Camera maker Olympus has joined the MP3 domain with the genre-bending M:robe 500i, which features a built-in 1.2-megapixel digital camera and a vibrant, touch-sensitive, 3.7-inch VGA colour screen. This multifunctionality as camera, a photo viewer, and an audio player, along with a refined industrial design that features just a single button, makes the 500i one of the most intriguing gadgets we've seen of late. Priced at a premium £310, the 20GB 500i gets high marks for its original approach to music and photos, but issues with the touch-screen interface and overall performance keep us waiting for the next version.
One glance at the Olympus M:robe 500i and you know you're dealing with a different breed of MP3 player. Brazenly minimal in design, the 500i looks like a buttonless portable video player that might have appeared in an '80s sci-fi flick. In reality, it has a single power/hold button on its top metallic edge, along with a smart headphone jack and a dock connector on the left and bottom of the device, respectively. The rest of the "buttons" are located within the bounds of the 3.7-inch touch-screen interface. The fixed lens on the 500i's backside indicates that this thing can snap photos. The M:robe, meant to be used in a horizontal orientation, measures 109 by 73 by 12mm and weighs 210g, which makes it far bulkier than the 20GB Apple iPod (61 by 104 by 14 inches and 159g) and more difficult to use while in transit.
When powered up, the 500i's bright, 640x480-pixel display emits an ethereal, whitish glow of text and icons. The screen, which is coated for protection but also attracts fingerprints, is bright enough to see in most lighting conditions. Consistent with the M:robe's futuristic aesthetic, the virtual interface opens with three large glowing icons: a pair of headphones representing music functions, a cube signifying Remix (more on this later), and a camera that refers to photo capabilities. Nested in the bottom corner, you'll find a tiny battery indicator, a clock, and two smaller function buttons, one of which clears the interface of unnecessary icons, while the other opens settings. So far, the 500i is too cool to be true.
A light chirp emits from the device when you press any icon, which is a good thing, given the screen's occasional resistance to registering a click. Once you dig deeper into a category such as Music, icons fill the screen. The Home button, located in the top-left corner, opens a drop-down menu that takes you to the Home page or to any of the two other categories, and in this case, the Headphone icon in the top-right corner lets you search for and play music by Favorites, Playlists, Artists, and many other, deeper criteria such as Unplayed Tracks, My Top 100, and so on.
This may sound pretty standard for an MP3 player, but because so many elements of the screen are touch-sensitive, you can get lost in the myriad of available choices. This isn't a bad thing, especially when you adapt to the environment, but a pretty interface marred by tons of data takes away from the simplistic beauty of the 500i. In other words, the 500i's inner complexities, coupled with an interface that is touch-sensitive only 80 percent of the time, can be frustrating. At least there's no Back button to complicate things further.
Selecting Photo takes you to your photo library, which can be viewed by album, calendar, or all. This is the moment you first realize that you're dealing with a 260,000-color screen. By default, you can view six decent-size photo thumbnails at a time, with portions of other thumbnails dimmed off to the side. Clicking a thumbnail gives you a full-screen view of the photo. It's a visually appealing interface that surely took some effort to produce when you notice the attention to detail, such as a thumbnail photo lying face up on a stack of photos to indicate an album, is present throughout the interface. As a camera, there is no optical viewfinder, so you actually use the entire screen to frame your subject when capturing an image. Simply touch the screen to capture. Although easy to shoot, the M:robe's unique camera design is often difficult to keep still and, thus, won't always give you sharp images.
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