Adventures in Linux, iPod edition

Last weekend, my Windows machine died and I decided to give linux a shot. My basic thought was that if I could get a linux box to do everything I need, why bother getting another copy of windows? So I cast about looking for applications to fulfill my needs, and thus found myself on Mark Pilgrim's recently updated list of linux Essentials (Pilgrim has recently experienced a bit of net notoriety due to his decision to abandon Apple for Ubuntu).

So I need something to replace iTunes (which I use to play music and update my iPod). No problem:
amaroK. It’s just like iTunes except it automatically fetches lyrics from Argentina, automatically looks up bands on Wikipedia, automatically identifies songs with MusicBrainz, and its developers are actively working on features that don’t involve pushing DRM-infected crap down my throat. Add the amarok repository to get the latest version. apt-get install amarok
After taking that advice and installing Amarok, I think that paragraph would be better written as:
amaroK. It’s just like iTunes except it automatically orphans most of your library so that you can't see or play most of your music on your iPod, it doesn't handle video, it can't write to the iPod's podcast directory, and (my personal favorite) if you plug your Amarokized iPod into a windows machine, it crashes iTunes. Add the amarok repository to get the latest version, as the latest version doesn't seem to have those problems.
Yes, that's right, I plugged in my iPod and Amarok corrupted the itunes database. I could still use my iPod, but I could only see 256 songs (out of around 1000). It didn't delete the files - all 1000 songs were still on the iPod - it just screwed up the database that controls the ipod. The issue turns out to be that I installed an older version of Amarok, and since Mark recommended getting the latest version, I really can't fault him for this debacle. You see, Ubuntu comes with a few user-friendly ways of installing programs. These are based on what's called "Repositories" which are basically databases full of programs that you can browse. So I fired up one of these installation programs, found Amarok, and installed it... not realizing that the default Ubuntu repository had an older version of the program.

Some thoughts:
  • Linux is dangerous (it's the hole hawg of operating systems)! Sometimes doing simple things can have catastrophic results.
  • When someone says get the latest version, get the latest version.
  • I learned what repositories are and how to add one to my system.
  • When asking for help, you'll probably get an answer quickly, but it will usually consist of several command lines which you probably won't understand. This is particularly nerve wracking when combined with the first bullet point. I get a little anxious whenever someone tells me to type one of these things in the command line, because I don't know what's going on and I don't want my system to explode. Linux is dangerous. Sometimes doing simple things can have catastrophic results. When I said I don't want my system to explode, I meant that metaphorically, but I'm positive that if I set my mind to it, I could make my computer literally explode by altering a simple text file somewhere. This reliance on the command line is also one of the reasons it's hard to learn linux - they usually work, but you don't understand why unless you look up the commands (and even then, it can be a little difficult to understand. Documentation isn't one of open source's strong points). Plus, whenever I am forced to do these command lines, I'm usually very task oriented. I don't have time to research the intricacies of every command line utility, I just want to complete my task.
To their credit, I posted my problem to the Amarok forum (at 3 in the morning) and received several helpful responses by the time I woke up in the morning, just a few hours later. I was able to install the latest version of Amarok, though that didn't really help me repair my iPod (there was a feature which would do this in theory, but when I tried it, the application just started eating up lots of memory until it hit the system limit, and then it just shut down). I had to use a different utility, called gtkpod, to scan through my iPod and rescue all of the orphaned files (and it took a few hours to do so). For some reason, a lot of my music is being recognized as podcasts in my iPod, but otherwise the iPod is in much better shape. I can see all my music now, and plugging it into a windows computer doesn't crash iTunes anymore.

Obviously, I had a bad experience here, but I'm still a little confused as to how Amarok is a valid iTunes replacement. Even with the latest version, it still has no support for videos (and the developers don't plan to either, their excuse being that Amarok is just a music player) and it's podcast support isn't ideal (I can upload them to my iPod, but they get put in the general library, not the special podcast library Strike that. It turns out that when the iPod isn't corrupted, the podcasts work as they should, though I'm still not sure it's the ideal interface). The interface for viewing and maintaining the iPod is a little sparse and lacks some of the maintenance features of iTunes. As far as I can tell, Amarok is a fine music player and probably rivals or surpasses iTunes in that respect (I assume this is why people seem to love it so much). But in terms of maintaining an iPod, it sucks (at least, so far - I'm willing to bet there's lots of functionality I'm missing). Support for iPods in general seems to be a bit lacking in linux, though there are some things you can do in linux that you can't do in windows. It's also something that could probably improve in time, but it's definitely not there yet.

Despite the problems, I find myself strangely bemused at the experience. It was exactly what I feared, but in the end, I'm not that upset about it. There's a part of me that likes digging into the details of a problem and troubleshooting like this... but then, there's also a part of me that knows spending 5 hours trying to install something I could install in about 10 minutes on a Windows box is ludicrous. All's well that ends well, I guess, but consider me unimpressed. It's not enough for me to forsake linux, but it's enough to make me want to create a dual boot machine rather than a pure linux box.

Update: In using Amarok a little more, I see that it supports podcasts better than I originally thought.