Review: A Look at the Amarok Music player for Linux

Review: A Look at the Amarok Music player for Linux
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Getting started with Amarok

Amarok, with RhythmBox, is one of the two most popular Linux-based music playing programs. Amarok was designed to work on KDE-based systems, but should run quite happily on a GNOME-based system. I had some annoying problems with it on an Ubuntu laptop, but your mileage may vary.

Amarok may come with your distro by default, but if not it can be installed via the Applications / Add & Remove Programs menu item. Alternatively it can be downloaded from Support is also available from this site.

Because of legal restrictions it might not have MP3 codecs installed, so if you want to be able to play and rip MP3 files you will need to install these separately. These should appear in the Add Programs box under the name ‘GStreamer extra plug-ins’, but in any event a search for ‘MP3’ should locate them.

Amarok opens into a window with a vertical set of tab buttons at the left. By default these are Devices, Magnatune, Files, Playlists, Collection and Context, but some of these can be omitted via the ‘Manage tabs’ button directly above them. Clicking on the tabs changes the window display as follows:

Devices – shows attached music players and allows the user to drag and drop files between the player and the playlist. I was unable to get this working on an Ubuntu installation.

Magnatune – links to the Magnatune music distributor.

Files – allows the user to browse through directories looking for music files to play. Files that are found can be appended to an existing playlist.

Playlists – allows the user to create, save and rename playlists by dragging tracks from the collection or by defining a list through criteria. This feature – called ‘Smart playlists’ – allows the choice of files on the basis of title, artist, album, length, when they were last played and so on.

Collection – shows the entire collection of tracks sorted by artist and album. Context – shows details of the playing track, including an album cover, lyrics and Wikipedia information about the artist if these are available. Album covers are retrieved from Amazon and lyrics from an online lyric database.

In the Amarok playlist window tracks appear at the right. They can be sorted by any column, and the column display can be changed by right-clicking on a column heading and choosing ‘Select Columns’.

Using Amarok

Columns can be dragged and dropped across the display to change their sequence. A Search panel at the top allows filtering to hide unwanted tracks.

When a new track starts to play a small translucent window pops up on the current desktop with details of the track title, artist, album and length. Like RhythmBox, Amarok has a range of ‘visualizations’ that can be called up to display lines, colors and flashing lights moving and changing in time with the music. These can be found under the Tools menu.

Single or multiple selected tracks can be removed from the list, selected or queued for playing. One very useful feature is that when several tracks are selected and the user right-clicks in, say, the ‘Artist’ column, this allows the Artist tag for all the files to be quickly reset to a new value.

Music files can be added to the collection through the Playlist menu. Another useful feature is the ‘Remove duplicate & dead entries’ option which allows a messy collection to be automatically tidied up.

Inserting an audio CD automatically starts Amarok. Selecting ‘Engage / Play Audio CD’ creates a playlist with the CD tracks listed. Identifying information is drawn from the Internet if this is available. Amarok can rip tracks from a CD, and burn a playlist of tracks to a CD via the Playlists menu.

Internet radio stations and podcasts can be accessed via the Playlists tab at the left. This tab also provides links to the Last.FM subscription music service.

Amarok can be set up and configured via the Tools menu. This allows the choice of shortcut keys for player functions and global settings, such as which sound driver to use and the details of any media players not recognized automatically.

I was impressed with the enormous power and versatility of Amarok but in my judgment the user-friendliness of the display left a lot to be desired. There was a fairly long learning curve coming to grips with the program, and this wasn’t helped by persistent crashes and lock-ups on my Ubuntu system. For users of KDE Linux systems this will be a powerful tool, but it will take a while to come to grips with. Users who just want to play music tracks may prefer one of the many simpler alternatives like RhythmBox, AlsaPlayer, Totem or the VLC media player.