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Why I Hate Rhythmbox

By on Jun 10, 2008 in Personal, Tech Takes | 18 comments

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This is just going to be one of the first posts on my blog slamming Ubuntu 8.04. I mean specifically ‘Ubuntu 8.04’, and not Linux or Ubuntu in general. Call this a warm-up. OK, this one’s more about a different software project which is included by default in Ubuntu (even earlier editions) – it has nothing to do with Ubuntu itself except for the fact that they chose to ship it with their distro. That’s the reason why I dragged Ubuntu into this debate. Let’s admit it, Ubuntu has become the de-facto answer for newbies coming in to the Linux fold. Hell, even I suggest it to people using Linux for the first time.

The reason why I recommend it is because of the wide community support and rigid release schedule. Community support is the biggest thing, because newbies need help and they get a lot of that when they choose Ubuntu. Things like ‘I like APT’ and ‘Debian (the name) sounds nice’ are bullcrap.

So here’s the software I wanted to talk about – Rhythmbox. It’s the default music library management software which ships with Ubuntu; and I simply *can’t* fathom the reason why they choose this when there are better alternatives around. Yes, most of the *good* music management software are ‘Made for KDE’, but there’s no reason why a port can be made.

Ubuntu
Creative Commons License photo credit: karindalziel
The problem with Rhythmbox is that it’s definitely NOT up to the standard anyone switching over from Windows (or anyone else for that matter) would expect. The biggest pain in the ass is its mishandling of ID3 tags in MP3 files. Anyone with a decent music collection will know what I mean when I say ‘ID3 tags’, although they may not know it by that name. When you have a music file on your hard disk, it has its own filename. That files itself can hold stuff called ‘metadata’ – which in short is basically ‘data about data’.
In the case of MP3 files, no matter what the filename is, the MP3 file can store extra information stored in a structured manner – like the song name, artist name, album name, composers, track number, etc. The ‘standard’ to store this is using is called ‘ID3’ (which has two versions, the older version 1; and the newer version 2 which offers greater flexibility on what data can be stored). This data is generally stored at the start of an MP3 file, and then the actual audio part begins.

The reason why ID3 tags are important is because it can help organize and search through music collections easily. Because the data stored in them is structured – in the sense that it known that text entered in such and such field is the album name, and so on – music players and management software can use to search through items faster. They can even automatically sort MP3 files into neat folders depending upon the information tagged to the file.

Now the problem with Rhythmbox is that it goes a step ahead and does what no music management software is supposed to do – modify tags without a user asking them for it. You see, ID3 tags are not *essential* for a file – they may or may not be there. Some or all fields may remain blank, say, if you don’t *have* the data on who composed the track. This is normal, and should remain blank. Rhythmbox on the other hand acts to smart, and fills in any blank fields with ‘Unknown’. As a result of which, your music starts getting shunted into a folder for an artist called ‘Unknown’ for an album called ‘Unknown’ – even if they are sorted fine on the basis of their filename.

It’s quite disgusting, because at a time when music management software for Linux like Amarok and Lsongs have audio fingerprinting and auto-tagging of tracks, Rhythmbox takes a step backward and messes up music collections. If a field is blank, it could simply choose to show in ITS OWN interface as ‘Unknown’ without modifying the tags, but it doesn’t. Which means, if you open the same music library in Windows, or transfer it to a player it will be all messed up because it will now be sorted wrongly. Most other *good* software, even on Linux, can still search using the filename if a tag is missing, but when an ID3 is present is overrides everything else – so you can’t search stuff properly either.

The reason why this is important is because people who are using Ubuntu for the first time would be, quite naturally, pissed if they just even ONCE open up Rhythmbox, and then transfer files to their iPod (or any other music player). And it will make a very bad impression. People who’re fanatical about tagging (but not so fanatical about Linux) might never want to come back and use it again. Freedom to modify code is fine, but not at the cost of making crappy software. This is not a niche segment of people, because music in the digital format IS slowly taking over. People ARE switching more to MP3 on their personal music players than CDs. And Ubuntu DOES need to make the right decision on which packages to include.

Rhythmbox’s woes don’t only end here – it’s support for visualizations is pathetic (or non-existent, depending on which version you’re using), no proper management of album art and lyrics, networking with other players is sketchy, support for Internet radio and podcasts is also pretty bad. In short, it’s a mess. Support for interfacing with personal music players isn’t that great either.

What saddens me more is that THIS what many people are getting to see as ‘what Linux is like’ when they start with Ubuntu. It’s not as if good software aren’t there. By far the best and most clutter-free music manager I’ve EVER come across, compared with alternatives on ANY platform is Lsongs. I’m sure not many have heard of it. It’s the default media manager created for the Freespire / Linspire distro by their creators. Its interface is almost like iTunes, so people don’t feel at sea. Plus, it comes with extras like auto-tagging using MusicBrainz, a GOOD lyrics lookup and management system – the whole nine yards. Even though it uses the ‘iTunes-way’ of doing things – creating an XML file to store data about the library – it isn’t as resource-hogging like iTunes at all. Moreover, support for managing podcasts, browsing radio streams, connecting to music players like the iPod, and ripping CDs is great – with a NICE interface.

Best playa eva!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Nano Taboada
The other music library manager worth mentioning is Amarok. A ‘Made for KDE’ thing like Lsongs, it has everything that Lsongs has except with a geekier, power-user interface. Nothing which one day of use can’t overcome, so you can adjust to it quite easily.

Of course, both of these will run on GNOME too, given that their dependencies (a few KDE / Qt library files) are satisfied. My point is that Ubuntu has bears a BIG responsibility right now of SHOWING to the users free and open source software can be good. People will appreciate and support the free software movement when they’re explained the advantages, but if they see things like Rhythmbox, I’m afraid they’ll rather be taken in by the fear-mongering of the proprietary software advocates that ‘free software sucks’. It doesn’t – its just that people aren’t getting to see the best offerings for Linux in this field.

More coming soon on problems with Ubuntu 8.04. I know this post wasn’t specifically about Ubuntu 8.04 – it affects any distro which uses Rhythmbox – but this will put my subsequent post into a better perspective.

Update – If you’re using GNOME, then the best music player that you have right now is Banshee Media Player. Interface is similar to Rhythmbox but looks more polished. Has more features and doesn’t mess up your music collection.



18 Comments

  1. boteek

    June 22, 2008

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    Unfortunately I have to agree with you, although I’m using Ubuntu 8.04 exclusively. Your point is valid especially if we consider the time how long Rhythmbox is developed and is around. This time is measured in *years*. If we take a look at almost any other music player on the windows platform (I’m thinking especially of Foobar2000) which is developed for years now, they are all almost perfect, but at least very good. BTW, I don’t really like iTunes-like interfaces, but it seems that everyone who makes a music player is mimicking iTunes. Too bad. If xmms would have decent media library support, it still would be one of the best media players on linux, even with its crappy old source code base.

    Some good news: there is a player called Banshee which has some potential, and it seems that it got some momentum for it’s development too with the new 1.0 release, but still it could be developed faster.

  2. Ankur

    June 23, 2008

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    @Boteek: Yes, I’ve used Banshee too, but according to me, none come as close to perfection in the realm of media managers as Amarok / Lsongs do. And XMMS is hugely outdated.

  3. MasterPi

    June 28, 2008

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    I’ve done a lot of browsing of the available open source media players and I have to say that I actually like Rhythmbox best. The tagging issue is not a problem for me, and probably many other people as well, and there’s a bug listed for it in the Ubuntu bugtracker so it’s likely to be fixed soon. Visualization support is much improved and actually works fairly well with multiple screens. We could use some more variation in visualizations, but that’s a GStreamer issue, not Rhythmbox. I don’t like a lot of the newer players like Banshee and Muine because there’s easy way to select a particular artist or album to play on a whim. As for Lsongs, not only is it QT (which depends on more than a “few” files, also increasing memory usage and application startup time – not only do the files need to be on your hard disk, the libraries get loaded at runtime; and it looks like crap under GNOME / in general) but it is no longer under active development and has several serious known issues, including the visualization not working, according to the wiki. Rhythmbox on the other hand is an actively maintained player with a good interface, and a plugin architecture.

  4. Ankur

    June 28, 2008

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    @MasterPi: Rhythmbox have a good interface? Laughable. And the bugtracker issue, I’ll be talking about that later – about the Ubuntu bugtracker system, that is. Personal experience. Yes, Lsongs is no longer in active development, mainly because Linspire isn’t sold that much these days, but it gets MANY things right – not destroying ID3 tags, supporting MusicBrainz, and proper lyrics / album art lookups.

  5. mike10

    December 27, 2008

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    I use Rhythmbox and do not find that it fills in the ID3 tags with unknown

    “no proper management of album art and lyrics”
    seems to work fine for me

    needs volume leveling though

    Debian Lenny Rhythmbox 0.11.6

    you do make a VARY good point though

    • Ankur

      December 27, 2008

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      @Mike10: The current version of Rhythmbox (0.11.6) doesn’t actually fill in ‘Unknown’ in the tags like previous versions used too, but still shows it as ‘Unknown’ as opposed to blank.

  6. Anish D

    February 5, 2009

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    I am also extremely (I cant stress any more) dissatisfied with rhythmbox. I have a huge music collection and I have organized them in different folders. Most of them are film songs. Thus the top level folders belong to different languages. Middle level folders belong to how old the films are and the bottom level folders are names of the films. The main problem i come across is that there is no facility in rhythmbox to open folder or to add a folder to a playlist. In amarok, I can do it by opening the folder of any level in left pane and dragging and dropping it to the playlist of right pane, and the songs will be added to the playlist recursively. I still dont understand why this basic facility is not there in rhythmbox. I like gnome, so i dont want to use amarok in gnome as my computer will become slower with KDE library files. Thus, as of now, when i have to hear songs, i have to do it in windows media player.

    When gnome will get a decent music player. If i were a software developer, i would have definitelly tried to do it.

    • Ankur

      February 5, 2009

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      That’s a pretty popular misconception. Although theoretically KDE / Gnome apps don’t mix that’s the not the case in practice. So you can go ahead and use Amarok without any issues. Amarok’s pretty powerful. The problem is that Rhythmbox is way behind in the music game.

      • Anish D

        February 5, 2009

        acutally i have used amarok in ubuntu-gnome for many months and i really love it. but it takes more time to start. Then i thought i will put it to startup. then it started creating more problems as some KDE apps (i remember it is knotify or so) started crashing while system start.later amarok started not responding too.

        Lets hope someone will write a good media player for gnome.

      • Ankur

        February 6, 2009

        Try Banshee music player. A bit better than Rhythmbox, similar kind of interface. by Novell. Written in Mono so you’ll initially need to download a few libraries. The Ubuntu repositories is an old version. You can get the new one from its official website.

      • Anish D

        June 7, 2009

        Thanks for the reply. I am finally almost settled (happily) with exaile. It has many of the good qualities of rhythmbox, but has a file/folder browser pane too. It also supports having play|pause|previous|next buttons on the panel. Banshee I have tried before 2-3 years back, but today I am going to have another trial of it.

      • Ankur

        June 7, 2009

        Exaile is nice too, but Banshee just feels so much more…polished.

      • Anish D

        June 7, 2009

        Yea…I have tried Banshee. It seems that it is slightly better than rhythmbox (but dont think it is more polished than rhythmbox). Any way it is not for me coz there is no file browser in it. Thank You.

  7. markchicobaby

    May 19, 2009

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    I actually really like the visualisations that come with Rythmbox, and the extras that are available too. They are way better than iTunes and gstreamer.

    Your post is a year old. Maybe they are improving.

    Hey – your post is quite angry. Maybe use all that energy to contribute to the code, or write your own music player you have some good idea.

    • Ankur

      May 19, 2009

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      Excellent replacements for Rhythmbox already exist – Banshee Media Player, for instance. Mono libraries are already included in Ubuntu for satisfying F-Spot / Tomboy dependency requirements, so if Rhythmbox is replaced with Banshee, it would actually take less space. Another replacement which is often suggested is Exaile – personally, I find Banshee better, but still Exaile is better than Rhythmbox any day.

      This issue has been raised in Launchpad a few times, but devs don’t seem enthusiastic about it since it would mean replacing an app so many users have been using and subjecting them to something new. That, or (in case of Banshee) ‘MONO IS EVILZ LOLZ’ crap.

  8. howard shippin

    June 6, 2009

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    I’m one of those that like Rhythmbox – probably because the interface is fairly simple and lets me play by artist, album, genre or general shuffle mode. I have a fairly large music collection, but admit that my needs are not complicated. I don’t even bother with playlists.

    When I was on Windows last time I didn’t find anything quite as satisfying – tried Itunes, Windows Media Player, Foobar, WinAmp and a couple more, but they all annoyed me. I eventually started to use Songbird, which is supposed to work also under Linux. It was a bit buggy and crashy a few months back, but is being actively developed.

    One thing that I could see being useful with music players would be support for more flexible tagging, of the kind we use for photos. Like why does a song need to belong to a single genre? What if I want to pull up, say, only female jazz vocalists? Maybe that already exists and I just don’t know about it, or is it impossible under current metadata systems?

    • Songbird is nice, but it’s not completely stable right now – very much “your mileage may vary”. If you found Rhythmbox interface good then I suggest that you try out Banshee Media Player. It has a similar interface without the drawbacks that Rhythmbox has.

  9. Rowland

    September 27, 2011

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    nice rant
    i like it
    you’re hired XD

    what i hate the most is that i have my songs organized by hand in folders, and then rhythmbox and banshee messes them up by sorting them by genre title and/or author
    and in the end i get my fav songs in 1 folder distributed into 530 authors… not good

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