The recent history of the Amarok music player is like a scaled-down version of KDE’s recent past. Like KDE 4, the Amarok 2 series was greeted with a user revolt that has only gradually quieted. And just like KDE 4 inspired Trinity KDE for those who preferred KDE 3, so Amarok 2 inspired Clementine, a fork of Amarok 1.4.
The supporters of both Trinity KDE and Clementine make similar claims for their preferences: in both cases, the retro-apps are described as faster, easier to use, and outfitted with a better feature set than the most recent versions. But is that so?
An examination of basic features suggests that reality — as usual — is more complex than the claims. For one thing, Clementine is only at version 0.4 — hardly, really, out of alpha release. Its feature set is incomplete, so it is handicapped in a comparison from the start.
For another, despite Clementine’s unfinished state, both music players fulfill their functions extremely well. In fact, although each has details that the other lacks, their feature sets have yet to diverge in many areas. What a feature by feature comparison shows is not radical differences so much as differences in emphasis, and in what users are assumed to want.
Amarok vs. Clementine: Interface and Usability
Open Amarok and Clementine side by side, and the philosophical differences become apparent immediately.
The difference goes far beyond the fact that Clementine uses two panes — one for music sources and one for playlists — while Amarok adds a third pane for context information. The number of panes does indicate a difference in assumptions about what users have want, but it is the least of the differences.
Instead, the largest difference is that Amarok’s design philosophy is influenced by the current interface design theories, while Clementine’s are more oriented towards stone geeks, including every detail imaginable.
Some Clementine users will point to this difference by making disparaging comparisons between Amarok and OS X or Windows. However, for practical purposes, what matters is that the two music players display different assumptions about what average users want.
For instance, in Clementine, the playlist offers ever bit of information about selected tracks that is available. The default settings are Artist, Album, Length and Track (although I suspect that Title was meant to be there, too), and via the context menu, you can add another thirteen columns, including file length and the date it was created.
Similarly, Clementine’s default track controls include an equalizer and block organizer. Moreover, they are placed at the bottom of the playlist, where they can easily be mixed, alongside some basic tag controls.
Amarok’s approach, though, is minimalist. It identifies tracks by album, track number, title, and length, and does not allow additional information to be added. Just as importantly, its controls for playing a track are promoted to just below the menu, and take up the entire width of the window, making them hard to miss. Tag controls are separated out, and controls for the entire playlist — as opposed to the track — are at the bottom of the playlist pane.
The same difference is seen in the identification for the current track: Amarok simply highlights it, while Clementine highlights it and adds a notice to the bottom of the sources pane that always displays.
There are other differences, too, such as Amarok’s use of retractable lists for pane views, which require more mouse clicks than Clementine’s tabs when you are changing views. However, the most noticeable difference is that Amarok is more streamlined (or slicker, if you happen not to like the design decisions) while Clementine has spent less time on such concerns.
Verdict: Tie. Despite the fact that interface designers insist on the superiority of their strictures, whether you prefer a minimalist interface or a more geeky one is largely a matter of preference. Some users might become frustrated if Amarok’s display does not include a feature they prefer, but just as many may find Clementine cluttered.
Amarok vs. Clementine: Editing Tags
The metatags on tracks and albums are essential for searching local libraries and — in Amarok’s case — for creating automated playlists (see below). For these purposes, the ability to edit tags is essential in any music player.
In both Amarok and Clementine, you can right-click to edit tags, and can edit basic information such as release year or genre on all the tracks in an album at the same time. But Amarok goes beyond the basics, with lyrics, statistics, and custom tags as possibilities. Because you can permanently add this additional information, Amarok is automatically easier to search or to create automated playlists that satisfy you.
Verdict: Amarok. This is one situation where focusing on being complete is not just a preference, but a valuable feature.
Amarok vs. Clementine: Playlist Features
Clementine allows you to create and shuffle playlists, but, when you are building playlists, you are largely on your own. This state of affairs is in marked contrast to Amarok, which can automatically create playlists based on every criteria listed in the tags, from artist and genre to song length or release date.
In the end, if you want a playlist that contains exactly what you want, you have to add tracks manually in Amarok, just as you do in Clementine. All the same, Amarok’s automated playlists can generally create a playlist that you feel like listening to, provided you enter the criteria that you’re in the mood for.
Clementine does include tabs in the playlist pane, which are easier to switch between than dragging a new playlist from the source pane, which is what you have to do in Amarok. However, the advantage is minimal, especially since most users of either music player are likely to be conditioned to look for playlists in the source pane anyway.
Verdict: Amarok. If the Clementine team has plans for automated playlists, they have yet to be implemented.
Amarok vs. Clementine: Context and Background
Both Amarok and Clementine allow you to collect covers so that you get more of the traditional listening experience. However, Amarok is much more interested in giving listeners as much of the traditional experience as possible.
In addition to the cover manager, Amarok includes the middle context pane, where you can display such information as lyrics, artist photos, upcoming events that feature the artists and listing of similar artists. It even offers Wikipedia entries as a substitute for linear notes.
So far, at least, Clementine shows no signs of providing any similar information. In fact, although I could be wrong, my impression is that many of its users would prefer that it never does and considers such information unnecessary.
Technically, they are right, but the extras can be informative, and can help you to discover new artists or releases. Besides, in Amarok, you can select the ones you want, or even hide the middle page altogether.
Verdict: Amarok. If you care about context, then it is another area where emphasizing completeness matters.
Amarok vs. Clementine: Scripts and Plugins
With several releases in the second series of releases, Amarok has built up a large ecosystem of scripts for online music and lyric sources, as well as minor pieces of functionality such as copying tracks.
Clementine is likely to build up similar support. However, currently, the only script or plugin in Clementine is a filter that adds the sound of a storm — something that seems so pointless that I can only assume it is a proof of concept.
Verdict: Amarok. Clementine simply isn’t advanced or old enough to compare in this category.
Amarok vs. Clementine: Additional Features, and Customization
The configuration features are where the two music player’s common origins are most obvious. Many of the settings and headings are next to identical. The main difference is that Amarok has done more tidying, listing all online services under one heading, instead of separately, the way that Clementine does.
Clementine does have one feature that I would like to see in Amarok: the ability to convert massive numbers of files from one format to another. Amarok’s team may reason that it is a music player, not an editor, but the conversion feature — which Clementine calls “transcode music” — can be useful, especially if you want to convert MP3s to a free format like Ogg Vorbis.
Verdict: Clementine. Transcoding could use a clearer name, but it is still a feature I envy.
Sometimes, Goliath wins and David loses
At this stage in its development, Clementine cannot really match Amarok. It starts faster than Amarok, but not significantly faster. Similarly, while it is more stable than some of the early Amarok 2 releases, it does not seem more stable than Amarok 2.3.1, the latest release.
Nor do I see any advantage — as some have — in the fact that Clementine uses SQLite, rather than MySQL. Although Amarok’s connection to MySQL seemed chance early in the Amarok 2 series, that problem, too, has been corrected. Now, it makes sense that Amarok should take advantage of the fact that MySQL is already installed for KDE, and use it as the default database.
Clementine does seem more lightweight than Amarok, so I would recommend it for older systems or ones with limited hard drive space. It is already better than many other music players, including GNOME’s Rhythmbox.
But a rival to Amarok? Get serious. I like Clementine, and plan to keep an eye on it, but, at this point, it requires either special pleading or long-established prejudices to argue that it has many advantages over modern Amarok.
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