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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Rockbox - just another Open Source UX design failure

Two freebies with my shipment from Xerox (Cosmo and Wanda) by cseeman from flickr (CC-NC-SA)
Rockbox is an Open Source replacement for various "digital music players" I tried on my Sansa Clip Zip recently.

Their choice of words here is interesting - originally these devices were fairly accurately known as "mp3 players", but it got a bit silly since they could play audio files in a lot of other formats.

Wikipedia simply calls them digital media players, which is very sensible since many of them can play video as well (usually badly), but since it's a fringe use and they're generally used for just audio, why not call them "digital music players"?

Because audio is not just music. And Rockbox is designed as if it all was.


And that's a single word summary of everything that's wrong with Rockbox - audiobooks. It doesn't have dedicated audiobook mode like stock Sansa, or pretty much every other media player these days. And the reason a player would need an audiobook mode is that while from technical point of view playback of an audiobook chapter file is pretty much the same as of music file, UX has nothing in common.

In audiobook mode:
  • You absolutely need high speed playback, pitch correction being highly desirable
  • You absolutely need automatic per-audiobook resume function
  • You never want random navigation - it's always whole audiobook start to finish
  • You probably want filesystem navigation
  • You want UI lock while it's in your pocket, since it's a massive pain if one click resets you to start of the chapter or even audiobook
  • For podcasts it's the same except you might want per-chapter instead of per-audiobook resume if you're listening to multiple podcasts from the same source simultaneously
In music mode:
  • You absolutely need to play at normal speed and pitch
  • Nobody cares where you were last
  • You probably want shuffle most of the time
  • You might want playlists, including on the go playlist you can add things to while they play
  • You might want per-song repeat
  • You might want per-artist per-album or per-genre navigation
  • You probably want per ID3 tag navigation, not filesystem navigation
  • You don't care about accidental keypresses
  • If you go shuffle, you want your entire music collection, but you definitely do not want audiobooks and podcasts in the mix
In Rockbox by default everything is set up for playing music. If you decided to start listening to some audiobooks instead you'll need to spend a minute in menus to fix all settings (shuffle/repeat off, speed 150%) then manually create bookmark when you want to stop listening to an audiobook at do something else. Now that bookmark thing is totally insane, so fortunately I found some way to make them autoresume.

It still seems to lack functional lock system (Sansa's lock by short press on power button does not work any more), no pitch correction (there were some patches, never merged, no longer apply), it resets speed settings to 100% when it goes to sleep sometimes, and I just gave up on using it as music player ever.

The only reason stopping me from just restoring stock firmware is that Rockbox can go to higher playback speeds than Sansa's "Fast" (about 140%), and that's probably worth slightly more than having audiobook player also play music, but I'll probably end up doing that anyway.

It's Open Source, why don't you fix it?

Well, I have neither time, nor any desire to touch C code unless I absolutely have to. And even if I did, how many times an Open Source project accepted third party fixing their UX design? I can't think of a single such case.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agree 100%, but your article misses some major points. One absolutely needs playlists as many audiobooks are ripped into parts, and one shouldn't have to combine the parts to make a single file for the audiobook. Two, with a playlist, one absolutely needs a visual indicator to know which files in a playlist were already played, so one can leave an audiobook for music, and then know to which file in the playlist to continue. There's also another media type: audio dramas (e.g., old time radio, NPR show) which often contain multiple episodes as separate files, and for which the playlists are a must. ID3 (or any version) tag navigation should always be available, too. And as with music, a genre selection would be very nice. Apple got some of this right, but missed the visual playlist location. In fact, I would even love to have a visual indicator to show how much of a file is played, as I often don't bother with the ends of old time radio files as the endings usually contain old commercials, and being able to tell how much of a file is left to be played would be great.