If you've seen Virgin's recent Chrismahanukwanzakah commercials or the Fox reality show The Rebel Billionaire (which stars Virgin's überentrepreneur Richard Branson), you're probably aware of the company's "dare to be different" philosophy. Its latest MP3 player, the VM-500 5GB Player, perfectly fits that mold. The compact unit features several characteristics that distinguish it from the crowd. Unfortunately, disappointing battery life and some design issues keep the VM-500 from being a truly stand-out model, but some users will find its inviting interface and neat extras hard to resist. From its dual headphone jacks to its quirky function messages (when you turn it off, it displays "Going into deep sleep. Zzz."), the Virgin Electronics VM-500 Player stands out as a breed all its own. And while its brushed-metal design is nothing spectacular, the VM-500 has the distinction of being the lightest 5GB microdrive player we've seen to date, weighing just 3.1 ounces. At 3.8 by 2.3 by 0.6 inches, the VM-500 is about flush with the in terms of size. Unlike the Mini, however, the Virgin player offers dedicated and backlit buttons for every function, so you won't have to flounder back to the Now Playing screen to adjust the volume. We appreciate this in its own right but especially because it makes the player a breeze for novice users.
That said, we have a couple of complaints about those buttons. First, the up/down pad is so close to the bottom of the unit that operating it is a bit uncomfortable. When you're using the device, it often feels like the player could slip out of your hand. We appreciate the accelerated scrolling feature, though; if you press and hold the up/down pad, scanning speeds race up to a designated max. Also, all of the buttons on the front of the VM-500 are slightly recessed, which can make them difficult to press, especially for those with large fingers. Other than those objections, the buttons are well laid out, with a Select key located at the center of the up/down pad; Home and Back buttons flanking the up/down pad; fast-forward, play/pause, and rewind buttons directly above; volume controls on the right edge of the player; an FM tuner switch on the left edge; and a power button and a hold switch along the top edge. The dual headphone jacks lie between these last two, while a proprietary DC power jack and a standard mini-USB port grace the unit's bottom side.
The VM-500's friendly user interface definitely shines. And we do mean friendly: Certain functions pop up amusing personal-sounding messages. For example, when you turn on the player for the first time or when you choose Tour from the About menu, the Virgin player reads, "If you can see this, the screen actually works. Brilliant!" The menus are also intuitively laid out and easy to use; this is aided by Virgin's inclusion of dedicated Home and Back buttons. The main menu offers Music, Virgin DJ, Settings, Game, and About options, and the Music menu is divided into playlists, artists, albums, songs, and genres categories--very straightforward. The 1-inch, grayscale LCD shows information in high-res text and features a dim but useful white backlight. On the Now Playing screen, you get a battery indicator, a graphic of music notes (if you're in the default Repeat mode), a time-remaining indicator, and a blissfully large track name, as well as the artist and album info in slightly smaller text.
Transferring songs with either a PC or Mac is also beautifully painless, save for some initial confusion. When we first plugged the VM-500 into our PC, Windows Media Player (WMP) 10.0 immediately recognized it by name, so we figured we could transfer some songs--don't be fooled. You must first install Virgin's Music Management plug-in, which then lets the player seamlessly integrate with either Musicmatch or WMP 10.0; otherwise, tunes will transfer to the device, but they won't show up in the Music menu. No software is required if you want to use the VM-500 for storing and transporting music and other files as data through either Windows Explorer or Mac Finder.