think it makes sense to compare the Zune 80 to the iPod it most closely competes with. That's the iPod classic, Apple's recently revised traditional iPod. But I'm also going to compare the Zune 80 to the iPod touch, as so many will wonder which is the better player, even though they appear to be different kinds of devices. Let the battle begin.

Zune 80 vs. iPod classic

Compared physically to the 80 GB iPod classic (see my review), the Zune 80 is sort of a brick: Where the iPod classic is thin with tapered edges, the Zune is thicker and blockier, albeit with reasonably friendly, curved edges. Curiously, the Zune is a bit lighter than the iPod, according to Microsoft and Apple, though they feel identically weighty in my hands. The Zune is also a bit taller than the iPod, and the screen is almost comically larger, easily 2/3 again the size of the iPod classic's diminutive display. Apple says the iPod classic screen is 2.5 inches diagonally, while Microsoft claims 3.2 inches for the Zune; the differences appear much greater in person. (The Zune 80 is roughly the same width and height as the Zune 30, but is dramatically thinner. The screens are almost identical, with the Zune 80's screen being just a bit taller.)

What this all adds up to is that the Zune 80, like the Zune 30 of last year, is bigger than its closest iPod competition, yes, but not in a bad way. The Zune has a good heft and feel in the hand. It's not heavy at all, and when you see the device's huge screen next to that of the iPod classic, you almost laugh out loud. It's no contest. The video experience, especially, on the Zune is vastly superior to that on the iPod classic, which should come as no surprise given the screens.

From a pricing standpoint, the 80 GB iPod and Zune 80 are identical: Both can be had for $249. That said, the iPod classic is readily available right now, while the Zune 80 is available only in limited quantities at the time of this writing. (And is not available outside of the US at all.) The iPod is also available in two colors, black and gray, while the Zune is available only in black.

The Zune 80 features integrated 802.11b/g wireless capabilities, with wireless sync (see my Zune 4/8 review for details; it works identically with the Zune 80). The iPod, of course, has no wireless capabilities at all. The Zune 80 also has an integrated FM radio, which is an added cost hardware add-on for all iPods. These two points are big wins for the Zune.

Microsoft says the Zune 80 garners 30 hours of battery life for music and 4 for video. Apple says the iPod classic is capable of very similar life: 24 hours for music and 5 for video. Of course, given the tiny size of the iPod classic screen, that small advantage is almost pointless: Who the heck would want to watch video on the classic anyway?

While Apple supplied the iPod classic with a nice new fascia, it still retains that scratchtastic backing that's been the bane of all iPod owners since 2001. Like the Zune 4/8, the Zune 80 features a solid matte front fascia and a scratch resistant backing that is vastly superior to the iPod's externals. The thing just feels solid.

Format support lines up as it did for the Zune 4/8: The Microsoft device supports everything the Apple does and then some: In addition to H.264 and MPEG-4 video, the Zune supports WMV and, via transcoding, Windows Media Center recorded TV shows. For audio you get AAC, MP3, and WMA. On the flipside, the Zune can't play content purchased from the iTunes Store or any PlaysForSure services. This is actually a big issue for Zune owners, who are limited to whatever content Microsoft offers on Zune Marketplace and their own CD/DVD rips.

The Zune also comes with a superior set of ear buds: Microsoft supplies the device with its premium Zune headphones, a $40 added cost for Zune 4/8 users. These buds feature four sets of soft rubber in-ear inserts so you can find a size that fits your ears, as well as superior bass response and kinkless cloth cables. They're vastly superior to the el cheapo headphones that Apple dumps on iPod classic owners, though I still prefer my Bose set to either.

As was the case with the Zune 4/8 and iPod nano, the Zune 80 user interface is also clearly superior to that of iPod classic: It's bigger, nicer looking, and easier to navigate, and you will never get lost deep in multiple levels of folders as you do on the iPod. The Zune interface is also demonstrably faster than that of the iPod, though Apple has closed the gap since September with a few iPod firmware updates.

Put simply, the Zune 80 blows the iPod classic out of the water. It offers a vastly superior screen with a nicer user interface. Both the music and video experiences are superior. The only thing missing, of course, is the backend service. While the Zune Marketplace is nice for what it is, Microsoft doesn't offer Zune owners the same range and quantity of content that iPod users enjoy on the iTunes Store. That may change over time, but it's a major deficit at this point.

Zune 80 vs. iPod touch

It may seem unfair to compare the Zune 80 to the new iPod touch (see my review), which, after all, features the iPhone's demo-friendly touch interface and a much sleeker UI than the Zune 80. That's not quite the case, however: The Zune 80 is actually a much better music player than the iPod touch. It's even a comparable video player. In this case, the iPod touch coolness factor wears thin once you get over swiping the screen with your finger: In real-world use, the more utilitarian Zune is actually the better player overall.

Unlike the iPod classic, but like the Zune 80, the iPod touch supports 802.11b/g wireless, and you can even purchase music content (but not videos or TV shows) if you're near a hot spot, a feature the Zune lacks. However, the iPod touch can't sync wirelessly, as can the Zune. Which is more important to you will depend on your needs, of course. I outlined in my Zune 4/8 review why I think wireless sync is a compelling feature.

What the iPod touch really has over the Zune 80 is that gorgeous screen, and this requires a bit of discussion. At 3.5 inches diagonally, the iPod touch screen is about 10 percent bigger than the Zune 80's screen. The iPod touch screen is also of higher quality, with none of the subtle matrixing effect you can see on the Zune if you look closely enough. At 480 x 320, it also offers higher resolution than the comparably frumpy 320 x 240 Zune 80 screen, though at these sizes, the resolution difference is barely discernable with identical content. There is one exception to this: Onscreen text, like title and captioning, is much easier to read on the iPod. With the Zune, such text is blocky and pixilated.

Unexpectedly, the Zune offered richer colors on the movies I compared, with deeper contrast. The effect is similar to that of viewing a movie on a plasma HDTV. But there's no denying it: The iPod touch screen is bigger, and in many ways, that is the most important differentiator for portable video, assuming everything else is comparable. I have to give the edge here to the iPod touch.

The Zune 80 can output over AV cables at 640 x 480, just like the touch.

The Zune pulls ahead of the iPod touch in a few key areas. Most notably, it features 5 to 10 times the storage capacity of the iPod touch. So while you might be able to store about 10 full-length Hollywood movies on a 16 GB touch, you can store over 50 movies on a Zune 80. Because of its squared off shape, the Zune is also easier to position for portable viewing: It just sits there on a shelf or whatever, whereas you always need to hold the curvaceous iPod, and as anyone who's had to hold one of these beauties on a cross-country flight will tell you, that gets old quick.

Despite the superior iPod screen, the Zune screen does have one important advantage, especially for music lovers. That is, you don't have to touch the thing to use it. That means no constant cleaning of smudgy fingerprints, and that you can do things like change the current song title or change the volume without even looking at the device. With the iPod touch, you not only have to look at the device, you actually have to touch the screen too. Bogus.

Price is also an issue. Whereas the Zune 80 costs a reasonable $249, the low-end iPod touch, with just 8 GB of RAM, costs a whopping $299. If you want 16 GB of storage, you're looking at $399. Yikes.

Put simply, the Zune 80 offers a better music experience than does the iPod touch. The video is a wash: The iPod features a higher quality and slightly larger display, but you must touch it. The Zune features much more storage, better color, and of course it is compatible with WMV and Media Center recorded TV content in addition to H.264/MPEG-4 files. When you compare the prices, suddenly, the Zune 80 is quite a bargain. You can make an interesting argument for either player, but I think the Zune eeks out ahead, though as with the iPod classic comparison, you must also factor the superior content selection on the iTunes Store into your own decisions.

What's missing

The Zune 80 is a fine, fine device, and one that I feel is technically superior to the iPod classic. It's not perfect, however. Though the large screen is well appreciated, what's up with the junky 320 x 240 resolution? Its 2007, Microsoft, and time to turn that up a notch and meet, if not exceed, the iPod touch's 480 x 320 display.

As with the Zune 4/8, the Zune 80 lacks any EQ adjustment. (Curiously, this feature is present on the older Zune 30.)

And as with the Zune 30, Microsoft doesn't supply any kind of carrying case with the Zune 80, though you do get the premium ear buds, which is a nice touch. A carrying case was included with last year's Zune 30, and it should be included with this new high-end device as well.

I should also point out again that you can't actually buy a Zune 80 at the time of this writing, and it's unclear if that situation will change before Christmas comes and goes. Anyone hoping for a Redmond-flavored gift this holiday season might ultimately be disappointed. We'll see.

Final thoughts

The Zune 80 is the best competition yet to Apple's traditional iPod line. While it lacks the wide range of content one can purchase on the iTunes Store, it includes features no iPod classic does, including wireless sync, a decent and large screen, and compatibility with Microsoft's ubiquitous video formats. Ultimately, any decision between an iPod and the Zune 80 will come down to what content you intend to sync with the device: If it's largely music from your own collection, podcasts, and movies you'll create yourself (perhaps with DVD ripping software), the Zune offers a much better experience than the iPod classic and much more storage (and a less smudge-tastic screen) than the iPod touch. If, however, you think you may want to purchase professionally encoded portable movies and TV shows anytime soon, the iPod is still the only game in town. At this juncture, Microsoft has figured out the device. Now they need to go after the service in a big way. Taken on its own, however, the Zune 80 is a winner. Highly recommended.