Music Thing: Akai's portable MPC-500

Sometimes, vapourware turns out to be real. There have been rumors, complete with stupid photoshop images, that a portable, pocket-sized sampler/drum machine called the MPC-500 was about to be launched by Akai for at least two years. Last week, after a few leaked photos appeared, it was finally announced: a little black box running on 6 AA batteries, with 12 pads, 16mb of memory and a two-line LCD display beamed straight out of a 1985 pocket calculator. Is it the greatest piece of pocketable audio kit since the Walkman iPod, or just an overpriced toy for DJ wannabes? Keep reading for the full scoop...

As with any announcement about the MPC range, it was met with a barrage of bitching, complaining and mean jokes. Why do people care? Because the many incarnations of MPC are synonymous with hip hop, and people either love it or hate it. As I've written before, these things are cult objects, whether it's Kanye West's custom-painted MPC-2000XL, or Dr Dre's five MPC-3000s synced up because he doesn't like changing disks, or endless guys in bedrooms posting videos of themselves making beats to YouTube. The MPC Forums website is a center of the MPC universe, notoriously bad-tempered and filled with complaints about bugs and missing features.

But these are exciting times in MPC-land. In June, a mysterious Japanese collective (quickly named JJ - Japanese Jenius) released an unnofficial replacement operating system for the cheap, popular MPC1000. It added features 'borrowed' from the more expensive MPC-2500, corrected bugs and - in the latest version - added a hidden game of Pong. Last week, just 48 hours after the MPC-500 announcement, JJ released the first paid-for version of the new OS, briefly having to close their site as too many people signed up to pay them $30, causing their password-generating system to break down.

So what of the MPC-500? With that cheap-looking screen and the four 'missing' pads it seems very, very expensive at $1,299 list ($799 street). There are certainly plenty of cheaper and arguably more powerful ways to make music on the move - I use the incredible Bhajis Loops software for Palm, and there are options for PSP and DS. But the vast majority of MPC haters are people (like myself until a few months ago) who have never used one for any length of time. If you get a chance, give one a try - there's something great about a device that has matured and evolved over almost 20 years and is now as close to a real musical instrument as any piece of software-in-a-box has a right to be.