December 11, 2008

Amarok gets a facelift

Author: Jeremy LaCroix

After more than a year in development, Amarok, a multipurpose media player with a host of features, has issued release candidate code for version 2. It comes with a completely redesigned interface, and takes advantage of KDE 4's new libraries and interfaces. While you may have a hard time getting used to the new interface, you'll probably come to appreciate all the improvements.

The old version of Amarok was no slouch. Not only was it able to play your music library, it also was able to add music to your MP3 player and look up lyrics or Wikipedia information for currently playing music. It managed your music collection and downloaded cover art for your albums. It was a fast, proficient media player.

But although Amarok was essentially a KDE application, it has never had the same release schedule as KDE, so when KDE 4 was released, there was no matching revision of Amarok to go along with it, and the original Amarok doesn't integrate as well with KDE 4.

The project provides binary packages of Amarok 2.0 for several distributions, as well as source code. I installed Amarok 2 on Kubuntu 8.10. When I launched it for the first time, a configuration window appeared that let me select my music directory (which it guessed correctly). Amarok then started scanning my collection. In just under two minutes, all of my 3,000 MP3 files were added to its library. The new version scans through music faster than the old. I then set up Amarok to automatically download cover art for my albums, and I was good to go.

After setting it up, the first thing I noticed about version 2 was the new interface. Almost nothing is the same as the original Amarok. Now, your collection, saved playlists, and Internet radio appears on the left, and your currently used playlist is on the right. In the middle you have an interface for Plasma widgets (called Plasmoids) which you can customize completely. In fact, you have four pages to work with, and each one can contain whichever Plasmoids you wish from those available out of the box or downloaded separately. You can add such things as a lyrics applet, Wikipedia lookup, and more. All you have to do is right-click in the middle pane, click Add Applet, choose a Plasmoid from the list that appears, and you're on your way to setting up your own personal layout. You can click on the magnifying glass in the bottom right corner to get a fresh page on which you can add more widgets.

Amarok 2 is more playlist-driven than ever before. Double-clicking on any artist, album, or song in the collection list in the left pane adds those files to the playlist on the right and starts the music playing. After setting up the playlist as you wish, you can save it so you can load it again later. You can even add your entire collection as a playlist if you want, so you can shuffle all of your songs. Internet radio makes a strong appearance as well, with Shoutcast, Jamendo, and others enabled right out of the box.

Under the hood, Amarok 2 uses KDE's Phonon for audio support and Solid for handling hardware such as media players. Phonon allows Amarok to use KDE's audio configuration, rather than having to set up its own, and Solid provides an interface for Amarok to communicate with an MP3 player. The application is built with Qt4, which means that the interface matches that of KDE 4 very well. Unfortunately, my MP3 player, a Creative Zen Stone, was the only thing that I had trouble with, as Amarok wouldn't detect it at all. Yet overall, Amarok 2 was much more responsive for me than the previous series.

Although Amarok has always been a KDE application, many people using different desktop environments now use it. It works fine under GNOME, Xfce, or whatever else may be on your system, as long as the right libraries are installed. Now, Amarok 2 is no longer Linux-exclusive -- there are versions available for Windows and Mac OS X (using the KDE installer).

On the down side

Unfortunately, Amarok 2 isn't all easy listening. The new interface takes some getting used to. Since it's a complete redesign, even those who know Amarok inside and out will need to adjust a bit. I found the interface to be rather clunky at first, though it wasn't so bad once I got used to it.

If you create a playlist with a large amount of music, it's a bit more difficult to scroll through the list than it was before, because you have a smaller area in which to scroll. Also, the three-paned interface causes some screen real estate to be lost all around, with some information that was available in the original release, such as the year, bit rate, and genre of the media, completely missing from the playlist.

As far as theming goes, Amarok 2 does its best to match your KDE color scheme. This is both a blessing and a curse. It's wonderful that it matches your KDE color settings, but I could not get it to update along with other desktop environments. While I was using GNOME, I could not find a way to change the color theme at all (other than logging in to KDE and changing it there). Universal theming should be a priority now that Amarok is no longer exclusive to KDE, or even Linux.

Amarok 2 is a radical change from the original release cycle. Although the software is great and does the job it set out to do, the interface is brand new and may turn off those that prefer the original Amarok or a media player with more information fields. Also, even though it works well in other desktops and even other operating systems, it's clear that it was meant for KDE, since theming seems to be impossible anywhere else. On the upside, Amarok 2 does the job it set out to do well, and is a wonderful compliment to any KDE 4 installation. Once you get used to the new interface, it's actually not too bad -- if you're like me, you may end up liking it a bit better. In the final analysis, Amarok 2.0 provided me with some great tunes while I wrote this article, and it has been a pleasure to use.

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