May 13, 2008

aTunes tries to be the best of two worlds

Author: Joseph Quigley

Are you looking for a free and open source music player that you can use no matter which operating system you boot or switch to during the day? Meet aTunes, a small competitor to both Amarok and Apple's iTunes. Its name sounds like a hybrid of the two, and it tries to have a unique combination of the best of both user experiences.

aTunes is a Java-written, cross-platform music player. It supports a variety of common audio formats, including both open source and proprietary codecs, due to its MPlayer audio engine back end. Like many quickly evolving programs, it has a few issues, but the better outweighs the bitter.

Is it iTunes or is it Amarok?

aTunes appears to be inspired by both iTunes and Amarok. Like Amarok, its music management is playlist-oriented, and it uses a tabbed interface to browse between music, tags, podcasts, Internet radio, and MP3 devices. It integrates with and Audioscrobbler, and supports "smart" playlists that, for example, select the highest rated or most played songs. There are some similarities between aTunes and iTunes as well. The overall user interface layout seems to reflect iTunes, and every window element (navigator, playlist, or context information) in aTunes can be shown as a separate window.


aTunes 1.8.3, released in March, offers several major updates and new features that make aTunes better than it was before. The two most notable changes that work in the Linux version are the addition of a karaoke function and aTunes' display of more playing time information in the player panel for radios and podcast feed entries. Other useful features include the Play Now option in the navigator table (which automatically adds the selected song to the current playlist and plays it immediately), the artist Wikipedia text shown in the user-defined language (as opposed to English as the only option), and an equalizer. Behind the scenes, the new version features multiple playlist support, RealAudio support, an XML repository (for better compatibility with future versions), and lyrics, composer, and album artist fields for the song's ID3 tags. The new features make aTunes more appealing to hardcore audio management users.

The better, with a few caveats

Overall, aTunes is visually appealing. The default theme looks like Compiz Fusion, and under KDE 4's compositing, aTunes looks better than Amarok 1.4.8 or the latest version of iTunes. One of the little, but useful, features of aTunes that Amarok and iTunes do not have is the ability to mark an album or artist, as opposed to just songs, as a favorite. You can't rate your songs using a five-star rating system, though. aTunes also displays nice-looking graphs and a pie chart in its Stats window based on the number of plays a track, artist, or album has.

aTunes can write to many generic MP3 players that act as external hard drives or mass storage devices. However, it doesn't support iPods, because aTunes can't update the iTunes database. My iPod, however, which runs Rockbox, works perfectly in aTunes.

Like Amarok, aTunes also has the ability to fill in missing ID3 tags tracks, albums, and artists. It doesn't use MusicBrainz, but it scans for songs with missing ID3 tags and tries to fill them in by looking at a track's filename. This works well with CD-ripping programs that insert the track name and track number into the filename on disk. Not every feature works perfectly though.

The bitter

aTunes is not without quirks. While trying to set up the music repository, I spent several minutes figuring out how to select it. Left-clicking on the checkbox didn't do anything. Finally, when I pressed the right mouse button, aTunes selected the repository. Subsequently, when I clicked OK, it began to create the music library.

While I was searching for a button to randomize playback, aTunes crashed. Even though the Java process terminated, the MPlayer back end was not stopped. The current song continued to play until I killed MPlayer from the command line. When I restarted aTunes, I discovered that the library had not been saved, so I had to build it again.

I was also thrown for a loop when the program started, and the user interface didn't load before the repository. It left me with a blank window for a bit while I wondered whether I should terminate the program or continue to wait. I discovered that aTunes seems to hang while loading the repository because it saves the music library information in an XML file. Although the terminal output insists the library was loaded in just over a second, the program took close to 18 seconds to load. When I disabled the XML repository, aTunes closed and loaded in half the time. The program startup and shutdown time can vary depending on the size of your music library.

While I was pleased to find that aTunes automatically loads the embedded art included in various songs in my music library, I was disappointed that it often took close to six seconds before the art was displayed. Furthermore, the images were usually pixelated (even though they look crisp in Amarok and iTunes). Like Amarok and iTunes, aTunes is supposed to support the ability to download album art from a site such as However, when I selected an album and clicked on Get Covers, nothing happened.

The equalizer, which is supposed to improve the fidelity of sound, works -- but barely. It only applies the changed settings after aTunes loads a new song. When I changed the equalizer settings and switched to a new song, I got a static-like sound from the speakers every time the song produced loud notes. I couldn't fix this until I set all equalizer settings back to zero.

Like Amarok, aTunes supports an on-screen display (OSD), but on my KDE 4 system running on top of AIGLX, aTunes crashed every time the OSD was drawn on the screen. Even after I turned off the transparency and animation in the Preferences window, the application still crashed. Linux users who don't use a composited window manager should have better luck, as I had no problems with the OSD when I installed aTunes on a virtual machine. The font for the menus and buttons on aTunes was microscopic, but I fixed this easily by installing the Java 6 fonts package in Kubuntu and turning on the default fonts option in aTunes.

The sound (with all equalizer settings set to zero) can occasionally sound a bit scratchy or forced compared to iTunes or Amarok. Some songs simply do not sound good on my system.

There are a few other known bugs, which the aTunes development team lists on its wiki. The page is getting smaller as time goes on, and the developers show which bugs have been fixed in the latest version.


aTunes tries to combine the best of Amarok and iTunes, but it falls a little short of its ambitious goal. It does succeed in terms of visual appeal; with enough flash to make iTunes' developers envious, aTunes makes for a fun-looking audio experience. However, its audio playback (at least on Linux) leaves some qualities to be desired.

I hope that aTunes' next release will offer enough improvement to make me switch, but I'm sticking with Amarok for now.


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