The aesthetics of the MPIO FL500 are distinctive. With its oversize, metallic rotary controls and its triangular body, the player looks like a mashup of a '70s hi-fi receiver and the cars from the movie Tron. There is a sturdy, smooth metal clip on the back of the FL500 that can be detached by removing the large flathead bolt at the corner of the player. Removing the clip and bolt leaves a hole through which you can thread a lanyard (not supplied) if you're more inclined to wear your player around your neck.
Once you get the FL500 in your hand, the feel of the player's flimsy plastic construction betrays its promising good looks. Aside from the metal bolt and clip, the player and its two metallic dials are constructed from toylike plastic. Spinning the largest dial (volume control) feels more like the scroll wheel on your mouse than the smooth resistance of an analog hi-fi knob. Behind the volume dial, on the corner edge of the player, you'll find a switch controlling the transport functions (push to play or pause, left or right to scan or skip). Because both the volume wheel and these transport controls are located on the corner of this player, we found it very easy to bump them accidentally--especially when we placed the FL500 in our pockets. To be fair, the player is obviously designed to be worn, and a hold switch on the opposite edge of the player prevents the controls from misfiring.
We did find the dedicated mode selector switch on the front of the player to be an improvement compared to the way other MPIO players have handled switching modes via illegible menus or unmarked buttons. We also thought the menu button was intuitively placed, right between the mode selector and the transport controls on the side of the player. Unfortunately, one glaring design flaw is the FL500's flimsy, barely tethered rubber door covering its type-B mini USB 2.0 connection. We would rather they leave the door off altogether and just make the USB port flush with the case.
Predictably, the monochrome screen on the FL500 is as small, dim, and cluttered as the screen on the recently reviewed MPIO FY800. Other players in this category (such as the Philips GoGear 4010) suffer the same problem of striking a balance between battery life and a legible, well-lit screen. I can see the design-by-committee logic that would come to the conclusion that any screen is better than no screen at all. But I think it's safe to say that products such as Apple's iPod Shuffle are proving that when it comes to micro-size players, many American gadget consumers prefer lavishly produced design and ease of use over less-refined products capable of track display and added functionality.