Reviewed: Most migrants from other operating systems will seek out a Linux alternative to the ubiquitous iTunes, and chances are they'll come across Amarok 2.0 and Songbird 1.0. They're both contenders for the Linux music player crown, but take different approaches. Which one is right for you?
Amarok is a native KDE application (but is also available for other operating systems besides Linux via KDE ports), while Songbird has been built using Mozilla technology, so it's cross-platform from the first step. Migrating to either from other, lesser, applications is a breath of fresh air. They do the same kind of things, but in a more effective and better-looking way.
In testing we used Amarok 2.0 and Songbird 1.0 running on KDE 4.2 and Gnome. Amarok arrived via a Kubuntu repository with no issues and Songbird came in a 30MB file from getsongbird.com. Once the tarball had we double-clicked the Songbird script to run the installer. This is efficiently cross-distro, but you have to add your own shortcuts, while Amarok just fell into the appropriate application menu.
There are only so many ways a music player can be presented, and both take a similar line. But once you get beyond the basic interface conventions, things begin to diverge a little more and each application presents its strengths.
Amarok divides its main interface into three columns. On the left you'll find file operations, including a tree view of your collection, playlists, file browser and internet services such as Last.FM. The centre column is user definable and can contain Plasmoids (KDE/Plasma applets) for album art, lyrics and so on.
There are some excellent playlist features that are cleverly designed to provide you with many blasts from your musical past.
These work extremely well, though it depends on a decent broadband connection to acquire the additional info. The current playlist is shown on the right-hand side of the main window. Playlists can be created by dragging tracks from the collection to the playlist window and can be saved or exported for use on other applications.
One of Amarok's aims is to help users to rediscover their music, so it contains lots of search options using the metadata in music files to pinpoint exactly what you're looking for. There are also 'smart playlists', which try to gauge your mood from a selection of tunes and then keep that going with new tracks.
Songbird takes a slightly different approach, putting your library at the heart of the app. By default, it presents a filter interface so you can drill down through your collection based on genre, artist, album and track. The filter can be switched off using the View menu, just leaving the song list and search bar.
Both applications provide useful ways to find music, but Amarok feels quicker. Songbird's Most Played and Highest Rated playlists told us what we were listening to, but Amarok's dynamic system was great at digging up little-heard gems. Previous Amarok users will will be at home and there are no radical, deal-breaking changes. The Plasmoids column should also allow users to really make the application their own.
Fade to grey: Interface comparison
Songbird: Songbird offers a very familiar interface that's almost identical to iTunes, but also has some useful collection views.
Amarok: Amarok's transport controls are now given more emphasis, and are easy to navigate with. The glossy look reflects the new KDE too.
Our test system contained 3,500 tracks on a networked drive and a subset on a 4GB fruit-branded media player. Amarok picked up the player with no bother, allowed us to transfer songs back and forth from the library and play songs straight from the device.
This is great if you want to play tracks from a friend's player, but not so great when trying to sync the software and the device. Sync was available in version 1.4, but 2.0 just doesn't have it. Annoying.
Songbird fared a little worse in the iPod stakes. It has an add-on that will manage your device, but can't handle a Mac-formatted iPod so you may need to reformat using the FAT32 filesystem. Songbird offers manual transfer and syncing across a range of devices. You can also treat the iPod as a disk and add the tracks manually, but this could lead to hundreds of duplicate tracks.
Neither of these packages offers seamless support for the iPod, but they're usable and full sync support is soon likely to be available on both.
What sets Songbird apart from the herd is its selection of add-ons. These work using the same principle - and the same process - as Firefox and can be found and installed via the Songbird interface.
Two to install are the Last.FM plugin, which will scrobble your play history to your Last profile. and MashTape which is used to display information about the currently playing track pulled in from sources such as Amazon reviews, Flickr images, Google News, Last.FM, Wikipedia and YouTube.
Last.FM integration is a two-way process, with both scrobbling and radio access among the online services.
With MashTape installed, the application becomes something far beyond a mere media player, giving you options to discover new tracks, artists and features without having to go into the wilds of the internet. In fact, there are even plugins for the plugin, which add Vimeo or MTV music videos to the package, so it's definitely one to watch.
MashTape is what music applications should provide in the noughties.
Songbird and Amarok both deal superbly with large collections and online services. On balance, though, we think Amarok pips its rival thanks to matchless playlist management, the almost psychic dynamic playlists and brilliant integration of various web services.
iPod syncing was a disappointment; if we were syncing an entire library, Songbird (and a reformat of the iPod disk) would be the way to go. But we're really looking forward to a MashTape equivalent Plasmoid, and Amarok's close integration with KDE means that it looks great.
Songbird, meanwhile, comes in a very creditable second place thanks to its cross-platform chops and the brilliant MashTape add-on. If the latter is an example of the type of add-ons that the Songbird community has up its collective sleeve, this could be a really exciting application. While we found some of the other add-ons to be less successful - the iTunes-like coverflow was impossibly slow to render - all demonstrate the strength of a decent plugin architecture.
Amarok Verdict: Visually refreshed and ready for action. Amarok is our open source music player of choice. 9/10
Songbird Verdict: A brilliant mashup of web and media technology that's definitely worthy of attention. 8/10
Comparison of features
| ||Amarok ||Songbird |
|Version ||2.0.1 ||1.0 |
|Platform ||KDE ||Mozilla XUL |
|Licence ||GPL ||GPL |
|Dynamic playlists ||Yes ||Yes |
|iPod sync ||No ||Yes (Windows format)
|Last.FM scrobbling ||Yes ||Yes |
|Online radio ||Yes ||Yes |
|Video ||No ||Yes (via plugin) |
|Plugins ||Yes ||Yes |
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