Jon Lech Johansen from doubleTwist wrote to us today to let us know that they have launched a free app in the Market to pair with their popular desktop sync software for Mac and PC:
Today we launched our Android Player for music, podcasts and videos and it’s available in the Android Market as a free download. Google has built Android into a powerful, open platform; however users have been unsatisfied by the default media software built into Android and are not fully utilizing the media capabilities of their phones.
Jon goes on to list the features of the new Android app such as music and video playback in the same app with a simple interface, playback of iTunes-created playlists, support for audio and video podcasts, and support for ratings and play counts. He also hints that online radio, and wireless sync is coming soon as well.
The app is definitely well thought out and intuitive and looks great but I’ve found some bugs and missing features in the app that are worth mentioning as they quickly became a “show-stopper” for me to adopt it as my full-time media player. Still, I give it two thumbs up for general users looking for a solid media playback application which pairs extremely well with the desktop app of the same name.
The Home Screen
The introductory screen that you see when opening the app is well laid out, allowing users to quickly dive into their library using Artist, Album or Song Title navigation. Also included are buttons to browse any videos on the device, view Playlists, or view Podcasts entries. It looks to me like there’s room for two more buttons, perhaps for the online radio and wireless sync options that Jon hinted at.
Navigating through the artists in your library works as expected: when you tap on an artist, you list a list of albums by that artist, and tapping on an album gives you a list of tracks on the album.
Similar to Artist navigation, browsing the library by albums will let you browse ‘various artists’ compilation albums a lot easier. Navigating by Song Title can be handy if you’re looking for a particular track. If you’re like me, however, and have a huge music library, a search feature like Gesture Search might be quicker than scrolling through your whole library for a particular song if you can’t remember the title.
By default, the audio player will show you a repeat and randomize buttons, and 5 dots which turn out to be a star rating indicator – perhaps hollowed out stars that filled in when a user taps on them might have been more intuitive. Jon also mentioned that there’s a play counter somewhere, but I didn’t see any indication of it in the mobile app itself, perhaps that data is only sent to the desktop application. Tapping on the album art hides or shows the repeat/random features. Browsing back through artists/albums etc leaves a stub at the bottom of the device that shows the current track being played. Tapping the submenu button on your device will let you navigate back to the home screen (Library), or set the current track as your default ring tone, or view a play queue. Unfortunately there’s no notion of an on-the-fly playlist queue system where you can add songs from the library on the device itself.
Three words: smooth as glass. By default, a video I picked at random that I took on the Nexus One itself opened up full-screen with no on-screen controls. Tapping on the screen showed some basic controls for 3 seconds to let you rewind, fast forward, pause, and see a progress indicator. I did not test any other video types or videos that weren’t taken on my Nexus One.
I added some podcasts in the desktop application, and playlists were automatically generated for me, one per podcast, each with a list of new podcast episodes to enjoy. There’s also a playlist entry for “Recently added” which will find newer audio files added to your device. Unfortunately, this feature shows me my entire library of songs which have been on my device for several months now, so I’m not sure if this is a bug, or if the desktop application somehow recalibrated its timestamps because it was the first time I’d run the app on this particular computer.
This playback works as expected: if you subscribe to an audio podcast, you can browse and listen to your audio files; if you subscribe to a video podcast, you can view them instead. If the desktop application doesn’t sync a podcast, or no episodes are available, you get a rather unfriendly “Playlist is empty” screen. Perhaps the podcast navigation screen could just have a counter for how many episodes are sync’d and not navigate to a podcast with no episodes. The other redundancy I found is that the podcast navigation essentially shows me the exact same information as the playlists that the desktop application created for me.
From the home screen, tapping the submenu will give you a control for “Options” but try to contain your excitement for the plethora of configurable settings:
On one hand, I love that they have this setting in the app – it will make my wife’s life much easier, as she can simply plug her Motorola CLIQ into her PC and it’ll set up the USB drive mode for her and sync with doubleTwist on the desktop. For me, personally, I find it annoying that they’d set this on by default as I often plug my Nexus One into my laptop simply to charge it. I don’t want the bother of having doubleTwist auto-launch itself and try a full sync cycle every time I plug in my device for charging, so this setting was turned off on my Nexus One.
Why I Won’t Adopt It (But You Should)
The biggest deal breaker was lack of horizontal orientation support. Maybe it’s my Froyo build, or maybe my Nexus One needs to be docked, but I couldn’t get the app to rotate itself when changing the phone’s orientation from portrait mode to landscape mode. I commute to work, and my Nexus One sits in a Google Car Dock during my 45-minute trip in each direction, and until this app can handle horizontal orientation, I have to pass on it.
The second nearly-as-bad deal breaker: I’m a HUGE podcast fan (again, the commute), and Google Listen’s playback engine just plain sucks when you try to manually seek through an audio file. Manual panning around to seek to a new position in an audio file works GREAT in doubleTwist, but the expectation that I’m going to download new podcast episodes through the desktop app and then sync to my device, like iTunes, seems counter-productive when the device itself is fully capable of downloading podcasts on its own. That’s why my device has 3G and WiFi. Why not save the URL for the podcast RSS feed within the app, and let users configure how often to check for new downloads? There’s no reason my device can’t download new episodes, and NOT sync those to the desktop application if the desktop application has also seen the same new episodes.
My final beef with doubleTwist in general is lack of Linux support on the desktop application. Some support posts I’ve seen in their forums claim they’ll work on a Linux version of the app if there’s enough demand, but they want to focus on the Mac and PC versions first, which makes sense – take care of your bigger customer bases first.
Overall, the media player app is extremely solid, intuitive, and users looking for a way to escape iTunes will have even more reason to do so. However, if you need horizontal music or expect the app to download your podcasts for you, you’ll need to contact doubleTwist.