Amarok 2 Review
key review info
- Application: Amarok Amarok 2.3.0
- Reviewed on:
- Fully customizable interface
- (4 more, see all...)
For a long time, Linux has struggled to be a real alternative on the desktop operating system market. Recently, this hasn't been too much of a problem with modern Linux distributions, the likes of Ubuntu coming with all the software and functionality most users would need. But a few years ago, one area that was still clearly lacking was multimedia. There were plenty of media players out there, yet, for music, most Linux users still relied on XMMS, a decade-old Winamp clone.
Then Amarok came along and showed that a great music player and management tool could exist on Linux as well. Not only that, but by that time matured Amarok was considered by many, not just Linux fans, to be the best music management software on any platform, including our very own Softpedia reviewer. The Amarok 1.x series was built on the KDE 3.5 platform and by the time KDE 4 came out with all its eye candy goodness, the Amarok developers decided to completely reboot the project and build Amarok 2 from the ground up, using the lessons learned from Amarok 1, but not aiming to be a complete replacement of it, at least not at launch.
And it certainly wasn't, many complained about missing features in Amarok 2.0 and the software also seemed a little more buggy than its older brother. This, coupled with the rough early days of KDE 4, didn't make for a very impressive launch. And by that time others had risen to claim the title of the best audio player on Linux, projects like Rythmbox and Banshee. However, Amarok has been getting a steady stream of updates in the meantime, and Amarok 2.3.0 was launched this week further refining the audio player, so let's see what the developers have managed to do in the year or so since Amarok 2 was launched.
Amarok 2, like its predecessor, is an iTunes inspired music player with a heavy emphasis on music management. It also supports a number of web services, like Last.fm and Magnatune, if you want to get your music from the cloud. All the usual features of good music players are here, a rather complete library and a smart playlist, but one of the most interesting aspects of the player is the customizable Context section which allows users to get song lyrics and even Wikipedia entries inside Amarok. For this review, we will be using Amarok 2.3.0, which comes with brand-new main toolbar and other small tweaks and features. We'll be testing it on the latest Ubuntu/Kubuntu 10.04 LTS Beta 1. You can grab the packages for Amarok 2.3.0 from the download link above.
The look and feel
By default, Amarok 2 is dominated by three main components, Media Sources, Context and Playlist. The three are rather self-explanatory, and all three are crucial for a fully-featured music player. There was a small visual revamp with Amarok 2.3.0 in the form of a new main toolbar, making the whole thing look even sleeker than it already was. Amarok 2 certainly looks good, but the emphasis is on functionality, which is a very good thing in this case. There are too many media players that try to dazzle users with flashy interfaces but which fall flat in the usability department. The interface is completely based on KDE 4 so it comes with all of its flaws and strong points, but overall, it makes a good impression. Amarok 2 strikes a good balance between looks and practicality, leaning towards the latter.
Interface and features
Music Sources. This is one of the main sections in Amarok 2, where you'll be doing all of your music management. It's basically a music library which brings together all the places where you may get your music from. In the Local Music section you'll find, well, your local music, all the files you have stored in the folders you selected as part of your music collection. The tracks are sorted by artist and further by album. All of these can be customized and you can sort and group them in any way you want.
It's a good idea to have quality files with accurate and complete song info for the collection to work properly, but if you don't, you can always use the automatic tag generator (or rather, guesser) that comes with Amarok 2. It looks at the file name and aims to extract all the necessary info, like artist name, track number etc. It's pretty feature rich, but in practice, I've found it to be rather flaky and I couldn't get it to work properly.
An interesting addition to Amarok 2 are the Internet Sources which allow you to listen to online tracks right from the music player. Several services are supported: Jamendo.com, Last.fm, Librivox.org - a repository for public domain audio books, the Magnatune.com store and a Podcast Directory powered by digitalpodcasts.com.
The Playlists section allows you to browse your saved playlists, but it also features an interesting and very customizable Dynamic Playlists feature which should come in handy especially for large collections. You can browse for local files which aren't in your collection folder or folders in the Files section and subscribe to online podcasts in the Podcasts section.
Context. This is one of the most innovative features in Amarok 2. Powered by KDE 4 Plasma, it's a widget container which comes with several tools by default. You can add or remove these widgets at will. The Current Track widget doesn't need any explanation and is an obvious choice as the first widget. You can also add a Lyrics widget if you're the kind of person who likes to sing along to the tunes, or just want to understand whatever the artist is saying. And if you're looking to find out a bit more about the band you're listening to, the Wikipedia widget should be right up your alley.
Playlist. The playlist is everything you'd expect from a modern music player. You can add tracks from multiple sources, either local files or from online services, and the sorting options are practically limitless in Amarok 2.3.0, something missing in the first Amarok 2 release. There are several views available with the tracks either grouped by album and artist or everything bundled together. You can add various sorting options, by album, artist, BPM, anything you can think of, and there's even a Random sorter.
The best thing about Amarok 2, though, is the customization option. Virtually, any feature can be customized to look and function just the way you like it, and you can add and remove features and components at will. On one extreme, you can have a minimalistic player which features just the basic controls like volume and play/pause and little track info. On the other, you can have multiple panels brimming with information - a detailed playlist, the local collection explorer, Wikipedia widget and so on.
Under the hood
The main reason why the Amarok 2 project was started was to make use of the new KDE 4 framework, so much of the technical underpinnings were created based on KDE 4 technologies. The interface, of course, has been greatly revamped and is a great example of what can be done with KDE 4 and Plasma. On the backend, it uses the Phonon multimedia API and the Solid framework for devices, things like MP3 players, for example.
Amarok 2, especially the latest release Amarok 2.3.0 is a well-rounded and feature-packed music player that likely has plenty to offer most users if you take the time and effort to customize it to your needs. It's not perfect by any means, but it comes as good as any multi-purpose music player is expected to be and still maintains its mainstream appeal. And in the end, it may have succeeded in maintaining the legacy of Amarok 1 as it is, now that it has matured enough, probably the best music player for Linux. And thanks to its cross-platform capabilities, Windows and Mac OS X users can enjoy it as well.