David Pogue: Olympus's Snazzy m:robe no iPod Competitor

David Pogue takes the new Olympus m:robe digital device to task in this weeks Circuits section of The New York Times.

On the surface, the m:robe 500i seems like a formidable iPod competitor. Sleek design, large color touch-screen, 20GB capacity, and a built-in digital camera. Olympus believes the device is so hot the company spent $4.8 million on two Super Bowl ads.

Mr. Pogue finds, however, that "in its pursuit of coolness, Olympus lost sight of several more important product characteristics - like value, usability and features."

The m:robe 500i sells for $499, $250 more than the 20GB iPod, and $140 more than the more comparable Archos AV420. "If you had to break down the m:robeis price, youid probably find that $350 of it pays for the electronics, $50 is for the cool quotient and the rest goes to the Super Bowl ads," Mr. Pogue writes.

The m:robe 500i has several feature shortcomings: playlists canit be created on the fly, music and photos cannot be dragged onto it from the Windows desktop, and the USB cable doesnit charge the battery. Speaking of the batter, Mr. Pogue says it lasts only 90 minutes when working with photos. Olympus claims an 8 hour battery life, but thatis only if you use the device solely to play music and keep the screen turned off.

Itis much larger than an iPod, at 4.4 by 3.0 by 0.8 inches, and comes with an impractical drawstring bag to carry it around.

m:robe 500i

Mac compatibility is lacking, and on the Windows side you canit use any of the current jukebox software out there with the m:robe, you need to use Olympusis own m:trip software "which is great-looking but slow and, frankly, redundant."

The digital camera, arguably the most compelling and unique feature of the device, is equally lame at 1.2 megapixels with no flash and no zoom. The touch-screen, which is used to access all of the deviceis controls, backfires here, as well.

"As you move the camera, images jerk and blur on the screen; eventually, you realize that this camera is incapable of taking pictures of anything thatis not standing stock-still. Any subject or camera motion results in a grainy blur," said Mr. Pogue." Too bad thereis no shutter button; you have to take the picture by tapping the screen itself, which of course winds up shaking the camera.

"It gets worse: in its Super Bowl commercial, millions of viewers saw an urban, hip teenager snapping away at various break-dancing friends, and then displaying freeze-frame close-ups of the resulting brilliant, crystal-clear pictures on the m:robeis screen. In truth, not one of those pictures could have been taken with this camera."

Not mentioned in the Circuits column is the other m:robe, the m:robe 100, an iPod mini competitor that sells for $249 and includes a 5GB drive. Itis designed just for music playback and features one finger "touch panel" navigation and the ability to display song lyrics.