2018 + 113 + 14 + 18 = 2019

Release 113 is the last Chronotron update of this year. That’s at least the plan, unless unexpected issues trigger another urgent deployment.

As you can read in the Release Notes, this update brings a couple of quality improvements. The most noticeable change is that the audio scroller is now resizable, motivated by the fact that most of the app window area remained unused when playing audio files.

A less visible – though nothing short of life-changing – addition is that now the space bar can be used as a shortcut to start and stop playback. Yes, finally! Indeed, this feature was long overdue because it took me a while to get it implemented in a way that doesn’t interfere much with accessibility. I frankly don’t know how many Chronotron users, if any, have specific needs, and I don’t even claim the app meets all accessibility guidelines; however, I definitely don’t want to make things harder for those who rely on those features.

The final significant change in Release 113 is that the ARM package is now 64-bit. In the Release Notes I call this package beta software, though the sad truth is that it has been barely tested. So, if you own a Windows on ARM (a.k.a. WoA) device, don’t hesitate to report any bugs via the usual channels. Better yet, if you happen to be in touch with a WoA device OEM, tell them not to give up: there’s at least one app developer committed to the platform!

All in all, there were 14 app updates in 2018 that brought some new features and many quality improvements. I wrote 18 entries in this blog – a number that is a bit below my initial objective, but hopefully enough to keep you updated on what’s going on.

What’s coming in 2019? Further UI improvements? Updates to core functionality? Inking support? Some AI features? Stay tuned if you want to know!

In the meantime, enjoy Release 113 and don’t hesitate to post your wish list in the Comments section below.

Happy holiday season!

Exit the Hamburger Menu

Long ago, the Chronotron user interface was tab-based, close to the ribbon toolbar concept in Microsoft Office. This worked fine for a while, but as the application grew more and more features, the upper part of the screen started to get a bit too crowded. It became clear that a better solution had to be found to expose all app functionality, yet keeping things as touch-friendly as before.

Enter the Hamburger Menu

The hamburger menu button is the three-bar icon () that many mobile apps show, usually at the top-left corner of the screen. It’s called like that because some renderings of the icon resemble a hamburger.

Chronotron introduced the hamburger menu in Release 72 as a way to give access to the various application toolboxes, kissing goodbye to the tabbed navigation paradigm.

To put things into perspective, it was late 2016. At that time, Microsoft were embracing the hamburger menu in their own apps, and some Chronotron users were begging for a “more modern” user experience, closer to what mobile apps had to offer.

Even though Chronotron used the menu in an uncommon way – the buttons caused the toolbox panes to open at the other side of the screen – it did help keeping screen real estate usage under control and making Microsoft Surface enthusiasts happy.

Not everyone welcomed the revamped user interface, though. The app got a couple of bad reviews from traditional PC users infuriated by this change. Still, I believe that bringing Chronotron in line with what other Windows apps looked like at the time was a necessary, if painful, step.

Rise and Fall of the Hamburger

In the meantime, the world continued to revolve and the hamburger menu fell in disgrace. Today it is generally acknowledged that, with a few exceptions, that navigation pattern hurts app usability metrics. Microsoft and other industry leaders no longer embrace it and the web is full of articles on alternatives.

I have mixed feelings about the hamburger menu, or the way I used it in Chronotron anyway. The fact that I had got rid of all button labels made the app look even sleeker. The problem was that, unless you clicked on the hamburger button or on the ellipsis at the top right of the screen – another usability blow – there was nothing but a bunch of icons to figure out what the app can do. Form over function.

So, in Release 109 I’m taking another bold step and getting rid of the hamburger menu. And always-visible button labels are also back!

Exit the Hamburger Menu

The refreshed Chronotron user interface is based on – you guessed it – tabs. This time, though, the tabs are vertical and placed exactly where the toolbox panes appear.

The labels should also make it easier for users to find their way around, whether they’re already Chronotron fans or new to the app.

Want to see what it looks like? Go ahead and get the latest app update from the Microsoft Store.

Epilogue

For your delight, below is a slideshow of significant changes the Chronotron user interface has gone through over its lifetime. There’s of course a slide for Release 109, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Chronotron on ARM and the Chicken and Egg Problem

You may have noticed a number of remarks in the app change log regarding specific improvements on ARM CPUs. Knowing that Chronotron isn’t available for Windows Mobile, what’s the point of those “DSP performance enhancements on ARM”?

The answer is that there are a few Windows laptops and convertibles out there which sport an ARM CPU instead of the more familiar Intel x86 chip, and Chronotron should be able to run on those. For example, the Asus NovaGo, the HP Envy x2 and the recently announced Lenovo Yoga C630 WOS all run full Windows 10 on ARM. And by full, I mean Windows 10, not its Mobile sibling.

I haven’t got my hands yet on a Windows on ARM device I could use for testing and debugging. Currently I rely on the fact that Windows Mobile implements a fair subset of the Windows 10 APIs, so I can run Chronotron on a Lumia 950 phone – which happens to have the same kind of CPU – to perform limited testing and performance optimizations.

This means that I presume the app runs well on Windows on ARM devices, but until I could actually acquire one (they aren’t generally available here in Europe as of this writing), I won’t be able to tell for sure.

It’s not that I haven’t tried, though. I contacted the regional Asus distributor to get a test unit. At the time they didn’t have a review unit yet; however, they told me that once they got one, it would be sent first to tech magazines and websites. This is unfortunate for me, though understandable.

Another thing I did was submitting a suggestion to the Microsoft Developer Rewards Portal about issuing a few perks for developers porting their apps to Windows on ARM. After all, if Microsoft really wanted to incentivize developers to port their apps, the portal would be the place to facilitate early access to the platform. No reaction so far.

There’s also the software side of things. Some tech websites tell you that porting an app to ARM is “as easy as recompiling”, which is not entirely true. For example, Microsoft forgot to enable one of the components of the Windows SDK for the ARM64 target (namely Microsoft.Midi.GmDls), so apps using that specific component can’t just be compiled for 64-bit ARM.

Developers of apps that rely on advanced CPU features and multithreading – like video games and media players – face enough significant differences between the x86 and the ARM architectures to justify serious testing on each. Also, let’s not forget that there are also compiler bugs that surface only when targeting certain CPU architectures.

Going back to the original question in this post, I share the enthusiasm around Windows 10 on ARM: getting Chronotron ready for when such hardware becomes mainstream reflects my endorsement as developer. At the current level of Microsoft involvement, though, it looks like this will take a long time.

The situation I describe above is often referred to as the chicken and egg problem: a platform success depends on apps being developed for it, but there won’t be many apps developed for a platform that isn’t widely available.

Until then, Chronotron on ARM is a chicken hatching from a dinosaur’s egg.

Everyday Chronotron

I’ve been using Chronotron as my daily driver since Release 43, when it first supported playlists.

Even though Chronotron main purpose is to deconstruct tunes – audio and video material in general – and to assist musicians while they practice an instrument, the app has evolved over the years to become an all-rounder media player as well.

Having the developer spend more time testing the app is a good thing, but I also find myself using it regularly because Chronotron fits my own casual usage: I often play a lot of music and videos in sequence on a touchscreen-enabled laptop.

One killer app feature, at least when it comes to playlists, is the ability to apply different parameters – tempo, key, equalizer, etc. – to each individual track. You could, for example, play the same song multiple times at a different pace. And let’s not forget video! You could pump the brightness of those dark Michal Jackson videos a bit up, while playing all other clips in the playlist at the default setting.

As a lesser-known bonus, Chronotron lets you decide which parameters are specific to a playlist item, and which ones apply to the playlist as a whole. After all, you may want to play all video clips in your playlist mirrored without having to toggle the Horizontal Flip switch on every single track.

You do this via the Settings pane, as shown below.

All are unchecked by default, which means that each playlist item will remember its own settings for each parameter, but you can check the ones that will be remembered for the whole playlist regardless of the track (like Video Flip in the example above).

While there are a couple of features you might miss if you’re a Winamp nostalgic – gapless playback is one that comes to mind – Chronotron is still a capable media player.

Do you use Chronotron as your regular player? If not, what features prevent you from doing so? Let me know in the Comments section below.

Using Playlists in Chronotron

Chronotron supports playlists since Release 43. The playlist functionality is accessible through the Playlist pane, which you can open by selecting Playlist out of the hamburger menu.

In this post I’ll go through the ins and outs of playlists in Chronotron.

Creating Playlists

There are multiple ways to create playlists in Chronotron. You can either:

  • Select multiple files during Open (Ctrl + O). By the way, the complete list of keyboard shortcuts can be found here.
  • While the Playlist pane is visible, click Add (Ctrl + Shift + O) to select the files to be added to the current playlist.
  • Drop media files from Windows Explorer into the Playlist pane.
  • If you made Chronotron your default app for media files in Windows, then opening multiple files directly from Windows Explorer will launch the app and create a new playlist with those files.
  • From the Recent or Library dropdowns, clicking the “+” button – depicted below – will add the media to the current playlist. If, by accident, you missed to hit the “+” button, the Revert button will come in handy.

You can save the playlist for later use once you’re happy with it. Just click Save (Ctrl + S) and select the location where you want the new playlist to be stored. If you saved the Playlist at any location under your Music or Video libraries, then the app will also show your playlist under Playlists in the Library dropdown.

Playlist AutoSave is enabled by default, so you don’t have to care about saving the current playlist every time you modify it. You can disable AutoSave via the Options pane.

The New and Save As commands – shown below – allow you to start building a new playlist from scratch or saving the current playlist to a different .m3u file, respectively.

Playlists Created with Other Programs

Chronotron supports opening .m3u files created by Winamp, Windows Media Player or other programs.

Unlike most other programs, though, Chronotron stores the media parameters used for each file in the playlist, that is, tempo, key, speed, equalizer settings, volume, balance, channel selection, video flip and video delay. This allows you, for instance, to add the same song multiple times to the same playlist, each time at a different tempo or key.

A .m3u file is just a text file listing the locations of the files to be played in sequence. The screenshot below is an example of what a .m3u file looks like when opened in notepad.exe.

While that’s a simple – yet powerful – approach, it turns out that with great power comes great responsibility: a maliciously crafted playlist could induce the player to load harmful content by exploiting bugs, either in the app or in the OS, to compromise your system security.

To mitigate such threats, Microsoft Store apps are granted limited access to files stored in your PC. Apps are only allowed to load files resulting from an explicit user action, like the Open File dialog box or drag & drop into the app window, or files stored in certain locations, like the Audio and Video libraries (i.e. My Music and My Videos).

In the above example, you can see that the media files are stored under D:\Playlist Media. Because that location is currently not part of my Windows libraries, when I first tried to open this playlist with Chronotron, I got the following error message:

If the media files were stored under My Music, Chronotron would have played them just fine. However, the app is now complaining about the fact that it cannot access the location where these files are stored.

So, all I need to do is go to the Options pane and authorize Chronotron to access D:\Playlist Media – or even the whole D:\ drive, if I feel like I trust the app – and voilà: the playlist plays. The screenshot below shows the relevant section of the Options pane.

Alternatively, I could have made D:\Playlist Media part of My Music library, in which case the app would have been automatically authorized to access the files.

Other Common Playlists Tasks

You can reorder playlist items by dragging them around, either using touch or the mouse. Please note that, when using touch input, you need to tap and hold on the item to start dragging it.

Another way to move playlist items is by using the Up and Down buttons in the bottom toolbar. This toolbar also allows you to remove selected items and select all items in one go.

If your device sports a touchscreen, you can remove items without selecting them by swiping the item you want to remove to the left.

Conversely, if you hover the mouse over playlist items, you can enter selection mode by clicking the checkbox next to the item.

Wrap Up

I hope this post provides a good understanding of how playlists work in Chronotron. Don’t hesitate to post your comments here or contact me via the usual support channels if you have questions, comments or suggestions.

The Clock-Clef

The G-clef is arguably the most recognizable musical symbol, also for non-musicians. Its familiar shape looks like a distorted ampersand symbol, though you might be surprised to learn that it actually emerged as an evolution of the letter G (well, I’d say it’s as close to the original as this portrait of Picasso, but historians know better than me).

The Chronotron logo, which represents the fusion of a G-clef and a clock – a “Clock-clef”, if you will, took shape more than one decade ago. Credit where credit is due, it’s my wife who came up with the idea and first sketched it on paper. Later on, the Cuban designer Diego Monzón produced the first vector image of it, which is still at the heart of today’s app branding.

Since Chronotron became an app, the app logo consisted in the original Clock-clef enclosed in a guitar pick shape.

This layout conferred the app logo some volume and emphasized the suitability of the software for guitarists, but unfortunately it also turned the original logo into an afterthought. In fact, I bet most of you actually believed that the Chronotron logo was just a G-clef drawn on a guitar pick.

Because Chronotron today covers a wide range of use cases reaching far beyond its original audience, it’s time to update the app imagery accordingly. So, starting from Release 104, we have…

A New App Logo!

Indeed, the most noticeable change in Release 104 is the revamped logo, which is depicted below.

The Clock-clef symbol is now much more prominent than before and it sits on a blurred score, which reduces its verticalness and gives a sense of speed.

If you happen to use Chronotron as the default player for certain file types, you will also notice that the file icon now consists in the Clock-clef symbol on a dark blue background.

Other Changes in Release 104

The audio scroller is now visible by default, but you can still hide it via the Options pane. Waveforms are cached when a file is first loaded, so they load almost instantaneously the next time you open the same file.

A new release is always an opportunity to smash a few bugs. One of these bugs prevented the playlist from moving to the next track while the app is minimized or when the Windows session is locked. This issue was reported by a user – through an app review – and has been fixed in this release.

Honest feedback is much appreciated. Don’t hesitate to contact me via the corresponding app menu option, or by leaving a comment in this blog.