Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Music Players for Gnome

Welcome to the Free Desktop review of popular music players for the Gnome desktop!

Unlike KDE, Gnome is blessed with a lot of choice for music players. I had always ambled between different music players as I moved between Linux distributions over the years, but still I struggled to really meet my needs each time. Having recently upgraded to Fedora 11, I thought I'd try all the major options and see which one really did suit me.

I have been using various flavours of Linux for years and am no stranger to compiling, but I approached this article in the guise of a more normal user. So I stipulated that I would be using the version of each that is available in Fedora 11 as a normal user would. Like most people, I'm busy, so any major issues usually meant an abrupt ending to my experience with a music player.

I will review the players in the order I tried them:

Everybody likes to interact and listen to their music collection in their own unique way. Features important to me:

  • Library management
  • Rating of music
  • Categorization of music
  • Collection browsing
  • Stability
  • Ease of use
  • Bug free
  • Clean user interface
  • Nice looking user interface
  • Desktop integration; system tray

What is not important to me that others might consider:

  • iPod / portable music player synchronization
  • Visualizations
  • Multiple user interfaces (curses, web, etc)
  • UI flexibility e.g. minimal-UI-version

About the ratings

Some of my ratings may seem harsh. I have a lot of respect for the developers of all the projects, and generally find them very impressive, and a lower rating for a project is not me trying to suggest that it is poor for everybody. The ratings are for meeting my needs, so if it seems a little low for your favourite music player, bear in mind I probably have different requirements than you do.

I also did not report bugs for players that quickly fell down on me. If I'm hitting serious issues nearly immediately, I feel it is probably going to be something that afflicts more than just me and is symptomatic of deeper project management issues. I do report bugs for software that works for me.

Banshee 1.4.3 - 4/10


Banshee Album Problem

Banshee hogging CPU

Banshee is gaining in popularity and reputation, and has a very active developer base. It loads up fairly promptly, and has a very nice, professional look. The layout is easy to work with and the user interface is very polished. However, I was surprised to find it quickly unravelling for me.

I could not work out how to monitor a directory, despite it being a stated feature. You could set a library location but that seemed to have no effect as new additions were not picked up. It also took me a while to work out how to refresh my current library (I didn't initially think to look under 'Tools' - I would expect this under 'Media'). It didn't seem to pick up on 1 album being an album, instead listing the same album name 80 times. After adding a few albums, I supposedly had 343 albums when actually it was less than 10. Then, after a several hours of using it, all of a sudden my laptop started to sound like a rocket and began heating up. The culprit was Banshee, consuming 95% CPU for seemingly doing nothing else than playing music, and doing so for considerable time - I was fairly patient. Eventually I had had enough, killed it, and moved on to the next contender.

Given the number of contributors, I was a bit underwhelmed by the state of Banshee. I had used it in the past, before the 1.0 version. Then it worked fine and did what it did well and without problems while not looking as spectacular as it does now. Feature overload? Too many chefs? Mono-related issues perhaps? It had plenty of features I didn't touch, including automatic playlist generation extension (available from yum), Gnome-do integration (I don't use Gnome-do), and iPod/device syncing (I don't own an iPod or portable music player).

Rhythmbox 0.12.3 - 3/10


Rhythmbox crashing

I have tried Rhythmbox intermittently since it first arrived on the scene with a bang, being the first popular iTunes clone for Gnome and GNU/Linux. My experience had always been the same - unstable. I think I first tried it back in 2004. This is the first time I'd tried since 2007, had it improved?

It looks good, although not as nice as Banshee. It detected the albums properly, consumed low CPU when playing, and things were looking up. That was until I started seeking in tracks. First, I tried to skip through a 1 hour mix, and it crashed. I tried to give it a chance, and avoided longer tracks, but after a while it crashed again when skipping through a shorter track. Whilst I was doing a fair amount of skipping through tracks, it's still not acceptable.

They have had a long time to stabilize it after the project originally captured imagination of Gnome community many years ago, but I can only conclude that the project seems to have lost its way given its perpetual instability. It does have iPod/device syncing, which may appeal to some.

Amarok 2 - 5/10

Amarok 2

Amarok Splash Screen

Amarok Configuration Failure

Amarok has long been the king of the open source music players, with many Gnome users despite the Qt-based KDE-dependent program not quite fitting in with Gnome in terms of looks or integration.

The first thing that strikes you is the horrific, garish splash screen. It's massive and it's ugly. I was already dreading having to see it every day, and it stays there for quite some time as Amarok drags all its none-Gnome baggage into memory.

Once Amarok has loaded, it does look lovely although not as clean as Banshee. I especially liked the prev/play/stop/next buttons. However it became quickly apparent - for those of us not endowed with blazingly fast machines - that the UI is just way too fancy. Every interaction seemed to incur a delay, whether it's for an animation or just because there's too much going on.

Amarok also takes the kitchen sink approach. For example, by default the lyrics pane is open. I really can't imagine that the majority of users would consider this a priority feature, especially not something to have in front of you when you first open up your music player.

In the end, the (lack of) integration got me before I really got started. It failed to play (no sound) and the configuration screen was just blank. It was probably fixable with a bit of effort, but I was already unenthusiastic by this point. I'm sure it has tons of useful features, pretty much everything ever conceived related to music players.

Exaile 0.2.14 - 7/10


Exaile Lost Ratings

Exaile is a fork of the Quod Libet 1.0 codebase, taking forward the intuitive user interface (which got significantly changed in subsequent Quod Libet development). Exaile (as Quod Libet before it) somewhat takes inspiration from the Amarok 1.x user interface which focused on playlists on the right and browsing vertical folder-like lists on the left. Exaile introduces a tabbed interface, which is handy for organising playlists whilst listening to music.

I was happy, for the first time, with what I was getting out of the music player. It was easy to use, worked somewhat the way I wanted it to, had a well designed user interface, and contained all the features I required. The only feature it lacked was being able to play directly from your collection - double clicking on something added it to the active playlist.

It was going well for a few days until I got hit by a nasty bug. All my song ratings got reset. Even worse, this is a longstanding bug originally reported 2 years ago. It seems that it is finally fixed by a new database backend in the upcoming 0.3 version but that is not yet listed as stable on the website. Frustrated, I moved on.

Audacious 1.5.1 - 4/10


Audacious is a fork of BMP, itself a fork/port of XMMS.

It is way too simple for me - no library management or rating facility.

Winamp/XMMS was cool back in the day when computers weren't so capable, when Windows Explorer was considered a satisfactory way of browsing your music collection, and its pixel-refined skinned UI with tiny pixel fonts looked beautiful next to the grey-everything-else. Now its UI looks a bit weird as the skins don't look so sharp with larger fonts which look too big for the UI, and its just a very manual user interface requiring not-cool amounts of time to manipulate your music. If you have a fresh collection then you spend a lot of time generating new playlists.

I managed to make it hang just by using a scrollbar when it wasn't even playing, and was pretty unimpressed overall. However, the version in Fedora is very out of date with 2.1 being listed as the stable release on the website, so take my cynicism with a pinch of salt. Even looking at the screenshots for 2.1, it looks nicer - with more suitable fonts, for example.

MPD / GMPC - 7/10


MPD [Music Player Daemon] is a server-client solution. I didn't really need this architecture, but GMPC [Gnome Music Player Client] looked quite decent. It took a bit of configuring/tweaking to get it to run - I had to comment out 'optional' settings for PulseAudio - but nothing too tricky.

The version in Fedora 11 lacks rating support, which requires MPD/GMPC from GIT. Generally I was impressed by how good it was - responsive, very stable, easy to use, although GMPC tended to be more functional than pretty (not necessarily a bad thing). However, I wanted ratings, and was not prepared to compromise on this feature, nor - as a normal user - prepared to start compiling versions from GIT.

The ability to centralize your music collection if you have a home network makes MPD and its clients a very serious option for anybody who has a decent home setup.

Quod Libet 2.1 - 8/10

Quod Libet Album List

Quod Libet Paned Browser

Finally, I arrived at Quod Libet. I had used Quod Libet some years ago and been impressed with it, but with it's original homepage MIA, now solely represented at its project page, the project seems to have encountered a few periods of inactivity. Version 2.0 heralded a redesign of its user interface and other components, so it presented a fairly different experience to Exaile.

It worked very well without any noticeable bugs. For some reason I thought the version in Fedora 11 was out of date, so started with 2.0 which I downloaded. When I later found 2.1 in yum, I moved to 2.1 without any issues whatsoever.

The only question marks for me lie with some of the UI design choices. It always plays from the current songs; nice sometimes but should be optional. This means you can't really browse and add to playlists because when it reaches the end of a track it jumps to the current browse context, which is often not something you wanted to be listening to as you trawl your collection.

A big annoyance is that playlists don't remember their order, and as soon as you click on something else, the order is gone. Also the seek bar is a popup - like a horizontal volume bar (I would have taken a screenshot but when there's a popup the Gnome screenshot facility is blocked) - and small, making it hard to use with any accuracy on longer tracks. I much preferred the seek bar in Exaile.

You also need to install plugins from SVN if you want a system tray icon, which will catch a few people out. You don't need to compile anything, just check them out as instructed, still slightly breaking with my 'normal user' approach but I had finally found a music player I was happy to use so I gave in on that one.

Quod Libet supports regexp playlist generation which has got to appeal to the geeks out there. :-)

Other media players:

  • XMMS2 - too early in development, graphical clients in Fedora 11 looks far too feature light for me, but one for the future
  • BMPx - when I did try it briefly, it crashed, website is offline, development status unknown
  • Muine - too simple for my needs, development stopped long ago
  • Tell me in the comments if I missed any!

What am I using now? d-_-b

Quod Libet: It's the best by far in that it never crashed or misbehaved, had very few bugs, if any (not encountered any), and never used an inordanent amount of CPU. It met all of my requirements once I worked out the need to download the plugins. What it does, it does incredibly well, although it may lack a few features that other people need, and there are UI refinements to be made. I am surprised it is not more popular, they need a marketing guru and a flashy website like Banshee or Rhythmbox which were far worse experiences but far more reknown projects.

Runner up / backup players? :-)

MPD/GMPC: If I wasn't using Quod Libet, I'd have to pick the combination of MPD / GMPC as the best altenative. It was stable, the GMPC user interface was nice to use, and I'd probably go to the effort of compiling the version with rating support if I didn't have Quod Libet working fine. I suspect I will soon be using MPD anyway so I can listen to and control music on my main stereo using a server so I don't have to rely on carting my laptop to wherever I want to hear my music collection.

Exaile: I did slightly prefer the Exaile user interface and features over Quod Libet, and if it didn't have a major bug and other glitches, I would have rated it higher. I look forward to trying out 0.3 when it is available.

Most disappointing >:-(

Rhythmbox: I just don't understand how it has gone so wrong and been so unstable for so long. I've tried it nearly every year since 2004.

Banshee: I was also disappointed with Banshee because it seemed so promising a few years ago but looks to have suffered from serious feature creep.


Paul said...

gnome music browser http://squentin.free.fr/gmusicbrowser/gmusicbrowser.html
this is the best collection player i have used,
but it was a year ago or so.
Perl, very fast, 'mass' tagging, rating. Some perl dependencies for trayicon.

Robert said...

don't care about net radio I see

meho_r said...

+1 for what Paul said. gmusicbrowser is arguably one of the most powerful music players ever created. Definitely worth a try...

Anonymous said...

great msg for me, thanks a lot dude˙﹏˙

Detritus Anon said...

+1 gmusicbrowser

Thanks for sharing that one with us Paul. By far the best player I have used on Linux.