The 500i ships with a multitude of accessories, including a decent-sounding pair of iPod-white headphones that was difficult to fit snugly in our ears, an in-line remote with a small screen, a docking cradle, a USB cable, an A/V stereo cable, an AC adapter, a carrying pouch, and a software CD. The remote, which has a Favourites button and a backlit two-line LCD that displays track ID3-tag info, is critical since it has dedicated volume buttons; on the device itself, you need to be on the Music screen to adjust volume. For instance, it takes some manoeuvring to turn down the volume if you're browsing photos. Also, adjusting volume using the touch screen requires a press of the volume icon, then another up or down adjustment--a real hassle. Our advice for commuters is to activate the 500i's hold function (which turns the LCD off) and use the remote. Two final design notes: The chamois-like carrying pouch is only good for wiping the 500i of smudges and prints, and it makes a horrible protective and functional case. Also, you must have the docking cradle to charge the device.
The Olympus M:robe 500i has plenty of features but not in the ordinary MP3-player sense. It lacks an FM tuner and audio-recording capabilities, so it's considered a basic MP3 and DRM-protected WMA playback device with a sophisticated graphic EQ system. What makes the 500i interesting feature-wise is its ability to capture 1.2-megapixel JPEGs (1,280x960 pixels) and store, organize, and display photos on a great-looking screen. While we've seen other MP3 player-camera combos, this is the first one boasting Remix, a feature that mashes up music and photos of your choosing into a collage-like moving slide show. However wicked as this sounds in theory, it's one of those features that will, in reality, be used only once in a while, thanks to the camera's tendency to take blurry and dead-looking, low-res photos (see Performance).
Once in Music mode, there are several views available, including a playlist screen (the main play screen), info such as album art for a specific track, a screen for lyrics -- likely to be a rarely used option -- and the aforementioned impressive EQ screen. With a touch of the heart icon, you can add a song or photo to your Favourites list. Other useful differentiators are Tracks with Lyrics, Tracks with Photos, and Unplayed Tracks. Overall, Music mode is pretty straightforward once you realize that you don't have to switch views that often. Random and repeat modes can be adjusted both onscreen and by using the remote. Although you can add songs to a Favourites list, you can't create a playlist on the fly in the traditional sense.
A bit more complex is the Photo category. It's simple to capture photos at either 1,280x960 or 640x480 pixels, and you can even turn on a tiny, built-in light that barely brightens up a dark subject, as it's pretty weak and definitely no substitute for a flash. You can set up the camera to store a photo in the album of your choosing, much easier visualized on a device such as this compared to, say, a Nikon digital camera. You can also easily add a photo to any album. From the photo-viewing pane, you can start a slide show with 1-, 3-, 5-, or 10-second intervals; delete a photo; or view photos on a calendar interface. Also, if you have a PictBridge-compatible printer, you can print directly from the 500i.
Remix mode is where you start to truly appreciate the abilities of the 500i. Before starting a remix, which is basically a slide show with music and graphic-intensive transitions, you must first choose a transition template, ranging from caffeine-induced, Ken Burns-like Flash Back to the ravey Geometric. Next, you select your photo album and, finally, your song; sorry, there are no playlists. Once you find the combination you like, you can play or save it.
We must mention the Windows-only M:trip software package. This is a media management/audio jukebox utility that rips CDs in WMA only and helps you sync data between the 500i and your computer. It is the only piece of software you can use to get media on and off the 500i, though the M:robe will show up as a drive on your PC for data storage. Proprietary software aside, the program, designed loosely to match the 500i and its iconic interface, is not the most intuitive. It is a bit more powerful than the device, as you can get deeper into customization such as determining the order of remix photos. The program also autosyncs data to and from the device.
Many of the complaints surrounding the Olympus M:robe 500i's design and features can be overlooked because it's so innovative. But when a product doesn't perform well on most levels, you're going to have a lot of disappointed M:robe owners. First off, the delay between menu items can be excruciatingly long 5 or 6 seconds, and this happens often. You almost have time to check your e-mail between clicks. The processor dips will force most prospective buyers to wait for a faster version 2.0
Secondly, as most owners of touch-screen devices can attest, it takes a little adjustment to enter a nontactile world. While we were able to go 20 or so clicks without a hitch, we'd then find ourselves touching an icon two or three times before it would register. We like buttons, and that's why the included remote control is key.
Thirdly, the digital camera isn't that impressive, especially coming from Olympus. The photos captured by the 0.25-inch, 1.2-megapixel MOS chip aren't dazzling, but you're going to get many blurry images because of the unsteady method of capturing a picture. On the audio side, sound quality was mediocre overall, with crisp highs, decent lows, poor midrange, and a 75dB signal-to-noise ratio. The EQs definitely help, but the 500i is no Creative Zen Touch.
Finally, transfers were on the low side of USB 2.0 at 1.26MB per second, and the device's battery lasted a mere 9.2 hours in CNET Labs' tests, where we listened only to audio with the LCD off. In continual Remix mode, the battery fared much worse, at around 2 hours.
Edited by: Jasmine France
Additional editing by: Guy Cocker