Foobar & JRiver – UI Monstrosities

Now, don’t get me wrong, for audiophile users both Foobar (free) and JRiver Media Center (commercial) are great programs. There is hardly anything you cannot do with them and both, more or less, can be bent to your will like there’s no tomorrow. For Windows, as far as I know, there aren’t really any better alternatives, so we have to live with what we get (or pay for).

Still, at best, both programs seem to be stuck in the 1990s visually and their user interfaces are just so incredibly bad that it hurts.

If you happen to be an average user, your chances of accomplishing anything beyond the ordinary are pretty slim. Even if you are a power user, someone who has spent years reading, twiddling, doing and re-doing Windows systems and their respective applications, you are often simply baffled by the inconsistent user interfaces, the overloaded and downright wacky arrangement of options and, in general, the lack of any attention to detail.

In short, these two programs are geek programs, programmed by geeks and used by geeks.
And it shows.

I am guessing that, apparently, not a single UI designer was consulted in any step of the development process. Everything was left to programmers who just “know” how things are supposed to work. What you get was “designed“, added on to (“tacked onto” might be a better expression here), tweaked and expanded ruthlessly by people who think that everyone on this planet can follow their convoluted way of thinking. To them, things are “obvious” (and when consulted, most of them will practically yell at you for being too effin’ stupid to understand what they meant … and, besides that, RTFM, idiot!). What shows though, more in JRiver than in Foobar, is that there was no real initial future-proof outline or plan when things got started and as a result, the programs morphed into the behemoths that they are today and that an unsuspecting user will probably be overwhelmed by. That’s a pity because, technologically, they do work very well.

Foobar fares a bit better, especially because it is a free program that one shouldn’t complain about, but the overwhelming number of options and plugins available in both programs make it almost impossible to do anything without consulting (more or less geeky) wikis, forums and specific Google searches (for endless hours) to get things up and running.

Examples?

01) Try setting up DSD playback on Foobar. First you need to install your DAC’s driver and enable it, (makes sense), then you need to install ASIO output and SACD plugins (to the correct directory), reopen Foobar, find Components-> Playback -> Output -> Asio, run it and select your DAC’s ASIO driver. Then, depending on your DAC, you need to select either “ASIO Native” or “dcs marker 0x05/0xFA” (now there’s an informative description if I’ve ever seen one), then you need to select Output in Foobar (“foo_dsd_asio“) and then Tools -> SACD and, finally, Tools -> SACD -> ASIO Driver Mode (dropdown) to select “DSD“. Oh, and don’t forget to make sure that the “64-bit ASIO drivers” checkbox is ticked if you are in fact using a 64-bit version of Windows. Otherwise, no joy.

Really?

02) In JRiver Media Center, try importing a huge folder of .flac files that resides somewhere on your home network. Besides the fact that you should be prepared to wait for days until it’s done (makes sense, depending on your W-LAN connection, although Foobar is like 100x faster when doing the same thing), make sure to turn off all these default things the program does in order to neither screw up your perfectly tagged collection (which, in my case, already has 100% perfect tags, doesn’t need cover images downloaded, etc.) before you import your files nor wait for an extra three days while the program checks if it actually has to do anything with the files (once I disabled all the automatic stuff, things ran 10x faster).

Once done, try to either set up your DAC (properly) or tweak the user interface to your liking and get lost in literally thousands of menu items that are usually not where you expect them to be (and are virtually incomprehensible to an average user as well as pressed into a layout in a fashion that does not adhere to any standards I know of or have ever encountered). The program could be forgiven for being complicated because, really, the only thing it cannot do is brew tea for you while you’re waiting for it to do whatever it does, but …

… in the 21st century, both of these programs are prime examples of allowing the user to do anything he or she wants to do without spending more than a passing thought on how to offer the limitless abilities in a sensible and understandable fashion.

They are both complete and utter UI fails.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

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