Comparing Five Music Players
The metatags for tracks are essential to any music player, not only for display, but also for automating various features, such as CD ripping and suggesting music similar to the current track.
In all five music players, tags are lumped into statistics about how often each track is played, how the track is rated and background information, such as lyrics and cover art. Yet, despite the importance of tags, Rhythmbox and Exaile do not include a general Comment tag for miscellaneous information, and only Exaile and Amarok have any provision for custom tagging (and you easily can miss the Add button in Exaile).
An even larger omission is the fact that you can edit tags only by albums in Amarok. The reason may be that Amarok is designed to play music equally by track or album, while the other players are oriented toward tracks. Yet, even so, editing tags under albums means that you have to enter them only once instead of ten or more times.
Another useful feature for handling tags in Amarok is to guess them from the filenames. If you have ripped music from a source like K3B, which names files according to sequences of tags, this feature can eliminate drudgery even further. The feature is not always accurate, however, and it can cause trouble when illegal characters are used in a filename, yet, even so, anyone digitalizing masses of music will find it essential.
Rhythmbox and Songbird (tie)
With all five players, you can randomize the order in which the tracks on a playlist are played. However, with Rhythmbox, that is as far as automation goes.
Banshee, Exaile and Songbird all have controls to create automated playlists based on criteria, such as the most played or the least played. In Banshee, two unique playlist controls are Recently Added and Unheard, while Songbird includes Artists on Tour, which selects from artists who are touring soon in your area. By contrast, Exaile's playlist controls are less useful unless you are planning for a party, as they include Top 100, Newest 100 and Random 100 and 500—a selection that sounds like an effort to re-create the Top 40 radio that many people originally turned to music players to escape.
Exaile is more to the point with its Smart Playlists, in which you can specify the criteria for automated playlists. This feature is duplicated almost exactly in Songbird, but in my experience, it works only erratically in either Exaile or Songbird.
However, the most sophisticated automated playlists are found in Amarok. Amarok's Dynamic Playlists include three types of bias: Proportional Bias, in which playlists are forced to include set percentages of tracks that match the designated tags; Custom Bias, in which playlists include set percentages to match the tags; and Fuzzy Bias, which sets how much tags can vary from the tags specified. You can mix all of these biases to create playlists that match or exceed those in the other four players, and best of all, new lists are created with almost no delay when you click the Repopulate button.
Amarok, Exaile and Songbird (tie)
Rhythmbox (lags far behind)
One disadvantage of digitalized music is that it lacks the background information you can get with a CD in the form of liner notes. Some tracks and albums use context tags to give information about producers and backup music, but this practice is relatively rare, and the information is not nearly as rich as with traditional media. Even the latest version of Amarok, in which you can add custom tags, you can't really re-create the information that comes with CDs via tags.
Instead, music players are starting to provide alternatives to liner notes using resources from the Internet. All five players can hunt the Internet for lyrics and covers, although with Rhythmbox, doing so requires enabling plugins. Exaile and Amarok also search for Artists and Albums, while Banshee bizarrely opts for a context pane that includes Top Albums and Top Tracks by the current artist—information that is minimally useful and more than a little imaginary the first few times you play tracks. However, taking a hard-core fan approach, Songbird outdoes the rest by searching for reviews, news, photos and videos.
The success of these efforts to provide extra context depends partly on the artist and album. In every case, the effort is more likely to be successful if artists are popular or at least have a cult following that increases their chances of being listed in Wikipedia or on fan sites. Disambiguation pages also can be a problem.
Even more important, searches can be long and may end with no results. Searches in Songbird for reviews and news often take longer than a single song, while in Amarok a long lyric search can freeze the track controls, although the track keeps playing. However, on the plus side, context features sometimes can produce unexpected benefits for the true fan, such as alternate record covers or (as I once found for The Pogues' “Fairytale in New York”) unrecorded versions of the lyrics.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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