Thursday, July 29, 2010

Linux Music Players: Amarok vs. Clementine —

The recent history of the Amarok music player is like a scaled-down version of KDE's recent past. Like KDE 4, the Amarok 2 series was greeted with a user revolt that has only gradually quieted. And just like KDE 4 inspired Trinity KDE for those who preferred KDE 3, so Amarok 2 inspired Clementine, a fork of Amarok 1.4.

The supporters of both Trinity KDE and Clementine make similar claims for their preferences: in both cases, the retro-apps are described as faster, easier to use, and outfitted with a better feature set than the most recent versions. But is that so?

An examination of basic features suggests that reality -- as usual -- is more complex than the claims. For one thing, Clementine is only at version 0.4 -- hardly, really, out of alpha release. Its feature set is incomplete, so it is handicapped in a comparison from the start.

For another, despite Clementine's unfinished state, both music players fulfill their functions extremely well. In fact, although each has details that the other lacks, their feature sets have yet to diverge in many areas. What a feature by feature comparison shows is not radical differences so much as differences in emphasis, and in what users are assumed to want.

Amarok vs. Clementine: Interface and Usability

Open Amarok and Clementine side by side, and the philosophical differences become apparent immediately.

The difference goes far beyond the fact that Clementine uses two panes -- one for music sources and one for playlists -- while Amarok adds a third pane for context information. The number of panes does indicate a difference in assumptions about what users have want, but it is the least of the differences.

Instead, the largest difference is that Amarok's design philosophy is influenced by the current interface design theories, while Clementine's are more oriented towards stone geeks, including every detail imaginable.

Some Clementine users will point to this difference by making disparaging comparisons between Amarok and OS X or Windows. However, for practical purposes, what matters is that the two music players display different assumptions about what average users want.

For instance, in Clementine, the playlist offers ever bit of information about selected tracks that is available. The default settings are Artist, Album, Length and Track (although I suspect that Title was meant to be there, too), and via the context menu, you can add another thirteen columns, including file length and the date it was created.

Similarly, Clementine's default track controls include an equalizer and block organizer. Moreover, they are placed at the bottom of the playlist, where they can easily be mixed, alongside some basic tag controls.

Amarok's approach, though, is minimalist. It identifies tracks by album, track number, title, and length, and does not allow additional information to be added. Just as importantly, its controls for playing a track are promoted to just below the menu, and take up the entire width of the window, making them hard to miss. Tag controls are separated out, and controls for the entire playlist -- as opposed to the track -- are at the bottom of the playlist pane.

The same difference is seen in the identification for the current track: Amarok simply highlights it, while Clementine highlights it and adds a notice to the bottom of the sources pane that always displays.

amarok linux music player


There are other differences, too, such as Amarok's use of retractable lists for pane views, which require more mouse clicks than Clementine's tabs when you are changing views. However, the most noticeable difference is that Amarok is more streamlined (or slicker, if you happen not to like the design decisions) while Clementine has spent less time on such concerns.

Verdict: Tie. Despite the fact that interface designers insist on the superiority of their strictures, whether you prefer a minimalist interface or a more geeky one is largely a matter of preference. Some users might become frustrated if Amarok's display does not include a feature they prefer, but just as many may find Clementine cluttered.

Amarok vs. Clementine: Editing Tags

The metatags on tracks and albums are essential for searching local libraries and -- in Amarok's case -- for creating automated playlists (see below). For these purposes, the ability to edit tags is essential in any music player.

Linux Music Players: Amarok vs. Clementine

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