Get off my lawn.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

iPods on Linux

I'm one of probably 8 people on this earth that uses an iPod, and doesn't use either Windows or a Mac to put music files on it with.

The reason is that Linux, for now, makes a computer do what I want it to do. I just don't like Windows very much, and I don't have a Mac... yet. I might get my wife one, but I'm not about to buy one just so I can get an iPod to work.

iTunes, the software Apple makes to talk to an iPod, comes in a version for Windows, and on the Mac. There is no Linux version.

Fortunately, there are a lot of Linux applications now that can manage iPod files, so I have choices. There's gtkpod, gnu-ipod, banshee, RhythmBox, and amarok. (All of them have really sexy names, as you can readily see.) All of them work on the idea that you have a collection of audio files on your computer that you want to manage, and occasionally copy them to the iPod.

Unfortunately, most of them totally SUCK. I can't stress that enough. They really suck hard.

The first choice, when hunting around for something like this, is gtkpod, because of the "pod" in its name.
It's a GUI application that looks reasonable enough. And conceptually, it sounds simple enough to use. You plug your iPod in, then start gtkpod. It appears on the screen, and you press the "read" button. This reads the iPod's information into gtkpod. The problem is that it doesn't read your iPod when it's empty. What it does is show you an error message saying "The iPod is empty", blah blah blah. Then you tell gtkpod where your music files are. It sits there for 20 minutes reading those from your hard disk, creating a "playlist". That seems to work, but I can't tell from the UI how I'm supposed to select a few of my music files to copy to the iPod. You can press the "sync" button, which will cause gtkpod to dump everything onto the iPod, which in my case is too much. When you click on something other than the "playlist" you just imported from your filesystem, it forgets you ever did anything, and you have to do it all over again. I've used it once before, and when I did, it managed to get files on to the iPod, but not exactly the files I was trying to put there. There seem to be some bugs in its handling of the iPods iTunes database. Gtkpod, like old versions of Rational Rose, MS Excel, and the Gimp, is seemingly designed to turn the nicest of people into serial killers.
Score: Pathetic.

RhythmBox looks nicer, seems to know what an iPod is, and does a pretty decent job of managing music files. But nowhere in the UI is there any indication of exactly how you're supposed to copy files to an iPod. You can drag files into the ipod icon, but it doesn't seem to do anything. Since the online help consists of an "about" box, I'm lost.
Score: Sucks.

Gnu-ipod is a bunch of perl programs you run from the command line. Hello, gnu-ipod? The 80's called. They want their UI back.

Banshee looked promising, until I started it up. It told me "You need to import your music library". Seems reasonable enough, but it only gave me 2 choices: Import from the filesystem, or my home folder. Huh? Talk about casting a wide net. I picked my home folder, and banshee toiled away for 30 minutes looking for music files. Then it disappeared off the screen. They should have called it "crapshee".
Score: Sucks.

Finally, I tried amaroK, a KDE application. Like all KDE applications, amaroK is the GUI equivalent of a pearl-white Escalade with 24" gold spinners and neon lights on the bottom. But the suprising thing about amaroK is that it actually works. It's hard to get used to, because it's filled with weird features that, in conjunction with the blinking lights, tend to be confusing. For example, you open the main window, and it puts up a giant sign that says "This is your playlist", but it's empty. Then you do something in different area of the UI, and suddenly there's a random list of songs in your playlist. AmaroK makes suggestions for stuff to listen to. And every once in awhile, it changes the list of suggestions. It's as if it's saying "Hey, I see you're trying to put a podcast on your iPod. Why don't you listen to some King Crimson instead? No? Well then, you might like Fall Out Boy."

The important thing is, it does a good job of managing the files on my PC, and it does a reliable job of putting them on an iPod. It also does internet radio, podcasts, and other stuff. You can download cover art for albums. You can click on the "Lyrics" tab while a song is playing and it will display the lyrics. You can click on the "Artist" tab and it will display info about the band. This works most of the time. I tried it while "Heat of the Moment" was playing, and got a map of Asia and some text related to agriculture.

Its icon is a blue wolf head. I'm not sure why, but I hope that wolf goes out and kills off the other iPod-related software available for Linux.
Score: Doesn't suck.


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