Comparing Five Music Players
On modern computers, music players are as standard as word processors and spreadsheets, but how do you choose one? You can take for granted that music players using the same soundcard and speakers will produce roughly the same quality of sound. You also can assume that any music player you try will be able to play any music format that your operating system supports, including, for GNU/Linux, the free Ogg Vorbis format. A modern music player will support various sources as well, ranging from the local collection of tracks on your hard drive to CDs, DVDs, external players and on-line sources, such as Internet radio and podcasts. So, how do you decide?
To suggest an answer, I looked at five of the most popular music players for GNOME and KDE—Amarok, Banshee, Exaile, Rhythmbox and Songbird—using the current versions available in the Debian unstable repository. After comparing them in each of six general usability categories, I ranked them and tallied the results.
Dragging and dropping tracks, desktop notifications and minimizing music players to the notification tray are all standard features these days. The differences in how each music player handles those features are usually minor, although Amarok, like most current KDE apps, provides the most customization for notifications. It also repurposes its middle context pane when you are moving tracks from the media source pane on the left to the playlist on the right by temporarily transforming it into live links that you can drop selections on to get different results.
However, the largest problem for all these music players is how they handle collections of local tracks and podcasts and music stores that easily can number in the thousands these days. Unfortunately, in four out of five cases, the handling of all this information is not well thought out.
The endless displays of tracks, albums, artists and playlists not only make for a cluttered window, but also can leave users with a feeling that they have too much information. At times, what controls actually do can be difficult to discover, as with the filters for Rhythmbox's search filter, which easily can be mistaken as controls for altering the panes displayed in the window. Too often, the space for each column in a pane is so limited and track or album names are so truncated in anything less than a full-screen view, they almost might not be listed at all.
The exception to this rule is Amarok, whose three main panes maximize the display space in the window while using every sort of trick—from expanded trees to hiding music sources not currently in use—to reduce the clutter and information overload. Exaile and Songbird manage some of the clutter in their default views with tabs, but Banshee and Rhythmbox both have a series of permanent panes that feel badly in need of cleanup. You can, of course, greatly improve the layout of all the music players via the View menu by selecting which panes or columns to display, but Amarok remains far ahead in general appearance. If you really want to remove the clutter, you can hide the middle context pane, reducing the information in Amarok to a functional minimum. Another possibility is to undock one or more of Amarok's panes to create a separate floating window that you can refer to only as needed.
Still, all five players do what they can to help users navigate. All can sort lists in ascending and descending order, and all include search filters, although Amarok gives you more control over both sorting and filters. In addition, Amarok and Banshee both offer bookmarks.
After Amarok, the best-designed is Songbird, whose Web structure gives it an instant familiarity. Songbird also features skins, called feathers, and a zoom for changing the size at which information is displayed, but these features, although novel and convenient, are not enough to challenge Amarok seriously.
Banshee, Exaile and Rhythmbox (tie)
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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