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Old 03-21-2005, 06:00 PM
Kevin & Beth Remhof
Ponderer
Join Date: Feb 2004
Posts: 52
Default Groove to the Music: Olympus m:robe MR-100 Reviewed



Product Category: Digital Audio Player
Manufacturer: Olympus
Where to Buy: Amazon.com (affiliate)
Price: $204.24 USD.
System Requirements: Microsoft Windows XP or Microsoft Windows 2000. Pentium 3, 128MB RAM, 200MB free disk space, USB 2.0/1.1, 800x600 resolution, CD-ROM drive, Microsoft Internet Explorer 6, Microsoft Windows Media Player 9.

Pros:
  • Sleek & Stylish;
  • 5GB hard drive;
  • Plays WMA (32 to 192 kpbs) and MP3 (16 to 320 kpbs) files;
  • Good sound;
  • Intuitive player interface.
Cons:
  • Must use m:trip software;
  • Does not charge while syncing;
  • m:trip software is buggy;
  • LCD hard to see in bright sunlight;
  • Not compatible with iTunes or Napster To Go.
Summary:
The Olympus m:robe MR-100 is a nice 5GB digital audio player. It delivers good quality sound, has plenty of features, and is incredibly stylish. The player itself is great but the m:trip software does not match the quality of the device.

Read on for the full review!

You've Got the Look
In a word, wow! The Olympus m:robe MR-100 is a great looking piece of technology. With the device turned off, it doesn't quite look like a digital audio player. Turning it on reveals its true nature. The LCD screen has a funky red backlight and the main controls are lit up with bright red LEDs. The front of the device is perfectly smooth except for the raised m:robe logo.

In the box you'll find the following:
  • m:robe MR-100;
  • Earbud-style headphones;
  • Headphone extension cord with 90 degree connector;
  • Clip for headphones;
  • Desktop cradle;
  • Power cable;
  • USB cable;
  • m:trip software CD;
  • Manuals and paperwork.

Figure 1: Box contents.

The top of the device has a recessed power button. It's easy to press, but you won't be activating it accidentally. On the bottom is the proprietary USB connector. On the left of the device, you'll find the headphone jack, remote port (a remote is not included with the MR-100 but can be purchased separately), and a hold switch. The hold switch is critical on this device since the screen is touch sensitive. If you stick the MR-100 in your pocket, you'll definitely want to enable hold. The placement of the headphone jack is a little odd. With headphones plugged in, it's a bit awkward to hold the MR-100. It just doesn't feel natural.


Figure 2: MR-100 next to a 20GB iPod.

Size wise, the MR-100 is somewhere between the iPod Mini and a 20 GB iPod (4th generation). The MR-100 fits nicely in its white cradle. The device drops in and is ready to sync. You do have to turn it on first but that's not a big deal. The styling of the device is pretty cool. The black front is sleek and looks high-tech. The only thing we don't quite understand is why the accents and accessories are white. The back of the device, headphones, and cradle are all white. They look nice but don't make the statement that all black might have. We're not design experts, this is just our opinion. All black would truly make this device the polar opposite of the Apple iPod.

Controls
The controls on the MR-100 are all touch sensitive. For playing your music and navigating through menus, there are 6 controls:
  • Menu;
  • Play/Pause;
  • Scrollbar;
  • Left;
  • Right;
  • Display.
Using the controls is very simple. Just tap on the one you want and the device responds. It takes a few minutes to get used to using these controls since there is no tactile feedback when you push them. You can turn on a sound that will come through the headphones whenever you click, but it's more annoying than useful. Once you get used to the controls, they are simple to use. Plus, only the controls that are currently available are shown. For example, if you are at the end of a list of songs, only the left button will be lit. Very handy.


Figure 3: Controls, all lit up.

Playing music is a snap once you've selected what you want to play. Just tap Play/Pause and your track/album/playlist starts. You can then pause and go forward/back a track. By tapping Menu, you'll go back to the playlist/album menu. To get back to the song currently playing, just tap Menu again. If you hold down the Menu button, you'll go to the main menu. The Display button adds some nice functionality. Tapping it cycles between Playback, Playback List, and Lyrics. If you have the lyrics saved for your songs, you'll see them on the Lyrics screen. Not many applications grab lyrics for you automatically when ripping or downloading music, but you can easily add lyrics to your tracks with the Olympus m:trip software.

Syncing/Managing Your Music
To get songs onto your MR-100, you must use the included m:trip software. We tested version 1.05 of the software and found it to be quite buggy. We've used Windows Media Player and Apple iTunes to transfer songs to other digital audio players. m:trip looks like a nice program but it is not as intuitive as other media software. To load your existing WMA and MP3 files into m:trip, you can drag them into the app or import them. When importing, you can either copy or link to the original files. Since we use other media software, we just linked our songs. The m:trip software can also rip CDs for you.


Figure 4: m:trip software. Click for a larger version (147 KB).

The m:trip software installs a service, a "launcher" application that runs in the system tray, as well as the m:trip software itself. That seems like overkill to us. When you connect the MR-100, you can have it load up m:trip automatically. Since this is the only way to sync songs, that's what we did. We found that m:trip did not respect the settings from Windows Media Player. We have WMP set to rip CDs on insert, with m:trip installed, it took some playing around with settings to get this to work the way it had in the past.

The m:trip software allows you to organize your songs. By default, all songs added to m:trip are set to sync with your m:robe. If you don't want songs to sync, you can uncheck them. This makes it a bit difficult to manage your music. It works but it is a bit kludgy. iTunes works the same way but the iTunes interface is easier to use.


Figure 5: Advanced searching in m:trip. Click for a larger version (150 KB).

With m:trip, you can organize music, pictures, and mixes. The pictures and mixes are really meant for the m:robe MR-500i, so we won't go into them here.

m:trip lets you sort your songs by any field that you want. Unfortunately, the sorting is bizarre. Currently, we have about 1,100 tracks in the software. If we sort by Album, the first on the list is "MTV Unplugged" followed by "Born on a Pirate Ship". Huh? Clicking on Album again sorts by Album descending. Now, "Uh-Oh" is listed first followed by "Cry, Cry, Cry". Again, something is amiss. Clicking it again, we see "Fruitcakes" on the top. The MR-100 we reviewed came with version 1.02 of m:trip. We also tested version 1.05 but did not see any noticeable improvements.


Figure 6: Playlists in m:trip.

You can also organize songs with playlists. They are easy to create and manage. When you sync, they transfer to the MR-100 as expected. You can also view songs by Year. You get a neat pictorial representation of your songs by year. Very neat. Of course sorting by year is kind of hard. When ripping songs, CDDB assigns years based on the album year, not the year of the original recordings. With things like soundtracks and "Best Of" collections, this can be a bit deceiving. This is not a problem with m:trip though. It just uses the data that's available.

Once you have your songs organized, you can sync to the MR-100. Just drop in the player and turn it on. Once you have m:trip loaded (manually or automatically), just click the icon for Sync. The sync process starts by transferring album listings. Then, it transfers the individual songs. You get progress bars while syncing, but not much feedback from them. No estimate time, just cryptic names of files transferring. If you look at the files on the MR-100 after they've been transferred, you'll see that they've been renamed. They are intact, just with different names.


Figure 7: Syncing to the MR-100.

m:trip will not prevent you from overloading the MR-100. If you try to sync more songs than the the device can hold, it gives you no warning before transfer. Also, m:trip does not display the capacity or free space on the MR-100. These are details that would be very helpful. We found that the synchronization with m:trip was not very accurate. In m:trip, all albums seem to organized correctly. Once synced to the MR-100, those album listings are incorrect. This makes it difficult to play a single album.

Another handy feature of the MR-100 is that it can be used as a portable hard drive. Just plug in the proprietary USB cable to your PC and the device shows up as a removable hard drive.

Field Trials
The battery is advertised as lasting 8 hours for WMA files and 12 for MP3. 8 hours is about what we got out of it. It was hard to get a good reading of battery life since we spent a lot of time syncing, playing songs, and syncing again. Optimum battery life can be achieved by turning off the backlight and enabling the Hold switch.


Figure 8: MR-100 with headphones.

Taking the MR-100 outside was a bit of a surprise. Indoors with the backlight on, the MR-100 looks slick. It looks like a digital audio player that any true Knight Rider fan would appreciate. The red glow is just looks neat. Outside was a different story. On an overcast day, the LCD is very readable and the buttons light up nice and bright. But on a sunny day, the MR-100 is just shiny and black, the screen isn't visible at all. Even indoors, it is difficult to read the LCD without turning on the backlight. In bright sunlight, the backlight doesn't even help. Combine that with the lack of tactile feedback and you have a player that is not ideal outdoors. Even using it on a sunny day in the car was difficult.

Kevin's Take
The MR-100 is a great looking device. The controls took a few days to get used to. The scrollbar is very easy to use but not ideal for paging through long lists of songs. This digital audio player is a nice addition to the growing list of 4-6GB players. I wish there was another way to transfer songs than the m:trip software. Olympus is working on resolving these issues but has been slow in doing so. I really felt like I was beta testing m:trip. This poor software really tarnishes an otherwise excellent device.

OK, minor gripe but I have to mention it. What is with the name of this device? "Olympus m:robe MR-100 Digital Music Player" just doesn't roll off the tongue like "Apple iPod" does.

Beth's Take
The m:robe is a neat player that sounds great. The user interface takes only a few minutes to learn. The menus and choices are logically placed, and allow for an enjoyable playback experience.

Conclusions
The Olympus m:robe MR-100 is a very stylish digital audio player. It plays WMA and MP3 tracks and sounds great. The volume is a bit on the quiet side though. The touch screen takes a little getting used to, but is very intuitive. It can even double as a 5GB portable hard drive. Its styling truly sets it apart. Unfortunately, you must use the buggy m:trip software to transfer songs to the MR-100. Once Olympus addresses the problems with the software, this will be a welcome addition to the growing list of audio players. Be sure to keep an eye open for updates to firmware and the m:trip software at the Olympus America website.

Kevin and Beth Remhof write "tag team" reviews where they share their thoughts as a couple on technology in the digital media realm. They live in Ohio, USA and have two wonderful kids. They are avid roller coaster fans and are members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. Kevin is also a reviewer for Pocket PC Thoughts.
 
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