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Review: Banshee 1.0

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier takes Banshee's 1.0 alpha for a spin to see if it can handle the competition. Verdict? Banshee stacks up with the best of them for media playback.

Like many Linux users, I spend far, far too much time at the computer and most of my music listening takes place at the computer rather than through my wonderful but sadly neglected bookshelf stereo system. The trade-off in fidelity, however, is more than made up by the convenience of using a desktop media player rather than a home stereo.

The question then becomes, which media player is going to best fit your habits? I tend to try each new media player as soon as it’s available — so I was excited to see the alpha release of Banshee 1.0, which has been in development for quite some time.

In the past, I’ve tried Banshee and been a bit disappointed. However, I know that past performance is often not an indicator of future results when mucking with pre-1.0 software. So, I was willing to give Banshee another chance — and I’m quite glad that I did. Read on, and I’ll give you a guided tour of the 1.0 alpha.
Note that Banshee 1.0 is alpha software at the time of this writing, but feature and stability wise, it was suitable for day-to-day use as far as I could tell. So, it isn’t 100% complete (though it might be much farther along by the time this article sees print…) but it is ready for heavy testing.

Zippy Import

One of the things that drives me absolutely bonkers is waiting for a program to do something. In the past, I’ve had problems importing my music library into Banshee because of sheer size — I have 57GB of music, and that’s caused crashiness in the past.

Even when the library is imported, it usually takes longer than one would like. Amarok, my previous player of choice, would take its sweet time chugging through my music library — it was usually a long enough process that I could go and get a cup of coffee and skim Fark.com before it’d be done.

Banshee, on the other hand, sucked up all the music on my iPod in about a minute. Just plugged the iPod in, fired up Banshee, and all was well with the world.

This is a particularly convenient way to work, too — I don’t have to have all my music on my laptop’s hard drive, so I can just keep my music on the iPod and listen to tunes on the road or at home, while my iPod is recharging to boot.

Social Goodness

If you’re a music lover, then you probably already have an account on Last.fm — and if you don’t, put the magazine down and head to a Web browser, stat. (Or, if you’re reading this online, just open a new tab and browse to Last.fm.) The site has changed the way I discover new music, and it’s also just plain fun to be able track my listening habits and such by tracking the songs played on my computer.

The new release of Banshee has better integration with Last.fm than previous versions of Banshee, and that’s a good thing. Like many folks, I tend to listen to Last.fm at least a few times a week, and it’s been one of my favorite social networks ever.

One of the things I enjoy in Banshee 1.0 is the ability to “Scrobble” my songs to Last.fm and see recommendations from my “neighbors,” my most recently “loved” tracks, and my most recently played tracks right in Banshee — without having to go to Last.fm.

You can also create new custom stations with Banshee, and “love” or “ban” music that you’re listening to — much like the official Last.fm player, but much more convenient using Banshee since you don’t have to have two different programs to listen to music and differentiate between your music library and what you’re streaming off of Last.fm.

Be Your Own DJ

I usually prefer to listen to full albums, but some days I want to create a decent mix of music so I don’t get bored while I’m at my desk. Banshee has one of the easiest playlist functions that I’ve seen in a music player to date.

Specifically, Banshee has a Play Queue that you can add songs to by just highlighting the song in the album browser and pressing ‘q’ — that’s all there is to it.

That might sound like a trivial feature, and it is to an extent, but it has also made it much, much easier for me to queue up 50 songs or so before I start my work day.

Even better, creating a permanent playlist in Banshee is also dead easy. Let’s say you’ve queued up a set of songs that you really enjoy. Just highlight the Play Queue and drag over to the Library on the left-hand side of Banshee. Just one action, and there’s your playlist. (Two actions, if you want to rename it to something more appealing than “New Playlist.)

Searching, Searching…

When you have hundreds of albums and thousands of songs in your collection, winnowing the selection down a bit can be challenge. Banshee helps out massively in that respect by supplying a decent search function.

The search function allows you to search all fields, or just winnow it down to a specific field — in case you want to search for all songs with “beach” in the title, for instance, but don’t want to snag all songs by the Beach Boys. You can also filter by year, genre, and other fields.

Another interesting feature is the ability to highlight a song and right-click, then search for other songs by a matching artist or album. Very nice.

And it’s Pretty, Too!

As much as I hate to admit it, looks do matter when it comes to selecting a media player for the desktop. I switched away from XMMS, in part, because it just started to look so dated on my desktop while Amarok and others were catching up to the modern desktop. (I hear the XMMS folks are working on a 2.0. I hope they see it through, I’d love to review it…)

Banshee is quite attractive, and I do like the redesign. Particularly since I can decide whether I want the “browser” or not, and whether it should be in a column in the middle or on top of the player.

I also like the way that Banshee displays cover thumbnails in a non-intrusive way, but still lets you eyeball the covers and skim your music collection using album covers very easily.



Coming Soon

Note that this review features the Banshee 1.0 alpha, so it’s not 100% feature-complete yet and should be rock-solid by the time 1.0 is released. (The alpha did crash on me a couple of times — but not often, and no data loss occurred.)

One thing I do want to applaud the Banshee developers for is the policy of no conflicts with prior releases. Usually I’m a bit apprehensive about upgrades and new releases that tweak existing preferences and database formats — because that usually means if the new hotness isn’t quite stable, the old and busted (but functional) application just doesn’t work anymore.

That’s not the case with Banshee, though. The 1.0 alpha does change the database format, but it doesn’t touch the old database — so, my music library was still recognizable by the old Banshee still installed on my system. No worries whatsoever.

This is a good thing, because this release doesn’t have all the features of previous releases — including mass storage support and CD burning. So, Banshee users who are used to having those sorts of things at their fingertips will want to keep the old version along as well.

However, if you’re just interested in media playback, Banshee 1.0 is a much better choice than previous releases — and I’d encourage users to jump on the bandwagon now in order to better help catch bugs and problems while the developers work towards the final 1.0.

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