Tomahawk: A Full-Featured Open Source iTunes Alternative

Since being introduced in 2001, iTunes’ features have expanded well beyond its name. Once a simple music player, it has evolved beyond the realm of tunes and into a hub for just about all the media on our Macs. It also features an enormous digital content store, and is the program responsible for syncing all of that stuff to our iDevices. Many users, like myself, have complained for years that the expanding features of iTunes have let it become a bloated piece of software.

Tomahawk is an open-source media player that cuts out some unnecessary iTunes bloat, while trying to create some more relevant functionality in the important area of actually playing music. Do its features make it a viable iTunes replacement on your computer, or is it just another mundane addition to an already oversaturated market of iTunes alternatives?

The Basics

Our frustrations with iTunes have led to a number of alternatives over the years as developers have released some fantastic options. I’ve tried Enqueue, Ecoute, and Sonora among many others, all of which have tried to bring the focus back to playing our music while ignoring all the other clutter that iTunes forces upon us. However, all of these apps have one big problem: they are limited to the music you have on your computer.

You'll have to wait for Tomahawk to scan your hard drive before you can listen to any local files

I still buy albums on iTunes when I’ve had a chance to hear every song and am sure that it’s worth paying for. However, I find that more and more of the artists that I listen to release albums with just a couple songs that I love. Consequently, I’ve become a big supporter of streaming services like Spotify that let me listen to music I like without having to pay for it, all within the confines of legality.

The developers behind Tomahawk recognize that there are an increasing number of sources for music beyond our hard drives. When we want to hear a song, there are dozens of different places we can go to hear it. Streaming services like Spotify, Rdio, Grooveshark, Pandora, Last.fm and many more let you hear your favorite artists without paying for each song.

Tomahawk helps those of us who use one or more of these services and maintain our own local music library. It’s a unified app that can not only find the track you’re looking for locally or from one of these services, but actually play it too.

Getting Started

After downloading the open-source software, you’ll install it right to your applications folder. Upon opening it the first time, Tomahawk will scan your computer for local tracks. I have about 6,000 songs and it completed the scan in about two minutes, so libraries much larger than mine should still be completed in a reasonable amount of time. You can specify a path for the app to focus on or just let it look around the whole drive.

There is a long list of resolvers, and since it is open source, more can be added by anyone

Where the setup gets fun is in the preference pane. “Resolvers” are ways to expand the search function. Rather than just search your library, you can install new resolvers to help search other services. There is a pretty extensive list of supported services, including a few that I hadn’t even heard of before. All you have to do is click “install” (which takes about three seconds) and you’re ready to go.

The YouTube resolver gives you some control over the search results

What I found to be a nice surprise was the availability of a YouTube resolver. Though they often get removed by Google, many users post individual songs to YouTube. Tomahawk can automatically search for these and play just the audio directly within the app. There is even a fair amount of customization that can be applied to your YouTube results. For example, if you want to filter out live performances of the song you’re looking for, you can do that easily.

Features

There are a few features whose inclusion in the app should come as no surprise. Last.fm integration is almost a given with these sorts of music apps. Scrobbling to the service worked flawlessly. You obviously can create playlists as well, and as you would hope, you can include songs from a variety of sources, (your local library, YouTube, etc.).

The Stations feature lets you automatically make mixes using music from your library, as well as from other sources

One of the features that I do actually like about iTunes is the Genius feature. Sure, it sometimes makes strange decisions when I ask it to create a playlist, but overall it is a nice, quick way to find similar songs and artists. iTunes’ Smart Playlists are also a great way to find songs and artists that match certain criteria, (I use them to find songs with a given BPM for running mixes). Tomahawk has a similar feature called “stations,” which essentially works like a combination of Genius and Smart Playlists. The parameters you choose are a bit more limited, but also more interesting; you can search based on parameters like “Artist Hotness” or “Adventurousness.”

You can make mixes based on some interesting song attributes

The search feature is quite robust, but Tomahawk also does a good job of letting you browse artists. If you search for an artist, you will get a photo as well as a short bio at the top of the window. Popular songs are displayed in one column, with related artists in another. Tomahawk uses Last.fm for all the photos and bio information, so everything was very accurate in my experience.

You get lots of information about whatever artist you search for

At the bottom you can see all of the albums of your selected artist. You can play songs that you have locally, or you can let Tomahawk find the songs on the album from other sources if you don’t have it. There is the option at the bottom of the window to show albums in your collection only or to expand the search. All the information you would expect to find about the music is also listed, such as the bitrate, the length, etc.

When I want to see what new music is out there, I never use the iTunes store. I’ve always found the navigation to be too clunky, so I just use different websites like Pitchfork, Billboard, etc. Tomahawk lets you see what’s popular according to a number of sources, such as The Hype Machine, as well as the major streaming services. You can filter the results by country and music genre as well. I loved the simplicity of the results, and playing this new music was as easy as double clicking on the album.

Seeing the top charts lets you see what's popular and easily listen to it

iTunes and other alternatives tend to be passive experiences, in that you hit play and move to another window. iTunes has a mini-player, and apps like Enqueue are built around the queueing feature. I found that Tomahawk drew my attention to it for longer periods because of all the information it presents to you. It supports full screen mode in Lion, so it can fit a lot of information in the window if you choose.

Social Music

For better or worse, just about every app on your phone and computer has some sort of social aspect. It’s rare these days to see anything that doesn’t integrate with Twitter or Facebook, and Tomahawk is no different. You can share your music selection with your friends on a number of social networks, as well as instant messaging programs like Adium.

Tomahawk takes all of this a step further by allowing sharing of music over your local network. You can connect to friends’ collections to see what they are listening to and listen along. Tomahawk is available for Windows as well, so you aren’t limited to your Mac-only friends. If you decide to connect the app to Twitter or through the Jabber IM protocol, you can view your friends collections and playlists even when you aren’t on the same network.

Conclusion

I was pleasantly surprised by Tomahawk at just about every turn. The ability to get music from a ton of sources meant it was hard to actually stump it and come up with a song it couldn’t find.

Whether you like this or not will probably be dependent on how you listen to music. If you are a passive listener who turns on Pandora in the background and lets the station just bring you wherever it pleases, Tomahawk will definitely be overwhelming to you. If you are someone who always buys music, (or torrents it), the idea of finding music the way Tomahawk does will seem inefficient and unnecessary.

However, if you’re like me and have a local music collection, but are always looking for new music that you can listen to without having to commit to buying the whole album, Tomahawk might be a perfect fit.

There are a couple minor complaints I had about the app that keep it from being perfect. I hate when developers force a menulet on you without the option to hide it. It does give you some ability to control playback, but is generally not needed. The app is also a bit rough around the edges, with a few design choices resulting in an eyesore or two. I didn’t experience any crashes, but it did behave strangely a couple of times by refusing to open certain windows.

Overall, this is a great app. Since it’s open-source, I encourage you to go download it and take it for a spin. It will not be to everyone’s liking, but its vast feature set make it worth trying out.


Summary

A music player that lets you search for and play music from a variety of sources.

8
  • Paul Dunahoo

    Pretty good app, but weird name and icon.

    This should be on the App Store. I’d buy it for sure, even if it was paid.

    • Leo

      Thanks for the nice and thorough review! I just wanted to add that we’re very aware that we have a lot of rough edges—all of us are working hard to bring it up to a 1.0 quality release that we feel comfortable will rock everyone’s socks off!

      And Paul, we will certainly be in the app store once we’re ready—I personally don’t think we have the polish yet to do that, but I absolutely want our 1.0 to be available to all mac users through the store as well.

  • Sigilist

    I had never heard of this before, so a nice treat for something to check out with the morning tea. I for one would not care to see it go commercial as yet, and Appstore would just kill it for anyone else. That’s intrinsic to Apple’s model.

    Now… time to give it a try while it’s still (in the) wild and free.

  • http://gusdecool.com GusDeCooL

    Nice review. but still prefer use iTunes. It not just music player, but also app store for my iPhone

  • http://4vr.me l1nu5r

    never heard about it but looks interesting.. ipod sync?

  • Sheldon

    Still COG is the best Mac OS player.

    • megadroid

      and Vox.

  • abramelin

    And thank god it’s not “lion only” – Hurray!

  • haddock

    been using this brilliant piece of software on and off some months now and i love it. here in sweden spotify rules the music business but tomahawk made life soooo much better with the sweet combo of … well everything!

  • http://digitalformula.net Chris

    Looks like a great app but, unfortunately, it can’t replace iTunes for me … yet (as much as I’d like it to). This isn’t because of a lack of features per se, but simply because my Apple TV connects to iTunes and because I didn’t see mention of being able to sync my iPhone, iPod, iPad (iWow, look at all those iDevices) using Tomahawk.

    That said, my Apple TV was jailbroken some time ago and does run Plex, so … *shrug* Maybe it’s worth trying an alternative, again.

    As a music player and library, though, it looks excellent. Good review – thanks, Jonathan. :)

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    Employing writers’ exercises such as “chunking”. They use a lot of websites that contain several creative writing exercises. Writers read an exercise, and do it.

  • http://www.AlienBoombox.com/ ElectricPrism

    Dude I really dig the simplicity you designed into your music player. After going back and forth between top and bottom controls I find that bottom controls make my music players feel more balanced.

    I’ve been developing a themable online music player for websites and home servers. Here’s the screenshots, project info can be found by clicking on my name:
    http://community.xianlabs.com/topic/9796-alien-boombox-1203-proxima-wallpaper-demo/

    I would consider the benefits of implementing themes / wallpaper demos, I like both looks for different reasons and use scenarios.

    Best Regards in your fight against iTunes. :-)

  • dan

    This app is confusing as hell. I try and add an artist to the que and it loads all sorts of music I don’t have. Plus where is the “shuffle all” songs feature. I can only play one album at a time. Maybe I am missing something, but I have checked under the hood and cannot find it. App is useless to me.

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