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.

6
  • dixhuit

    As an Android user, I has hoping something similar. I don’t care for video or iPod support, but until they fix the perfromance issues (large libraries break SongBird) and get the interface sorted (the last update (purple thing) was about 5 steps backwards) then I too am stuck with iTunes (which I’m not happy with either).

    • David W

      I hear you. I’m trying to like SongBird – it syncs, sort of, with my Android device – but not as good as iTunes and my iPod. The only other solution I guess is DoubleTwist but I don’t like the klugey way links to the iTunes library to make it happen. I want one solution gosh darn it.

    • Tom

      Waaa Waa! Should I get the Waa-mbulance for you.
      iTunes is Awesome!
      What performance issues?
      You sound like another person that likes to antagonize others. Do you know anyone like this? If you don’t like iTunes, use something else – plain and simple, but don’t say there are performance issues. Using fallacies, to try to make your point is very political and ignorant.
      Stop downloading music illegally.

      • shut your mouth you mac fanboy

        iTunes adds unnecessary and untweakable compression to all your music playback. it also seems to constantly be trying to communicate with the iTunes store, often interrupting my music listening. I hate iTunes and would gladly use something else, if there were a viable alternative.

  • f1ght4fun

    Damn, isn’t that an iTunes? Sorry but this thing has 99% look and feel of the iTunes without being a real native Mac iTunes.

    Why to even bother installing that?

    • Mailia

      If you like ugly purple UIs, you will install this.

      • mr

        man, it has themes

  • David Garbacz

    There have been a few reviews of Songbird up on other blogs and honestly, I’ve tried time and time again to use it as the software has grown. It’s just as you said though, a pretty big disappointment.

    I’m not a huge fan of iTunes (I don’t even own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch) but it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of Songbird for a piece of software I only use when necessary.

  • http://seamuis.tumblr.com Séamuis

    its ugly. period.

    I have been following songbird since the beginning, and like most others thought it was a neat concept. however, it has been a disappointment from day one and continues to be such. I gave up on using it when I was on windows, and I sure wont use it on my mac. a viable alternative? it makes iTunes look damn near perfect. also, I don’t like purple.

  • Alex

    Question. At what time do Apple’s lawyers snap into action and sue the ever-loving pants of the developers of this software?

    • skz

      sue them about what?

  • http://thebird-feeder.com/ Ben Carlsen

    To be fair, the purple interface is not the only one available. There are several different skins (or “feathers). That’s not to say that the rest of them look any better, but it doesn’t have to be purple.

    That aside, Songbird is one of those apps that I want to like and use, but can’t bring myself to. While I’d prefer something else to iTunes, it does everything I want it to, and Songbird doesn’t. Also, one of my biggest problems with iTunes is CPU hogging, and Songbird definitely does much worse in that regard as well, at least in my experience.

  • http://ruinyourfun.com Loïc Ruinyourfun

    Conclusion: there’s no media player/manager acceptable on Mac. I can’t wait for a Mac Version of MediaMonkey. Sometimes I’m so disappointed with iTunes/Songbird that I launch MM on Parallels. Such a shame…

    • mr

      i would like something similar to winamp on os x

      • krol

        If you’re looking for something that just plays audio files of various types and won’t add them automatically to any sort of library, try Vox.

      • bb

        I often end up using VLC to avoid iTunes… sigh…

    • jay

      I would probably pay real money for MediaMonkey for Mac.

  • Pieter V

    I loved using Songbird when I was still using Windows XP 2 years ago.
    I installed it on my mac the first week after I got it and immediately I started to dislike the software that I liked so much on Windows.

    When I’m using windows I don’t care about software using non-native ui elements etc. On a mac it is simply unacceptable to me since it breaks the whole experience.

    I very much dislike Steam for mac for the same reason. On Windows it’s ok, on a mac you instantly feel something’s not right.

  • Ethan Wright

    I love how it supports .Flac, and that is the only real reason I use it….

  • SannyD

    i dig the purple. it reminds me of the old napster theme way back.

    anywho..for some reason i disliked this on the iphone so i took it off. ill try it on my mac. its free so why not. now that i think it about it..it either had a security flaw

  • SannyD

    Great. i installed it and upon importing it crashed.
    not a good start.

  • Andrew

    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!

    As far as I am aware, this _is_ the reason for songbird. They weren’t trying to make an itunes clone, they were trying to make an application that played music from the web in the same way you play music on your own machine. The website used to talk about being a “media player/web browser mashup”, which is a pretty good description really.

    • Andrew

      To clarify, the top two paragraphs there are a quote from the article…

      • jay

        I’m glad you said that. But you should have said it above, or put it in block or something. Because honestly, the review just feels like it’s written at 2 times a couple of months apart, or by a bi-polar person because at the front you laud Songbird, but by the end you hate it.

      • http://inspirationoverload.org Conor O’Driscoll

        @jay
        I can see what you mean, and the reason for the gradual shift of mood was because that was what happened – The obvious features that I tried out first, such as the music and web, worked pretty well, but as I delved deeper into Songbird’s features, I quickly realised that there were far too many pitfalls to make it a viable alternative for Songbird, for myself at least.

  • Guido Ferreyra

    Songbird was awesome, i say “was” because with the last major change (when they rebuilt the interface), songbird its too much slower and not very nice.
    Im looking for a soft similar to Zune for Win, lovely interface and a very good library manage, any help?

    Greetings
    sory for mi bad english

  • http://www.henkpiet.nl erik henk piet

    Great review. Sad to hear that Songbird still isn’t a real alternative to iTunes.
    iTunes really has become bloatware. I would really like a fast, clean music player on my macbook. But not a player that just displays endless grey lists of songs. I do like the visual browsing style (especially by album cover or even genre) that iTunes has.

  • Ananda

    MY music library is completly on FLAC… the only audiophile opensource format and widley used. Sorry, I don’t like reduced music quality and like opensource formats.

    due to the stubern Steve we still don’t have flac support in Itunes…it’s a real shame…thats why I use Songbird, even If I agree it’s not really a good programm and it’s very slow…

  • jiajia

    zai lai yi ci

  • http://twitter.com/z0r z0r

    Definetely DONT like this app. I wish there was something like Winamp on OSX.

  • last ben standing

    If all you want is just listen to some music (and hell, I don’t need all the bells and whistles), then get Cog — http://cogx.org/download.php.
    It’s got a hideous icon (maybe some of you icon designers out there can submit a pretty, pretty one :), but it’s a great piece of software.

  • Ahmed

    This app is ugly .. i tried it once and then switched back to itunes

    the only alternatives to itunes that i like are ecoute and
    Instinctiv and they both depend in itunes library

    i don’t see any reasons to use any other app than itunes ( just my opinion )

    • dev

      true that! the only people who’s searching for an alternative are 100% windows switchers who think iTunes is a piece of a bloated software like it is on windows. Well, it ISN’T. It’s blazing fast on my first aluminum iMac (2007) and i have a pretty big library.

      • Mark S.

        I’m not sure why I felt compelled to reply to your particular comment, but I’ll try to keep it brief anyways:

        Sorry, but this is a comment of blatant ignorance. I have been a primary Mac user for most of my life, don’t yet own a copy of Windows, and I have always liked the idea of an alternative. To start with, iTunes wasn’t even the first audio application I’ve used on a Mac. To put my rationale for searching for an alternative simply:

        If you can think of just one feature that’s missing or that you would like to change, an alternative is the immediately viable solution.

        To say otherwise is just blind brand loyalty. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’m looking for an app that’s ‘better’ than iTunes, but rather one that suits my desires. Lets say I want a different shuffling algorithm. How do I easily change this natively from iTunes?

        In the end, open source is the only workable way to completely suit a person’s particular taste. But, as you may have gathered, this is still a work in progress.

  • http://fairheadcreative.com Adam Fairhead

    It’s not for me, but it’s great that there’s alternatives. :)

  • Laurent Rathle

    If you just want to listen to music and have an last.fm account, Everplay is a nice and light player. It has Last.fm feature included like “Similar artist mode” which I find very nice.

  • Random

    You all forget the great Audion by Panic. Sadly, they abandoned it after Apple introduced iTunes. What a pity. Audion was such a tiny cute little software. iTunes is bloated as hell.

  • Eng-o

    For what it’s worth,
    in my opinion,
    itunes could, and should be a lot better – It terrible at tasks such as importing old libraries from disc, it creates loads of bugs (duplicating tracks etc.) on top of that it’s not easy at all to clean these your self. Why else has software such as “tune Up” done well? It has annoying features like “Ping” – which you should be able to disable. And it should also be able to play all formats.

    Yea, I once was a PC user (I could not afford a mac at the time) – I have a big library and I haven’t had the apple double apple lobotomy [aka iphone & ipod] & on top of that I prefer buying my tunes on CD.
    I bought a MAC because I thought an apple stood for sensible user-friendly gear – but iTunes annoys the hell out of me, it’s way too commercial. It’s disappointing to learn the alternativs are not up to much. This might have something to do with the almost zealous antics you read in forums written by Apple fans (Apple can do no wrong etc. / nothing else comes close…) this just does not cut it as an argument and may ultimately to lead to a poor product in the end…
    We need GOOD alternativs !

    Any ideas?

  • elaine

    I like Songbird, it’s very nice and clean and light weight and would actually be useful if it still had iPod support syncing supporting which it doesn’t!

    Support for iPod devices stopped 2 years ago.

  • annoyed

    Songbird DOESN’T do what I want “and more”. You can’t even sort your music how you want and requests or inquiries on the matter to the dev team are arrogantly and dismissively shut out.

    Is it so complicated and so much to ask that my music library can sort albums by year?

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