Pocket Tunes 4 ReviewBy: Tim Carroll
December 18, 2006
Normsoft have released Pocket Tunes 4, the latest version of PalmOS' most popular audio player. It's a timely release for Normsoft, now that new competitors like mOcean are starting to nip at their heels. New pTunes features include a revamped interface, improved audio quality, Internet radio presets, AAC and aacPlus support, album art, and lots more. Pocket Tunes Deluxe also provides access to music subscription services such as Rhapsody To Go, Napster To Go, and Yahoo! Music Unlimited.
Is Pocket Tunes 4 good enough to retain the hard-won music-playing crown? Read on for the full review...
A Sleek New Look
Upon launching the new pTunes you're greeted by the gorgeous new sleek interface, which features new displays and controls in alluring dark blue tones and - finally! - album art. It's a welcome and much-needed improvement over the cluttered and, well, ugly High Fidelity interface of pTunes 3 and gives the program a much more modern feel.
Along the top of the screen, we have the Pocket Tunes logo, time and battery indicators; tapping here will bring up additional menus. Below is the new simplified song information area, which displays title, artist and album, along with a small thumbnail of the album art. Poke the thumbnail with your finger, or press 'W' on the Treo keyboard and it will display the art in full screen. Tapping any part of the song info or pressing 'I' will bring up the more detailed ID3 tag information. Album art is displayed here as well. It's disappointing that there's still no built-in support for tag editing; I'm always noticing files with screwed-up tags that I'd love to be able to fix when I spot them. You'll still need a third-party app like TagEditor for this.
Next down is the position slider, which is now bigger and much easier to tap or drag with a finger. It displays time elapsed and total track length. Directly below is the playlist window, with room enough for six songs. It's unfortunate that you can't tap or drag the playlist scrollbar; it can be difficult to accurately hit the up/down buttons without the aid of the stylus. It also would have been nice for those of us with 320x320 devices to have the option to expand the playlist view to fill the screen, or to hide the command bar beneath it. However, you can set the fonts to a smaller size if you want to fit more songs onto the screen. Pressing 'L' on the keyboard will bring up the playlist manager, where you can create and edit playlists. More on that later.
Moving along, we have the familiar shuffle & repeat buttons (toggled by a tap, or 'H' and 'R' on the keyboard) and the volume slider, which supports tap and drag, although it's easier to use the 5-way navigator, which is mapped to volume up/down and next/previous track. Finally, a simplified command bar at the bottom gives you thumbprint-sized access to (from left to right) your library, next, play/pause & previous buttons, and the Internet Radio tuner. Speaking of which...
pTunes 4 sports a new Internet Radio manager. Previous versions required you to manually enter the URLs of the stations you wanted to add, via the music library. Tedious to say the least. This time around, Normsoft have provided a pre-installed catalog of dozens of Shoutcast stations so you can start listening straight away without having to hunt for a station.
Well, that's the theory. In practice, I found that a lot of the stations wouldn't connect; many would just display "Reconnecting" and never actually do so, or give me the message: "Unable to load playlist. Network read error." I'm not sure whether this is due to unreliable stations, buggy software or my own internet connection but it was disappointing nonetheless.
If you can find a station that connects, then things start looking up: audio quality is great - as far as internet radio goes - and there were no buffering issues or stuttering, even over a poky GPRS connection. If you receive a phone call, it'll pause the stream and reconnect after the call has ended. Streaming in the background does result in a performance hit; it'll take your Palm a bit longer to switch between apps and some games will get a little jerky, but it's not that noticeable and on the whole it all works seamlessly.
It's a shame that this great implementation of streaming support is limited to the Shoutcast network. Many mainstream internet radio stations use other technologies, including the internet rebroadcasts of free-to-air stations. One can only hope Normsoft are working on broader streaming support.
Write hate emails to the sound of death metal
One of pTunes' greatest features is its rock-solid background playback. At any time while in another app, you can call up a mini-player with the Calendar or Messaging hard buttons (your choice). From here you can play/pause, change tracks, adjust volume or jump straight back into pTunes proper. It works flawlessly and is a boon to in-car use, where you may be running GPS software and not want to have the exit the app to skip tracks. It may not be "real" multitasking but it does a damn good job of imitating it.
My only beef here would be that the console has remained unchanged from version 3. It would have been great to see it use the new Sleek skin and to give us access to the Shuffle & Repeat controls, or a Mute button. The album art thumbnail would be a nice touch too.
Simple Sync & Music Management
As with previous versions, pTunes is recognised by your PC as a standard MTP media player. You can sync music, playlists and podcasts using any PC media software that supports MTP, which basically means "anything except iTunes". I personally use Winamp and they work together quite well. However, PalmOS's slow SD transfer speeds mean your best bet is to use an SD card reader to copy files directly.
On first use, the music library will take a minute or so to catalog your music, depending on how much you have stored. Once this initial setup is out of the way, it's quick and painless to navigate your tracks. Content is organised into various sub-categories of Artist, Album, Title, Genre etc. You can also browse files directly from the SD card. Keyboard shortcut support has now been properly implemented: pressing a letter will skip ahead to that part of the list. It would have been nice to have a "find-as-you-type" music search feature, such as in mOcean. But that's a minor niggle in an otherwise very friendly interface.
pTunes now supports all the major file formats: mp3, WMA, AAC, WAV and OGG. The deluxe version supports PlaysForSure online music stores and DRM-protected content, although (predictably) there's no support for DRM-protected AAC files, such as those sold by the iTunes Music Store.
Cool Crossfading, Easy Equalising and Infinitesimally Improved Audio Quality
Normsoft are boasting improved audio quality in this version. To be honest, it seemed like the sound was a little clearer, but I wonder if I would have had that perception if they hadn't touted it as a feature. Unless you're a hardcore audiophile or are connecting your Palm to a high-quality stereo you'll be hard-pressed to tell any difference from pTunes 3.
Where things have improved, however, is the equalizer. pTunes features a 5-band graphic equalizer that allows you to fine-tune the sound. You can save up to 8 different presets and name them whatever you like. Previous iterations had a tendency to distort the sound rather than enhance it; thankfully, this has been minimised in the new version. There's still some distortion when you crank one of the various bands to the max, but on the whole it's still an improvement. There's also a simple Bass Boost feature that adds more oomph to the music if you so desire.
Crossfading has also been revamped. pTunes will now happily crossfade variable bitrate tracks, an especially nice enhancement for me, since most of my music has been ripped to VBR. It's also less buggy than previous implementations, although still far from perfect. The most frequently encountered glitch: on reaching the end of a song the next track will fade in but the last X seconds of the previous song will repeat, where X is whatever you've set the crossfade length to. Or, it won't crossfade but start the next track and skip the first X seconds. Still, this doesn't happen all that often and on the whole the crossfading is greatly improved and now worth using.
pTunes has always featured a wealth of options, and version 4 is no different. For starters, you can completely re-skin the app; there's dozens of different skins available online. And some of them are even really good! ;) Before Sleek came along, for instance, I was using Gx5's Thumbscreen Freeflow, a truly excellent design with big thumb-buttons all over. Many others are available through Normsoft's site.
Besides the skin options, there's also a lot of other miscellany you can fiddle with, including the time it takes to turn the screen off while playing (or whether to turn it off at all), volume boosting, bookmarks (including a handy auto-bookmarking feature) and power management options. In short, whatever you want it to do, it will.
The Bottom Line (or, why should I pay?)
pTunes 4 demonstrates why Pocket Tunes has consistently been one of the most popular programs for Palm OS. With an excellent new interface, AAC support and a great Internet Radio manager, it's brought new features to the table while improving what came before (crossfading, equaliser, library browsing). It's a fantastic app and very difficult to fault.
Pocket Tunes 4 costs $37.95 for the Deluxe version. If you're just looking for basic mp3 playback, then there is a Basic version available for $19.95 which omits support for DRM-protected music, Internet Radio, AAC, WMA, crossfading and bookmarks. There is also a free trial available.