In a bid to one-up Apple, Microsoft said it will engrave designs by contemporary artists on the back of its Zune media players free of charge starting Tuesday, when the new line goes on sale.

Microsoft Corp.'s Zune Originals include work from 18 artists, including illustrators Catalina Estrada of Spain, Skwak of France and Nobumasa Takahashi of Japan.

The intricate designs take up most of the metallic back surface of the players.

Apple Inc., the overwhelming market leader in portable music players, will engrave a line or two of small text on the back of its iPods and iPhones.

• Click here to see the artwork available for Zunes.

"We looked at how homogenized the category looked, everybody has the same sort of player, the same white earphones," said Chris Stephenson, general manager of global marketing for the Microsoft division responsible for the Zune. "We knew there was something interesting here that would allow us to have a slightly different position in the marketplace."

Microsoft's newest Zunes, first unveiled in October, hit store shelves Tuesday. Two smaller models have 4 gigabytes or 8 gigabytes of storage, and a larger model has an 80 GB hard drive. Prices range from $150 to $250.

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Many of the artists have collaborated with sneaker companies or snowboard manufacturers on limited-edition products.

Stephenson said Microsoft also took a cue from the customization craze on social networking sites like News Corp.-owned MySpace, and from limited-edition cell phones.

The company will also offer 20 smaller graphic designs inspired by classic tattoo art, leaving room for three lines of text chosen by the customer. Those who choose no design can have up to five lines of text engraved.

Stephenson would not say whether Microsoft has any specific goals for the Zune's second year on the market, other than to be "a solid No. 2" to the iPod.

Microsoft said the engraving service is free for a limited time, and is only available through its Zune site.