The MR-100 truly shines in the design department--almost literally. The 3.5-by-2.0-by-0.5-inch device sports a reflective black face with integrated touch-sensitive controls that glow red when activated. The ample, 1.7-inch (diagonal) screen also has red backlighting; text is displayed in a bright red over a dark cherry background. All in all, this abundance of glowing crimson makes for a hot-looking piece of equipment. For controls, you get one marked Menu, a horizontal strip for adjusting volume and browsing menu options, forward and back directional arrows, a play/pause indicator, and a small square marker that brings up the playback list. Conveniently, once you're in a given menu, only those controls available to you will light up. However, this doesn't translate to a universally intuitive interface. While you can browse music by Artist, Album, Genre, Favorites, Recently Listened, and My Top 20, among others, the controls that you use to navigate through certain menus change depending on what screen you're in. For example, when on the main playback screen, you press Menu to get back to the album or playlist, but from there, you must use the back directional arrow to go up another level to the browser screen, rather than pressing Menu again--not a huge deal but it takes some getting used to. On the plus side, the controls are calibrated to the perfect level of sensitivity, which is good since there's no way to adjust this setting, as you can with the Creative Zen Micro.
Other physical characteristics of the MR-100 include a power button on the top edge, a hold switch and a smart headphone jack along the right side, and a proprietary docking port on the bottom. You can either plug the included USB cable directly into this port or use the bundled dock, which is white to match the backside of the device. The player will charge while connected via USB. Also in the box, you'll find an AC power adapter that must be used with the dock, an uncomfortable but decent-sounding set of earbuds, a much-needed headphone extension cable, a user manual, a quick-start guide, and an install disc containing Olympus's M:trip software, with which the MR-100 must be used. Don't be fooled by Windows Media Player's (WMP) seeming compliance; songs appear to sync within WMP but will not play back on the device.
M:trip installs quickly, but the initial import of your music can take a while depending on the size of your library. This is a one-time-only deal, though, so no contention there. What bothers us more is the somewhat tedious and unintuitive process that you must go through to sync songs with the MR-100, which supports MP3 and WMA, including DRM-protected files. Rather than just dragging and dropping albums or tracks to a transfer window, you must check boxes next to individual tunes; thankfully, it will let you mark more than one at once. In order to remove certain tracks, you have to uncheck the boxes and sync again. We found this a bit too time consuming for our tastes.
The Olympus M:robe MR-100 has a meager spattering of features. It includes random and repeat playback settings, as well as a decent array of preset EQs: Bass Boost, Bass Cut, Mid Boost, Mid Cut, Hi Boost, Hi Cut, Vocal Boost, Spoken Word, On a Train, Classical, Electronica, Hip Hop, Jazz, Rock, Pop, and R&B. You can also choose between nine languages, set the date and time, adjust the LCD contrast and backlight time, and turn on a timer that will automatically shut off the player. If you want recording options, an FM tuner, or music subscription support, look elsewhere.
In our tests, the MR-100's flat-EQ sound quality was good, with clear highs and lows, solid bass response, and minimal background hiss. We cranked the volume to earsplitting levels through our Shure E4c test headphones. Tunes transferred over USB 2.0 came in at a speedy 3.4MB per second, while battery life was on a par with Olympus's rated time: an uninspiring 10.7 hours.