Combine a small hard drive, good-sized LCD, and built-in digital camera and you might have the ultimate portable multimedia box. Pint-size audio players and photo viewers abound, but Olympus' $500 M:robe 500i is the only player I've seen to add a digital camera to the mix. I have to give Olympus credit for a great concept, but I think it's a hat trick the company did not quite pull off.
I tested a shipping version of the (just) pocketable device, which plays WMA and MP3 music files, lets you view photos on its 3.7-inch color screen, and has a built-in 1.2-megapixel camera for taking spur-of-the-moment snapshots. As a music player, the 4.3-by-.8-by 2.9-inch M:robe is a little bulky, especially compared to other hard drive-based players like the ubiquitous IPod.
Operating the M:robe is easy enough. Aside from the power switch, everything is handled with touch-screen menus. In use, however, changing settings and switching between music and photo modes seems slow.
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The quality of the audio was about par for small players I've listened to, and the M:robe does come with an in-line remote control for the headphones, which makes stashing the device in a bag more practical. One nice feature: you can quickly add a current cut to a "Favorites" list by touching a heart-shaped icon on the screen.
Digital photos I transferred to the M:robe looked pretty good on the device's 640-by-480-pixel screen, but shots I took with the built-in camera are about what you'd expect from a cell-phone camera.
Taking photos could not be easier: just view the scene on the LCD and touch the screen. But colors in the resulting shots looked a bit flat and darker than I'd like (you really need a good light source).
You also have few options when using the camera: no exposure control of any sort; no digital zoom; no flash, though there is a single illumination LED next to the lens. The M:robe supports PictBridge, which lets you connect it to a compatible printer and print photos without a PC. This worked with an HP printer I have, but not especially smoothly.
In this multimedia age, combining photos with music is an attractive concept, and the M:robe lets you do this with its Remix function. The feature lets you attach one music file to a collection of photos, allowing you to create simple slide shows with audio. Making Remix Cubes, as Olympus calls each photo/music set, is easy once you get the hang of it (although I had to consult the manual the first time).
Operating the M:robe is easy enough. The only button is the on/off switch--everything else is handled by touching the screen and working though the fairly simple menu system.
In use, however, changing the M:robe setting and switching between music and photo modes seemed slow. There was usually a noticeable delay as the M:robe accessed its hard drive and responded to a menu selection.
I had no complaints on battery life: I got about 2.5 hours playing both audio and a slide show continuously. With the LCD off and playing just music, the M:robe lasted just over 8.5 hours
Loading and synchronizing photos and music is handled with the M:trip software and the unit's included cradle (which you must use to connect the M:robe to a PC and to charge its fixed lithium battery).
M:trip looks and functions much like Apple's iTunes, though with added controls for managing photos. It works well enough as a jukebox and photo viewer, and it rips CDs to Microsoft's WMA format. (If you want to rip MP3s, you'll need another app.)
After playing with the M:robe, there were a couple of additional features I wish it had. Since it's a nice photo viewer and has 20GB of storage, I really wish it would connect directly to my digital camera for downloading images. A media slot would also have been a nice addition.