Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Quest for a Winamp Replacement


The end of an era was marked on November 21st, 2013 as AOL announced the discontinuation of the once (and maybe still) popular media player - Winamp. As a user of Winamp, I was faced with a tough decision this week. Either stick with the final version (5.66 for those keeping track) and hold out hope that the source code will eventually be opened up, or look for a replacement. I chose the later and decided to document the ups and downs of migrating away from a piece of software that I have used for the last 15 years of my life.

Winamp

I think it's safe to say that anyone who used Napster in the late 90's was familiar with Winamp. It was the de facto software MP3 player at the time and it really did whip the llama's ass. The only problem was it never seemed to evolve much over it's long existence, and when it did it was often for the worse. Winamp went from being a program that I loved to one that I only used because it seemed "better than the alternatives". Still, 15 years is a long time, and as much as I hate to admit it, the software was ingrained in me. Finding an alternative would be a difficult challenge... or so I thought.

Foobar2000

Instead of listing the top 5 to 10 Winamp alternatives, like so many other sites seem to do, I'll just jump right to the good stuff and explain why it worked for me. Obviously that "good stuff" is Foobar2000; a free media player that seems to follow in the same spirit as the early, "pre-AOL" Winamp.

My criteria for a Winamp replacement were as follows:
  1. Light-weight player that's small in size, quick to start, and uses minimal system resources.
  2. Keyboard shortcuts for playback.
  3. Text search that filters results as I type.
  4. Something that's not ugly - a requirement that Winamp "barely" met for most of it's existence to be fair.

Light-weight

As far as media players go, Foobar2000 is among the lightest. It's one of the main reasons I was attracted to it early on. You can tell just by looking at the screenshots that this thing is going to be fast; and it didn't disappoint. It's faster and less resource hungry than Winamp in all aspects. No worries on this front what so ever.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Media playback hotkeys are one of those things that I don't think I would feel I need if it wasn't for Winamp. For those unaware the Previous Track, Play, Pause, Stop, and Next Track buttons in Winamp are mapped out 'z', 'x', 'c', 'v', and 'b' as keyboard shortcuts. Over the years I've grown used to hitting 'x' after launching Winamp in order to start my music playing, and pressing 'x' when someone is talking to me in order to pause, and 'b' when I want to skip the currently playing random track. I refuse to admit I'm a Luddite when it comes to this because keyboard shortcuts really do make things quicker then fumbling around with a mouse cursor and a cramped UI - something both Winamp and Foobar2000 suffer from to some extent. Therefore, I was very pleased to find out that not only does Foobar2000 have keyboard shortcuts, but that they are also completely customizable. To prove to myself that I am not completely against change I mapped the playback keys in the order they appear in the Foobar2000 UI (which is slightly different than Winamp) to the 'z', 'x', 'c', 'v', and 'b' keys. It helped that the three main functions I use most often stayed in the same place, but that was purely coincidental.

Text Search

I'll be honest when I say that this is the one feature I didn't think any media player would be able to replace Winamp on; and for the most part I was correct. It's such a simple feature and at the same time it's so useful when searching through large file libraries. I can't understand why more media players don't make use of something like this because Winamp obviously doesn't have the patent on it. You can see an excellent example of this in Windows 7 and 8 every time you go to the Start menu. You start typing the name, or part of the name, of any application you are looking for and it starts finding and returning results to you as you type. If other media players have this functionality, then they sure do their best to hide it. Even Winamp seems to hide it fairly well, but from the moment I found out about the 'j' (Jump to File) hotkey I was hooked. This is the single feature that has tied me to Winamp for all these years and one that I was able to (semi) replicate in Foobar2000 fairly quickly.

For starters it helped that there was already a built-in search function that behaved more or less how I wanted it to. I had to dig a little bit to find it but it was there. From this point it was simply a matter of creating a new keyboard shortcut for it so that it wouldn't be hidden within the player. Now it isn't a perfect replacement of the Winamp "Jump to File" command. You can't press 'j' and immediately start typing because the search field isn't automatically selected on pop-up (My bad, it is auto selected). You also can't use the up and down arrow keys after typing to move through the results because your cursor is still focused on the search box instead of the results listing. So at this point (version 1.2.9) the functionality isn't a perfect replacement of Winamp's, but it seems to get the job done and is one I can live with.

The "Ugg" Factor

Probably the least important of my criteria is how the player looks while running in "modern" (air-quoted since I'm currently using Windows 7 - which really isn't that modern) versions of Windows. In this category there really isn't a clear winner in my opinion. Foobar2000's UI is a bit more clean and customizable, while Winamp has the better name and icon/logo design. Speaking of icons, Foobar2000 looks very out of place in my current Taskbar lineup.

I know flat design is en vogue at the moment but I didn't think unhappy vampire aliens were as well.

Neither of these media players will be winning any beauty pageants in their stock state, but I feel like Foobar2000 has more potential when it comes to skinning (Customize.org) and I would therefore award it the Miss Congeniality of the two.

Conclusion

The end of Winamp, while a loss to many, is also a blessing in disguise. For those of us who have clung on to this relic for more than a decade we now have an incentive to try out other platforms that may better suit our needs. Moving from Winamp to Foobar2000 has not come without it's drawbacks, but overall I'm fairly pleased with how well it's worked out. With my new media player installed and configured I am now ready to say good-bye to Winamp as it dies a slow, unsupported death.

Update

TechCrunch is reporting that AOL will be selling Winamp to the online radio aggregator service Radionomy. To me it sounds like more of a victory for the Shoutcast folks than the people who use Winamp purely for MP3 playback.