Songbird: A Viable iTunes Alternative?

With the release of iTunes 10, many people suddenly realised that iTunes really wasn’t that great, and might be starting to suffer from a major case of feature bloat. The interface is starting to become messy and hard to navigate, the icon is atrocious, and Ping just clutters everything up further.

But if your main priority remains to simply listen to music, what alternatives do you have?

Songbird will do everything you want your music player to do, and more. The Songbird developers realised that you don’t want an app to handle most of your media needs, you want an app which handles all of your music needs.

But how does it stack up against iTunes, and is it really a viable alternative? Read on to find out…

Getting Started

Getting Started

Getting Started

The installation process in Songbird is very easy. Simply download the 20mb DMG (a quarter the size of iTunes), and install it as you would most apps, by dragging the icon into Applications.

Opening Songbird for the first time is not, like many media apps, a daunting experience. If you have music in your iTunes library, Songbird will import them for you, and if not, you can just get started importing music manually. It will also import any iTunes playlists you have, so you won’t have lost any hard work you’ve done on iTunes.

Interface

Interface

Interface

If you’ve used iTunes before, you’ll have no problem getting used to Songbird. The interface layout was obviously based pretty much entirely on iTunes, which is not a bad thing, as it means you will already know where everything is. This can be advantageous if you’re trying to bring it into your natural Mac workflow as quickly as possible.

As Songbird is designed for Windows, Mac and Linux, it doesn’t have the feel of a native Mac app – but it is by no means ugly either. There are several ways of customising it to suit your needs too, which we will cover next.

Customization

Customization

Customization

This is where Songbird starts to show a few similarities with Firefox. It is, after all, based on the Mozilla engine. One of Songbird’s main selling points is that you can install add-ons to make Songbird work just the way you want it to. These include “Feathers” (Skins/Themes) to make it look nicer, media views (Coverflow, etc.), music discovery tools, and much, much more.

These plug-ins can be downloaded from your normal browser, or in Songbird itself. When you install them from Songbird, it’s as simple as clicking once and restarting Songbird to see them take effect, similar to the Firefox add-on installation process.

Music

Browsing Your Music

Browsing Your Music

Songbird is a music player, so it does music very well. However, there’s not much there to differentiate it from iTunes, as it is very much based on how iTunes handles its music library. It would appear that Songbird has more of an emphasis on rating songs, and it is much quicker and easier to do so than in iTunes.

If you’re one of those people who likes to edit every little bit of metadata possible, you might not be too impressed with Songbird. The metadata fields are much more restricted than in iTunes, but it still handles all of the important ones.

Video

Video

Video

If you have a large video collection too, Songbird claims that it can handle videos, and it can, to some extent, although it does fall behind significantly there. iTunes is pretty bad at handling videos – It will handle MOV, MP4 and H.264, but not much else.

Songbird is no better. It too will handle MP4 and H.264, and some MOV files, but not all. In reality, you’d be much better sticking to Quicktime or VLC, which can handle video in a far more powerful fashion.

Web Browsing

In-Built Web Browsing

In-Built Web Browsing

Another great feature of Songbird is the ability to browse the web inside of it. This can be particularly useful if you want to check details about a song, singer, or simply only have one app open instead of two. It works using tabbed browsing, so you can quickly switch between your music and your internet. Admittedly, the internet isn’t quite as fast as your standard browser, but it’ll certainly do the job.

The ability to easily connect to the web makes it great for internet-based music services, such as Last.fm, which it integrates seamlessly with. Also, if you visit a webpage which has several MP3 files on it, it will make a playlist out of them, which is an excellent feature if you frequent music blogs.

Not a feature for most people, but good if you’re a real music fanatic!

Purchasing

Purchasing Your Music

Purchasing Your Music

The iTunes Store is a huge selling point for iTunes, and one of the main reasons that people stay there – It’s one of the best ways of getting music these days. Songbird comes with built-in fuctionality for the 7Digital store, so you still have an easy way for getting music.

In terms of pricing, 7Digital is a little bit more expensive than iTunes, but not much – Around 20c per song, and $1 per album. Unless you buy loads of music, then it shouldn’t be a huge reason to stick with iTunes.

Songbird also integrates with Songkick, which is a great way of finding concerts and buying tickets. But rather than having to trawl through hundreds of artists that you haven’t heard of, it can only show concerts for artists in your library in a particular city.

For me, this is a brilliant feature, and works a lot better than Ping’s concert feature.

Devices

Connecting Devices

Connecting Devices

Unfortunately, this is where Songbird loses some major points. It has no built-in iPod syncing, and will not even recognise your iPod if you plug it in. There is an add-on which is supposed to give iPod support, but that has been adandoned and no longer works with the current version of Songbird.

If you use your iPod a lot, this will be an immediate point against Songbird, and for many people, may even rule it out completely – You certainly don’t want to have to bring all your new music back into iTunes every time you want to put it on your iPod, and if you use podcasts regularly, that’s even more of an inconvenience.

Conclusion

I started this review looking forward to learning about what should have been a great application. By the end of the review, I was very disappointed with it overall. Sure, it can handle your music very well, the web browsing features are excellent, and add-ons allow you to tweak Songbird in various interesting ways.

Unfortunately, it’s let down significantly by a lack of iPod support, video playback, and a slightly sub-par interface. To top it off, it runs quite a bit slower than iTunes.

If you use music blogs often, or constantly want to find out information and lyrics whilst listening to your music, then maybe Songbird is for you.

If you just want to listen to your music, videos, podcasts, both on your computer and your iPod, then you would probably be better off sticking to iTunes.


Summary

Songbird is an iTunes alternative, complete with a music store, Last.Fm support and built-in web browsing. If you’re looking for a more customizable experience with your music library, Songbird could be for you.

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