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amaroK gripes

The best audio player on Linux (for me) is XMMS. That is a sad state of affairs, since I really would like to use a player with more organizational capabilities like playlists et. al. A lot of people recommended amaroK as “the latest and greatest” audio player for Linux, and so I proceeded to download and try it out. And I was sorely disappointed. Put very simply, the user interface sucks. And here’s why. This is a screenshot of amaroK 1.3.8 running on my FC4 system (click to view large):

amarok

Too much information

A music player’s job is to let me organize and play my music. Does that require an interface which has three, yes three, scroll bars on a 1280×1024 screen? On the main page of amaroK, there’s one scroll bar in the main window that shows the current playlist, one scroll bar that spans the left “context” pane, and one scroll bar that scrolls the tabs at the top of the left context pane. In the same vein, there is a set of vertical tabs to the extreme left as well as horizontal tabs in the context pane – which look just plain ugly for one thing, and seem to be totally useless for another. Why have separate views for “collection”, “playlist”, “files”? Whats the difference, and why would I want to use all of them? The context pane itself seems to be weird. Do I really need to have three panes showing me “new tracks”, “recent tracks” and “favourite tracks”? Especially since the smart-playlists, under the playlists pane already has most of these options as “playlists”?

Simple things are hard

I wanted to make a playlist of some of my favourite songs. Simple ask, isn’t it? So I go to the playlists pane and try to think how I’d make a new playlist. No option in the menu for creating a new playlist. Through the menu, I can manage scripts, set dynamic mode, remove duplicate and dead entries, but I can’t create a new playlist. Strike one. I try the next thing, right click on the playlists folder in the playlists pane – and yes – there I see an “Add a playlist option”. Mysteriously, it opens a dialog box titled “add playlist” and asks me to select a playlist file. If I type a new name into the field and press “open”, nothing happens. Strike two. I then notice there is an option for “save playlist as”. So I go to the “All Collection” smart playlist, and type the name of one of my songs in the search bar, figuring I’ll create a playlist first, and then add other songs to it. Sure enough, when I do “Save playlist as…” it asks me for a name and suggests the name of the artist of the current song for the playlist. Pretty helpful. Having saved the playlist, I open up the playlist and find, to my horror – that the saved playlist contains my entire collection, not just the one song. Strike three. And out.

Later I found out the right way – you can drag a song from the current playing playlist to somewhere just under the playlists folder in the playlists pane and it creates a new playlist with just that one song. Or you go to Collection – which also lists your songs in a tree-like structure and add them to a new playlist. Now, maybe I’m the one who’s dumb and any reasonably computer savvy user could have figured this one out. But I can’t help but feel that the actions required are way too obtuse.

To me, the most important items in a music player are the play/pause/previous/next buttons, the volume control and the time progress of the current song. The buttons and volume control are in an off center, hardly visible location, and look almost as if they were added as an afterthought. The time progress has been relegated to the status bar.

At the end of the day, amaroK feels like it’s creators decided on the zillion features to put into it, then just threw them into the GUI haphazardly. With all the horizontal and vertical tabs, undo/redo buttons, four menu items for configuration (you can configure shortcuts, configure global shortcuts, configure toolbars, or configure amaroK), menus and submenus for each pane – it feels not like a music player, but a high-end image editing application like Photoshop.

And yes, I know amaroK is completely configurable and themeable, viewable in different modes and I can switch around most of the options to suit my purpose. But I (or your average user) isn’t going to hunt around configuration options and documentation for a music player. Is it too much to ask for the first screen to be simple and intuitive and then let the user add other things if he wants to? And yes, I do like a lot of the features, especially the global shortcuts and the on-screen display. Which is why I wish it would just be designed better.

8 Comments

  1. Max Howell wrote:

    Hi, you wrote at my blog, so I visited :)

    I understand your points. You’ll be pleased to hear amaroK 1.4 has only 2 scrollbars in the default display :)

    I think your main problem is you are treating it like iTunes, when it is more like Winamp. The main concept in amaroK is this:

    Left = music source. Right = playlist. You drag stuff from the left to the right and press play.

    I agree this could be better explained, and that the playlist tab confuses a lot of people. The way you tried to make a new playlist needs to be catered for.

    In our experience, people who have never used a media player before get amaroK more quickly than people who expect it to be like iTunes (often), or Winamp (less often, people seem to think we copied iTunes, when I only used iTunes for the first time a few months ago).

    > At the end of the day, amaroK feels like it’s creators
    > decided on the zillion features to put into it, then just
    > threw them into the GUI haphazardly.

    We actually debate usability and design more than anything else, if you’d spend a bit longer with amaroK you’d probably start to see the areas that we’ve polished more and see what I mean. I hope. If not, please send more comments our way so we can rectify the situation.

    Nonetheless, I feel you saying the first screen isn’t simple is a bit harsh. I know many, many other applications with more buttons and gadgets for their first run. We’ve spent a long pruning the interface for first run. Or maybe I’m wrong? If so suggestions are welcome!

    What you’ve said will help make amaroK better (I already have some new ideas) so thanks!

    Max

    Thursday, April 6, 2006 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Anshul wrote:

    Max,

    First of all, thanks for taking the time to read and reply. I guess whatever the merits or demerits of amaroK are, few developers would respond so quickly to users :) Really appreciate it.

    > I think your main problem is you are
    > treating it like iTunes, when it is
    > more like Winamp.

    You’re right, I do come to amaroK from iTunes (I use a Powerbook for a laptop, and only used XMMS earlier on Linux) and perhaps I have certain preconceived notions which a new user won’t have.

    > Left = music source. Right = playlist.
    > You drag stuff from the left to the
    > right and press play.

    I think I get the source left, playlist right concept now that you mention it. Yet, I feel the source could be simplified much more, and made much more intuitive. The playlists tab on the left, as well as media device tab are misleading, since both are destinations more than sources (and to both the drag will be right to left instead of vice versa). Also, the overall search bar is misleading because it searches the playlist rather than the source. The main search bar is right in front, so if I want to search for songs and build a playlist, that is what I will use first, instead of going into the “flat view mode” buried inside the Collection tab (which, I see now, is the way developers intended). If the left side is indeed the source, it would be beneficial to have a much more prominent search box there (and not just in one tab), as well as prominent buttons to “add to current playlist” or “add to new playlist” – which might help convey your basic idea.

    > I know many, many other applications
    > with more buttons and gadgets for
    > their first run.

    Maybe so. To me, the sight of all those vertical tabs was scary because it seemed to me that I should know what they’re about to use amaroK. Now I see all I really need is possibly the Collection and Playlist tabs. Yet there are three other tabs which, in appearance are given equal importance.

    > What you’ve said will help make amaroK
    > better (I already have some new ideas)
    > so thanks!

    I think I owe you the thanks. You’re the one who’s building the app, and I’m just ranting! I’ve written code myself, and I know its not easy to take criticism about it. I’ll look forward to 1.4. And yeah, I’m still using amaroK, and as you say, one does get used to it.

    Cheers!

    Thursday, April 6, 2006 at 11:43 pm | Permalink
  3. illissius wrote:

    The ‘right way’ the create a playlist is to add the stuff you want to the playlist (as in ‘the’ playlist), and then save it. I don’t think creating an empty playlist in the playlist browser would make much sense — the only place you can easily drag it from is the current playlist on the right, not the file and collection browsers like you’d want to. (It’s possible to do, by dragging and hovering over the right sidebar so it’ll open and you can drop, but it’s not exactly intuitive.)

    That said, I’ve attempted to address your other two strikes, by renaming ‘Add Playlist’ to ‘Import Playlist’, and only saving visible items when saving the current playlist.

    Other stuff:

    – I hate the tabs within tabs within tabs thing too, ideally the only tablike widget would be the sidebar on the left (which is not too far off, the only other one iirc is the one in the context browser — unfortunately that’s the one open most of the time). In SVN the situation is at least better than it was in 1.3, there’s only three tabs instead of four, so you don’t get the butt-ugly scroll buttons there.

    – The Configure Shortcuts, Global Shortcuts, Toolbars, amaroK, thing is inherited from KDE, I don’t know if it’d be easy to change it. How would you suggest it be organized?

    – For better or worse, I think Photoshop vs MS Paint might be a valid comparison here, though a better one would be iPhoto/Picasa vs IrfanView (I am having trouble remembering what the default Windows image viewer is; no matter). If MS Paint is what you want, you’re free to use it, of course.

    Friday, April 7, 2006 at 3:42 am | Permalink
  4. illissius wrote:

    Oh, I forgot: You can also create a playlist by selecting stuff (in either the collection or file browser, or the current playlist), right clicking, and choosing ‘save as playlist’.

    Friday, April 7, 2006 at 3:46 am | Permalink
  5. Anshul wrote:

    illissius,

    Thanks for replying and correcting the save playlist option, things will be much easier that way.

    I see now by browsing through other KDE applications (read Kate) that the multiple config screens are inherited. I’ve never programmed KDE apps so I don’t know the extent to which they can be modified. I suppose one option would be to try and shoe-horn all the settings into the main configuration under different panes. IMO, at least the “Configure” text should only apply to the main configuration panel, maybe the others can be changed to “Assign shortcuts” and “Customize Toolbar” – at least there’s a distinction. But again, I suppose thats a KDE “consistency” requirement?

    I guess the iPhoto comparison makes sense. As far as I remember, the Windows default is “Windows Fax and Picture viewer” which has lesser features than Kuickshow.

    Friday, April 7, 2006 at 9:32 am | Permalink
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