Zune 2 family launched: We're digging Dad and the kids

Not sure if you heard about this, but Microsoft, a software and technology company out of Redmond, Washington, is just today announcing a new portable media player. It’s the first sequel to the media player it released last year, called the Zune. This media player is also called the Zune, though we’re calling it the Zune 2, as it’s a follow-up to the original, or it might as well be.

At this point we feel the need to mention that despite its late-to-the-game timing, as well as its also-ran general status at launch, we like the original Zune. It is, technically-speaking, superior to the iPods of the time. It was more attractive, and generally more than we expected from Microsoft . So we’re hopeful that these new Zunes take the torch and run.

That being said, Microsoft has clamped down on Zunes-in-the-wild. Last year, we were almost tripping over prototypes here in Seattle. This year, we mention the words “Zune Two” and MS employees run, change the subject, or faint. That’s not good for us gadget journalists, but it’s good for the Zune group, so that’s not so bad. At least they’ll get to eat this month.

But let’s stop with the back-whens and talk about the new freshness, Zune 2. It’s here, it’s real, and it’s a decent upgrade. There are now two Zunes in two basic formats: a full-sized, 80GB stylized version of the current Zune, and a smaller, Flash RAM-based unit, in either 8 or 16GB, and it looks much like its larger brother.

So what’s new? Besides the storage, the NewZune (we’re trademarking that, back off, Redmond) features an even larger, 3.2-inch screen, and if it’s as good as the original Zune’s, then we’re pre-stoked. The fake clickwheel is gone in favor of the Zunepad, a touch-sensitive area that’s used for navigation. We were impressed by the interface of the first Zune, we can imagine a touch-sensative pad making it even easier to use. And it comes in black, and only black. We’re into it, especially for $249.

The smaller capacity, Flash RAM Zunes come in red, black, pink and green. We’re colorblind, but even we can tell that this green is, like, totally green. We approve. Your choice of a 4GB version for $149, or an 8GB for $199. Competitive, at the very least.

But there’s more to the new Zune’s than just playing catch-up to someone from California. The new Zunes (and, with a firmware update, the originals) now feature automatic Zune-to-PC syncing via WiFi. You come home, you go to bed, you wake up, your library’s updated. That is so cool.

In addition, the marketplace is expanded considerably, with new free content, videos, and even some (gasp) DRM-free tracks. Word to Microsoft.

The original Zune’s most unique feature was far and away it’s WiFi music sharing capabilities. Your Zune can send our Zune a song, cool. But only if we’re within a certain 30-foot-or-so range. Now that’s all done via Zune’s new social networking site. You can browse my library, and us yours. If I hear something I like, I can buy it, and so on. It’s the way it should be, in our mind.

If you’re one of the many who uses your Media Center PC as a DVR, you’ll be able to set it up to automagically export your recordings to a Zune-friendly format, so you can take Heroes on the road. We love this, as we spend a lot of time away from home and bored. Nice work, fellas.

We’re sure more minor things will be uncovered in the next few hours, so stay tuned. We’ve got more coming up.