Comparing Five Music Players
In free software, music players are second only to Firefox and OpenOffice.org in their efforts to extend functionality by creating a community of plugin writers. With each player, many of these plugins automate specific Internet sources. Other plugins alter the interface or add features.
Rhythmbox provides no means for easily browsing or installing new plugins. Because the functionality provided often is standard on the other players (such as finding cover art), the impression is either that few people are writing plugins for Rhythmbox or that the project conceives plugins as a way of providing a smaller standard code base. Banshee similarly has a limited number of plugins, including some that could be standard features, although it does distinguish itself with extensions for creating bookmarks and detecting BPM (beats per minute).
By contrast, the other three players have a much richer ecosystem of plugins. Songbird distinguishes itself by add-ons for creating a mash tape or for learning about upcoming local concerts. Amarok's plugins are focused largely on providing alternative sources for lyrics and for automated logon to Internet sources, many of them (such as those for CBC radio or on-line readings of the Koran) obviously intended for specific local audiences. Only a few of Amarok's scripts, such as the script for copying the current song information into the clipboard, are intended to extend functionality, perhaps in part because the Amarok 2.x series of releases is relatively new, and at least until recently, developers were busy providing basic functionality that users missed from the 1.x series of releases.
The most varied set of plugins for functionality is found in Exaile. For example, you can add plugins to display cover art with an album or on the desktop, set an alarm, enable support for Metacity hot keys in GNOME, reduce the window to a minimal size and many other possibilities. Among this variety, Exaile's lack of a control for adding new plugins seems a strange oversight.
Amarok and Exaile (tie—both are varied but have different priorities)
All five players have features that do not fit neatly into other categories. Rhythmbox's are modest: a minimal window and a full-screen mode, and visualization—a random pattern that displays while music is playing. Banshee's are almost as modest, with options for how files and the local music collection are handled.
With Exaile, the other features start to get more interesting. Exaile includes a blacklist manager, so you can exclude tracks that you prefer not to hear but are not ready to delete, as well as commands within the context menu to burn selections to CD/DVD.
In comparison, Amarok's extras are largely practical. They include the ability to reposition notifications (which can come in handy if they block your set of icons) and the ability to edit database settings. An especially useful feature is the storage of passwords to sites in KDE Wallet to keep them secure while making them easily accessible. However, if you do not use on-line sites often, you may find logging in to KDE Wallet each time you start Amarok irksome.
In keeping with its Web origins, Songbird has a strong emphasis on privacy and security. It has Firefox-like controls for ensuring privacy, including a Clear Private Data feature. Also like Firefox, it can store passwords for sites and use a master password to save you the effort of remembering the other ones. Songbird preferences also include a page in which you can choose what information you want to share with sites that you log in to. Still another sign of its Web orientation is a tab in the preferences for setting up how you use iTunes.
Banshee and Rhythmbox (tie)
I awarded one point for a first-place finish, two for a second-place finish and so on, which means a low score is better. Tallying the results, Amarok gets first place with 8 points, with Exaile and Songbird tied for second, with 15 points apiece. They were followed by Banshee with 20 and Rhythmbox with 26.
These results don't tell the whole story. For instance, many uses will reject Banshee automatically because it depends on Mono. Others might prefer Banshee because it is GNOME-based or Rhythmbox because it includes a minimal feature set.
Just as important, I could have included at least five more players. When you consider Audacious, Listen, Quod Libet and Sonata, you realize just how broad the selection of free music players is. However, I selected these either because they are the default players with most distributions or because they have a substantial cult following. For better or worse, they are the most popular music players on the free desktop at the time of this writing.
However, even if you do not take the ranking as absolute, the reasons behind the rankings may help you decide which player is right for you. This exercise also suggests something about the current state of music players, with Amarok well in the lead and Rhythmbox fading, and the others sometimes sporting innovative features but failing to mount a general challenge to Amarok's dominance in the field.
Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who covers free and open-source software. He has been a contributing editor at Maximum Linux and Linux.com, and he currently is doing a column and a blog for Linux Pro Magazine. His articles appear regularly on such sites as Datamation, LinuxJournal.com and Linux Planet. His article, “11 Tips for Moving to OpenOffice.org” was the cover story for the March 2004 issue of Linux Journal.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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