Posted by: kimothy | February 9, 2009

Winamp Media Player

Week 2 (for Feb. 9, 2009) – design critique

When I got a new computer last year, it took a while to get used to. One thing I had to change was my music player software; iTunes, which I had used for several years on my old computer, did not work very well with the new one, so I switched to Nullsoft Winamp. While Winamp perfoms the same function as iTunes, playing music, its interface is vastly different.

WinAmp has a very complicated interface*. The top left of the window is the “Now Playing” section, where the song title, song progress (both in a digital clock and a progress bar), play options buttons (play, stop, pause, forward, back), and volume are displayed clearly, if small. Next to this box along the top is a box containing more details about the song; this part can be customized. Along the left edge of the window, there is a navigation tree, showing libraries and playlists for easy access. Along the right edge of the window is the current playlist, which can be edited in window without affecting existing playlists. Under the playlist is album art. Both the playlist and the album art boxes can be minimized so they don’t show in the window. The main box in the center is the selected playlist or library; the title bar at the top can be customized as well. There is a lot going on in such a small area, with a very small font, and upon first glance, it’s quite overwhelming.

The interface can be customized in hundreds of different ways, which is helpful, but it takes a while to figure out how everything can be changed. The color scheme can be changed, and there are about 50 different combinations. There are lots of options for playback, interface, and internet settings, but the program assumes a certain level of savviness that most typical users do not have. For example, on this options window, there are several options that make no sense to me (even though I consider myself fairly computer-savvy), like “Allow multiple instances,” and they are not readily explained in the window. They can probably be found in the help, but if it’s not readily available, it will likely frustrate the average user. The buttons located all over the window are small and the images on them are hard to see and hard to translate. A rollover with the mouse will reveal their uses, but often they still don’t make much sense.

When a user switches from iTunes to Winamp, like I did, the changes are rather hard to get used to. The program can’t upload cd tracks into mp3 files without paying money like iTunes does for free. There is no live update (a form of feedback) of Play Count or Last Played as the songs are played; it requires a re-load of the page to see the changes, and there is no refresh button or any other intuitive way to refresh the page (I just click on a different page and then go back to the first one; this is enough to refresh it). The music file information cannot be easily edited in Winamp, and the playlist views only have the title and length of the song, not all the options of the libraries. Also, the keyboard shortcuts are not only completely different from those of iTunes, they are also vastly unintuitive.

As can be seen in this composite of screenshots, all the keyboard shortcuts are seemingly random letters or combinations of Alt/Ctrl/Shift and random letters (also, I could not figure out for the life of me what “Num. 1” and “Num. 3” are. It’s not the numbers 1 and 3, nor the numbers with Num Lock on, or F1/F3. It made me mad.). The letters don’t necessarily correspond to their functions, either; it requires memorization to use them. In iTunes, the space bar is used as Play/Pause, and the left/right arrow keys are used to move between successive songs. In Winamp, the spacebar does nothing, and the left/right arrow keys move 5 seconds forward/back in the song, which is a rather useless function in my opinon. Play/Pause is C, and Z/X are used for forward and back, respectively. This initially makes no sense, but upon examination of a QWERTY keyboard, all the playback options are along the bottom left of the keyboard, in order (ZXCVB). This makes ergonomic sense, but it’s not immediately obvious. Also, the playback keyboard shortcuts only work when the Now Playing box has been selected (just clicked on). There is absolutely nothing in the interface that indicates whether the Now Playing box has been selected, nor is there anything that tells the user that it has to be. If Z ,X ,C, V, or B is pressed in any other selected box, it jumps to the first item that starts with that letter, which, if it’s not the desired effect, can be irksome.

While a lot of Winamp’s features are annoying, there are a lot of good things about it that are better than iTunes. For one, there is an internet browser right in the interface, so listening to music and surfing the internet can both be accessed without switching windows; this mapping is very convenient. The visualization in Winamp is much more sophisticated than that of iTunes; the images pulsate to the beat, and the visuals go well with the music itself. The title and artist of the song are mentioned at the beginning of the visualization and then swirl into the visualization itself, which is very aesthetically pleasing. There are dozens of skin (window layout and design) and color options in Winamp, something iTunes doesn’t offer. Not all people like the same colors and window design, so Winamp lets the user choose what he or she likes. Also, the program lets the user upload music on to almost any portable music player inside the program, whereas iTunes is only really compatible with iPods. The location of the Now Playing box is good mapping; Now Playing is the most important part of a music player, and the top left is where humans will first look at a window, so the most important thing will be the first thing seen. Also, the digital clock is in a bigger font than the rest of the entire interface, so it will be the first thing people will see.

A few things I would improve to make the experience even better:

  • Explain all the options better. In the options window, there could be small text boxes that will pop up with a mouse rollover briefly explaining vaguely-worded options. For more advanced users, the pop ups can be turned off.
  • Make the keyboard shortcuts more intuitive, like making the letters of the shortcuts correspond to the functions they serve.
  • A live update of the song data would be very useful–more feedback is always good in any interface, and instantaneous feedback is even better.

Once I figured out how to use all the many features of Winamp, I really grew to like it. The learning curve is longer and steeper than iTunes, but it’s worth it.

*All images are screenshots of my own computer. Hopefully my music choices aren’t too embarrassing.

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