Ecoute, created by PixiApps, has been a moderately popular alternative to iTunes for over a year now. With version 3, developer Louka Desroziers and interface designer Julien Sagot hope to catapult their audio player’s status from semi-popular indie app to major-league success. So is the latest version of Ecoute ready for the big time?
First things first: Ecoute is not a complete iTunes replacement. Instead, PixiApps have decided to leverage the strong library management already present in iTunes, and simply hook in to the iTunes library already on your Mac. While this does mean that users still have to use iTunes to import, purchase, and organize their media, it does mean that they have a well-organized library to work with. Many may not like having to switch back and forth between iTunes and Ecoute to manage their collection, though, and there currently seems to be no way to import music directly into Ecoute. This is likely a limitation with using the iTunes library, but is still a potential pitfall for many potential users.
Of a larger concern is the fact that as of version 3.0.1, which we tested, Ecoute seems to have some problems with video content purchased from the iTunes store. HD TV episodes didn’t seem to want to play and, because iTunes groups HD and SD versions of the same episode together, Ecoute was not able to select the SD version to play. For a non-beta app claiming to be able to handle all of your iTunes media, this is a fairly major drawback. It is clear at this time that PixiApps main focus has been on the music side of things.
User Experience is Everything
All the above being said, for those users who are primarily looking for an alternative to playing their music through iTunes, Ecoute offers a simple, intuitive user interface with some added extras on top.
The decidedly minimal aesthetic may not appeal to all users, but it fits well with Apple’s own design language (many would argue that it does this better than iTunes itself, which has become somewhat cluttered), and it works well. The three-column view for the track listing can be sorted by artist, album and genre as well as all the other usual suspects. Additional columns only appear when needed which helps the interface to feel clean and simple. Ecoute’s search function works well, results showing in a separate column grouped by the same headings. This search uses fuzzy matching, too, so you don’t need to be able to remember the first word of a song title to be able to find it in your collection.
Ecoute is not currently supported by utilities such as Bowtie, so the developers include their own desktop widget with the application, which is fully themeable (the best place to find themes at the moment seems to be iconpaper). Again, this is a feature not all will have any desire for, but its nice to have in there for those that do want it.
Ecoute also features a “now playing” view (which can be switched to automatically after a number of seconds), which offers a simple view of cover art for the song currently playing. Its not particularly useful view (apart from giving the user access to rating stars), but it is pretty.
Sharing is caring
What will be of more use to many people is Ecoute’s ability to hook directly in to Last.fm, Facebook and Twitter. You can “love” a track on Last.fm right from the player bar, or choose to share what you are listening to on Facebook or Twitter. Last.fm scrobbling is fully supported, too, which is an important extra for many users, as the Last.fm scrobbler does not currently work with Ecoute. The ability to instantly love or share a track with others is a nice touch, and one that I admit I used a number of times during the course of writing this review. There is some basic playlist management, too, with the ability to reorder queued tracks, or add a track to “play next”, but the support is rudimentary at best, with no ability to save or create new custom playlists – Again, this has to be done through iTunes.
The obvious major competition to Ecoute is, of course, Apple’s ubiquitous iTunes. Ecoute is in a strange position here in that it both depends upon, and competes with, Apple’s software. Ecoute simply cannot function at the moment without iTunes to manage the library, but at the same time, the creators would obviously rather users chose to purchase Ecoute rather than carry on simply using iTunes on its own. iTunes does have the obvious benefits here of being free and being installed on every single new Mac, and to that end Ecoute is fighting a distinctly uphill battle.
The rest of the competition is a mixed bag: Songbird is a fully-fledged alternative to iTunes, complete with its own library management etc. It is also open source, which to you and me means free. It is to be praised for its massive functionality, and the ability to add functionality via plugins is great, but for me it misses the mark from a user interface point of view. It is just too easy to tell that this is software based on the Mozilla browser, with extra bits added on, although the latest releases do address this in part.
Spotify’s desktop app for Mac also features the ability to play local audio, and has the added benefit of the core streaming service being in the same app for those who are subscribers, and those who don’t mind the streaming limits on the free version. Its interface is relatively universal across platforms, though and this is something of a detriment on Mac, in my opinion.
As for the rest? There are almost too many options to mention here without doing a full roundup of alternative media players for Mac – Vox feels a little like WinAmp for Mac, which some will love, and others will hate. Miro is very good for video, but for me feels a little weak on library management on its own. The list of options goes on, and it’s a very personal choice for those who are not satisfied with Apple’s offering.
So, what’s the verdict?
Ecoute currently costs $10, and is purchasable either directly from PixiApps or from the AppStore. Many will feel that this is a bit much for a piece of software with so many shortcomings, and I almost agree. Video support needs to be greatly improved as a matter of urgency, and better playlist support would be nice, too. There are some bugs around artist/album artwork not always importing correctly from iTunes (particularly when you make a change to an existing album), too, but this is a relatively minor concern.
However, for me a large amount of what makes me choose to use an app comes down to the “feel” of it. Ecoute gets the look and feel right for me, as a user who only wants it for music. iTunes looks rather like a troll when compared to the simple elegance of Ecoute, and that is why I will continue to use it, and hope for updates to patch missing or buggy functionality. Does this make me superficial? Probably, but then I am a Mac user, after all!
Do you use an iTunes replacement or companion? If you do, which one, and why? Let us know in the comments!