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Virgin Electronics Player VM-500 (5GB) review: Virgin Electronics Player VM-500 (5GB)

Virgin Electronics Player VM-500 (5GB)

Jasmine France Former Editor
6 min read
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 Apple iPod Mini 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.


Virgin Electronics Player VM-500 (5GB)

The Good

Small and light; dedicated function buttons; supports DRM-protected WMAs (PlaysForSure designation coming soon); dual headphone jacks; FM tuner; kitschy, user-friendly interface; comes preloaded with some songs.

The Bad

Unimpressive battery life; must install music manager plug-in before transferring tunes; lacks recording features; no on-the-go playlist feature; unorthodox method of transferring playlists.

The Bottom Line

A good device for MP3 novices, the VM-500 has some quirky and likable features, but its poor battery life spoils the party.

Several of the VM-500's functions display rather cheeky messages.

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.

The Virgin player ships with comfortable and decent-sounding (if a bit weak) earbuds, an unexciting travel bag, a USB cable, an AC power adapter, and a quick-start guide. All related software, as well as the user manual, are found on the player itself--convenient for those who want to interface with friends' computers.

The Virgin Electronics VM-500 Player offers some unique features. First, the fun stuff: As with the iPod, you get a "name that tune" game. In fact, the game operates the exact same way: a snippet is played, and you choose from four possible song names. But instead of simply stating, "Correct," after every correct response, the VM-500 greets your answer with amusing compliments, such as the decidedly British-sounding "Brilliant" and "Spot on." As another fun extra, the VM-500 comes preloaded with a selection of tracks from up-and-coming Virgin artists; ours had songs by Katie Rose and Charlie Mars. Also, the dual headphone jacks allow you to share your tunes with a pal and are ideal for air travel.

Additional features found on the VM-500 are more common on players in its category and include an FM tuner, various playback settings, and a feature called the Virgin DJ. The FM tuner offers autoscanning, which tends to stop on a lot of fuzzy stations, and a fairly meager eight presets. Playback settings include Shuffle and Repeat modes, as well as an EQ menu, which lets you customize your sonic experience based on what you're listening with (for example, headset or desktop speakers), what you're listening to (hip-hop, trance), or your listening tastes (bass boost, vocal boost). Virgin DJ consists of preset playlist parameters, such as Just Loaded and Lost And Found--that is, tracks you haven't played one month, two months, and so on.

The VM-500 plays MP3s and both unprotected and protected WMA files, and it will soon carry Microsoft's PlaysForSure designation. The player also supports M3U playlists, though with some marked issues. First, when we transferred tunes as playlists through WMP 10.0 or Musicmatch, the songs showed up on the player but not the playlist data. For this, you need to drag and drop the M3U file manually via Explorer to the VM-500's Music folder. It will then show up in the device's Playlist menu. However, we noticed an odd bug: the device would automatically insert one song that wasn't on the original playlist after every track on the list. Even when we deleted the song in question from the player, it still showed up in the playlist over and over again; this happened with several different M3U files, and it was always the same song. In an attempt to remedy this, we reformatted the unit and tried again--to no avail. This is a software issue Virgin will need to look into. You might be better off loading a bunch of tracks and letting Virgin DJ take over with the Just Loaded set.

We're glad to report that the Virgin Electronics VM-500 Player sounds great. Virgin lists the signal-to-noise ratio as "greater than 90dB," and it shows. Tunes sounded full and rich at the flat EQ setting, and there was no noticeable background hiss through a set of full-size headphones. The player gets plenty loud, and we noticed some bass distortion at the highest volume. The included earbuds also provided decent sound, and they were comfortable enough (if a little hard), but the volume seemed weak.

Unfortunately, the VM-500 didn't fare so well in the CNET Labs' assessments. Battery life came in at a paltry 7.2 hours, though this is in line with Virgin's promise that the battery "lasts hours, beat that." Transfer times over USB 2.0 were also less than impressive, coming in at an average of 1.1MB per second. FM radio reception was adequate.


Virgin Electronics Player VM-500 (5GB)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 6