Canola: Portable Media Player UI Done Right

canola.logo Canola: Portable Media Player UI Done Right

With every new player on the market there are a lot of hardware changes and new features to tempt the users. The same can not be said about user interfaces, as these are often half done and doesn’t work as well as they should have. For some this is a minor annoyance, while others rely on the player to be user friendly and easy to control in different situations.

If you have a Nokia Internet Tablet, that problem has been a thing of the past for a while now. A development project called Canola done by several Brazilian tablet users has risen up from the sea of media players for the platform and provided it with perhaps the best interface I have seen on any device. Hit the jump for the full story on how the Indt development team have done what many PMP manufactures have more or less failed to do for years.

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Development

Hardware

For hose of you who don’t know the devices in question, the Nokia N800 and N810 Internet tablets are something in between PDA’s and UMPCs. The 4,13″ screen has a 800×480 resolution, is Wi-fi capable and run Maemo Linux on a 400mhz processor with 128MB RAM. Since the device is Linux based a lot of applications have been ported and 95% of the software for it is provided by the users. This is also a point where the MP3 manufacturers could learn and open the devices to programmers everywhere.

The current version of Canola – Canola2 – is very different from what the first version was. When starting Canola2 the team designed it from scratch basing the look of it on how a person would hold the device, rather then trying to copy an existing UI. The idea was that the tablet would be held with two hands, using the thumbs to navigate the touch screen. From there the design was based partly on inspirational sources but mostly what just felt natural. The main question was “does this need to be on the main screen?”. If not, it ended up in options. The users have been a major part of the development and feedback from the users have formed many aspects of the UI and the developers have sometimes had to dismiss personal thoughts to fit what the community thought. From the beginning to where the project is today, the lead designer Marcelo estimates around 5-7 guys working 8 months to get everything the way it is, with other projects in between. The work is being performed by a company called Indt and they get some funding for the project although a lot of personal time was also invested in the project.

Interface

Basic navigation

So what exactly does Canola do? It works as most other media players and provide video, music and photo viewing. The two latest Beta versions have also included support for plug-ins including YouTube streaming done 100% from Canola and last.fm support. What makes Canola special is the smoothness and simpleness of it all. The main menu has only four icons – Audio, Photos, Videos and Settings. Settings will allow you to specify what folders to include in the media library, change theme and change Internet settings (podcasts, Internet radio, photocasts, download folder and last.fm). Tapping any of the media icons will bring up a more detailed menu grouping the sub-features by Audio/Photos/Videos.

Navigating lists are done with kinetic scrolling; grab an item and flick it upwards to scroll down. All modes allow you to browse either by folder or combine all files (video and photos) or ID3 tags (music). Due to a licensing issue Canola can’t read embedded album art or video thumbnails directly, but an application for the tablet is available that will scan through both music and video files and automatically fix this so the album art and thumbs are viewable.

Music

For music browsing you have All Songs, Play Random, Artists, Albums, Album Covers, Playlists, Top Rated, Most Played Songs, Genres and Browse by Folder. All of these are what you’d expect, but Album Covers deserves a special mention. Remember the fuzz that was about Cover Flow for the iPod when it was released? Album Covers browsing in Canola is like cover flow, just…better. The main cover browsing view includes all your album covers with album name and artist, and allows you to flick through them quickly. Tapping one brings you into single album art browsing mode, which allows you to browse albums one by one at the same time as the track list is displayed for each album. A nice feature here is that you can tap the album art and get a list of all album pictures that the album has. If there are different graphics for each song, or there are more than one pic embedded, you can choose which one is to be displayed as standard.

The music playback screen is also very clean. Album art is displayed beside the title, artist and album name and because of the high resolution screen the album art is 300 x 300 pixels in size. On the left side is a volume control and on the right is playback controls. Music options and browsing is accessed through buttons on in the lower left and right corners.

Other audio related features are Podcasts, Internet Radio and Last.fm (if you use the plugin). Podcasts are added with RSS feeds, and that will give you a list of available episodes which you can then download. When the download is finished (you can do other things in the main time, just navigate away and the download will take care of itself) you can play it back and it will work fully – album art included if the episode has that. Internet radio works well too; after adding the URL in the main settings on the main menu you can browse and stream music directly.

The Last.fm plugin does so much more than just scrobble music. You can search for artist/tag/radio or look up friends, neighbors or history. If you for example click on one of your friends you can play his or her radio station. There’s a love/ban button to mark the songs playing, and album art is displayed. Scrobbling works fine as well and the song show up as “just listened” when it hits the magic half way mark that’s required for it to count as played.

Videos

Videos are browsed either by folder or by viewing all. Thumbs are displayed beside the file names if you’ve used the before mentioned thumb nail application, and playback is pretty much like with music. The video is displayed in the middle of the screen with playback controls on the sides and tapping the video once will bring it up to full screen.

The YouTube plugin is quite nice since using the tablet’s web browser for flash video is very choppy. You can search and browse videos and view them centered or fullscreen like normal video playback. The playback is smooth as long as your connection is fast enough, and you can pause to let it cache a bit more.

Photos

The photo viewer on Canola2 just makes you want to take pictures to fill it with. It has three modes; thumbnail browsing, single picture browsing and presentation view. The first two are about the same as album cover browsing for music – thumbnail browsing gives you a slideable list screen filled with thumbnails, while single picture browsing lets you scroll through pictures one by one and see half of the next/previous pic. Presentation view makes the background go black and various controls appear on the side – zooming, next/prev etc. Tapping the screen hides the controls. If your pictures aren’t too big the interface is extremely smooth and nice to use.

Photocasts are pretty simple but work great. You add feeds in the Internet settings on the main menu, access them from the Photocast options and view them in presentation mode. Photocasts might not be as popular as Podcasts but it’s definitely a nice treat and seem to work great.

Future of Canola

If you like what you’ve seen and heard of current features then just wait until the future releases. The big project for the Canola team at the moment is called Canola Car Edition and might end up giving more people a reason to buy a tablet than any other application on it. The car edition will integrate an application called Carman and allow OBD II compatible cars to connect to the tablet via an adapter and send info about speed, RPM, temperature etc to Canola – essentially making it a monitoring tool for your car. The car edition will also have navigation built in and have a special interface better suited for using while driving. The team’s vision is to get Canola to seamlessly switch to car mode when you get to your car using the OBD II Bluetooth signal, and change back when you get away from it. When the new car edition will be ready is unknown, but it looks to be even more amazing than Canola is today.

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This interface is extremely easy to use and well designed, and keeps improving with a speed far greater than any FW release on any MP3 player. Why can’t MP3 manufacturers manage to create something like Canola – an interface that simply works?While Canola it makes my glad I have a tablet, I’m sad that I can’t get a dedicated MP3 player that can match it both in functionality and design. UI designers should really learn from these people and stop throwing together something that barely works. A good interface isn’t just a way to make sure a player gets a good review, but will also make customers happy and give them a reason to choose the same brand again. Some of the interfaces on players today do just the opposite and makes people want to avoid the same brand in the future. There is absolutely no reason why there can’t be a Canola on every MP3 player – it’s just a matter of taking the time and resources to do it.

New update is out – Beta 9. Several new features added. click here to read more

[Canola]

Here is a video unboxing and review at DigitalHomeThoughs: 1 | 2 | 3

10 Comments

QBoi on May 7, 2008 10:17 PM

wow, i’m interested in this device. any chance of a review on the nokia?

zedicus on May 7, 2008 10:44 PM

My favorite device would be my PSP without the game and at least 8GB built in memory – it would own. This device seems to be riding right along those lines :)

e on May 8, 2008 12:18 AM

Review at Thoughts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Ben on May 8, 2008 10:27 AM

Well put together overview of a fantastic program. I have been using it on my n800 for a couple months and love it.I am just waiting on my new n810(which has gps built in), so the talk of the car addition is very exciting indeed.

hangster on May 9, 2008 2:03 AM

hey! i use canola too! one thing though: i wish i could browse by letter or by the d pad. its a little slow sometimes. Im using it on an n810

sumx4182 on May 27, 2008 2:04 PM

The album cover of a woman bare-ass may not be in keeping with the theme of this site…just pointing it out in case it was missed…

Brent on May 30, 2008 2:50 PM

Why is it so hard for developers to include year and track number ID3 info in the “now playing” screen? I don’t think I’ve seen a player that does this other than the OG winamp.

AmishJohn on June 3, 2008 11:17 AM

I tried installing Canola2, but the vid playback was on the choppy side for me. And by choppy, I mean ‘Slide Show’. So off it went, and MPlayer took over vid duties. I leave the audio to the e250, and use the N800 for ebooks, ScummVM, and DosBox.

Marcelo Eduardo on June 13, 2008 11:13 AM

Hi Amish john: if you have mplayer installed it is mplayer that plays video on canola, not canola itself.So, you probably have the higher resolution video mplayer supports on the device, but unfortunately a bug on mplayer prevents it’s ” embedded” mode, which canola uses to have the same performance : /Br

cd on October 20, 2008 8:08 PM

Mplayer is better than canola for playing videos.

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