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May 24, 2011 • Music Diary, Reviews

Open Source Media Player Review: aTunes

Atunes interface

The trend toward strangely-capitalized programs is really annoying. The mediaplayer aTunes is trying to follow the iTunes naming model somewhat slavishly, so we’re stuck with that I suppose. Of course, that means sentences starting with the name of the program are either capitalized wrong or the word is capitalized wrong. Such choices!

Installation was smooth and trouble-free, with a language selection dialog less impressive than Songbird, but sure to cover most use cases (darn, no Korean!). It also allows you to optionally install the source code for this GPL-licensed open source program, the only one in the set to do so. The encoders for FLAC and MP3 are another optional part of the install, although I can’t imagine why anyone would choose not to install them – they add only 800 kilobytes to your hard drive.

ATunes uses Java, which means a User Access Control dialog when you launch it the first time to allow Java through the firewall. As part of the first run, aTunes also asks which directories you want to load for your library. My 4000-tune sample pack took over three minutes to ingest. The default interface has four panes, with the top-left pane being a tabbed look into a library (called Repository), podcasts, radio, device, and favorites. The other panes show details of the top pane (albums mainly), playlists, and information. The information pane is another tabbed selection between Song, Album, Artist, Similar, and YouTube. The Song tab includes a Last.fm like/ban toggle, as well as the song lyrics. The Album tab shows album information from Last.fm, so you can see what other tracks you’re missing from your library, if you want to hunt them down. The Artist tab also pulls from Last.fm, showing a bio for the band and known albums. Similarly, the Similar tab show artists from Last.fm, ranked by percentage of similarity. The YouTube tab attempts to show videos from the band playing, but sometimes wanders off a bit, especially with bands that don’t have unique names. ABC is, as usual, a problem here – I got more ABC news than videos from the band.

The aTunes metadata editor has the usual suspects, but with no rating pulled from or written to the ID3 tag. This seems to be one of the least-implemented features in free music management programs, followed closely by decent podcast support. ATunes is one of the few with any podcast options, and even it doesn’t include a podcast directory. You can manually add podcast feeds, and set how frequently aTunes checks for updates. Actually fetching the individual podcast episodes is manually controlled by the user. One of my favorite podcasts didn’t load at all, which is troublesome. In contrast to the rudimentary podcast support, internet radio support is great. The program comes with dozens of stations preset, although they trend toward European stations – there are options for Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg, among others. Adding your own feed is pretty simple, and supports pls, m3u, asx and other feeds that are frequently found online. I had my test station, KROQ, up and playing in no time. Unlike my Chumby or most other internet radio players, aTunes actually reads the track information from the stream. My Chumby just says it’s playing KROQ; aTunes says it’s playing Lisztomania by Phoenix, and pulls the lyrics besides. Nifty!

Double-clicking a song adds it to the current playlist, but will not play it if nothing is currently playing. In order to replace the current list of songs, the right-click menu has to be accessed. As noted above, the info window shows all sorts of details about the current song, while the lower player area shows volume, progress, and allows shuffle or repeat mode switches. You can also “love” the track, album or artist from the main player. If you turn on the Song Properties area, which is defaulted off, you can see all the geeky details of the track, such as what bitrate it was encoded with. The search window filters artist in the repository or track information in the playlist, but that’s it. If you want to find a specific song in your library, you’ll have to resort to the Tools menu, where there is a powerful search tool. The extra step is annoying, at best. Neither search tool seems to like spaces, so finding a song with common words is tedious.

Playlist support is via external M3U files, along with dynamic playlists based on frequency of play (broken down by album, artist, or track), or random songs from the library or random songs which you’ve never played before. That’s about all to say about playlist support. It’s simple, it works, and it saves to M3U files. Those M3U files are not exposed in the main display, however – you’ll have to remember where you saved them and open them manually if you want to bring them back to life later.

External device support is the least powerful piece of aTunes, unfortunately for a program that is obviously trying to get you to think of iTunes. It can read from older (Gen4) iPods, but not write to them or newer ones. It doesn’t recognize MTP players, only MSC (mass storage compliant) devices. Because of this, it also doesn’t know what features your player can support, so unless your player uses M3U playlists, you don’t get playlist support for externals.

Considering that aTunes hasn’t been updated since June of 2010, I don’t hold out much hope for an updated version to address the shortcomings I saw. This is really unfortunate, since its available features are really well-implemented and include some unique abilities among this set of players.

Download Link: aTunes

MSRP: Free (Donationware)

What I Like: Great integration with internet data sources

What Needs Improvement: Poor device support, mediocre podcast features

To summarize this mini-series of open-source media player reviews, I’m a bit disappointed that I can’t recommend any of them without reservation. I use open source software every day at work, and my blog and Gear Diary are both based on the open source WordPress software. Open source software can be a powerful thing, but the profit motive cannot be underestimated. I continue to use the commercial program MediaMonkey, even after seeing all these cool programs. I may take a look at foobar2000 sometime, which although freeware missed being in this roundup due to being under a proprietary license.

 

Other Open Source Media Player Reviews

Songbird
Clementine

One Response to " Open Source Media Player Review: aTunes "

  1. Obligatory Steve Jobs Memorial Post | BunkBlog says:

    […] player. The iTunes program, much-reviled by technorati, remains the standard by which other music management programs are judged. Again, I have given Apple no money in the digital music realm, but I can’t escape […]

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