Many have oft-complained about Microsoft’s hold on users with its monopoly on installed system components such as Internet Explorer and Microsoft Media Player. Even though the OS X counterparts to those programs are engineered better, the truth is that Apple really does engage in the same practices Microsoft does and it is only their small market-share that keeps the official complaints from filing in.
Even though Apple does not ship alternatives to built-in programs, many savvy users grab alternative browsers , text editors and even movie players. One area where Apple seems to have a stranglehold, though, is in the general media players category. Let’s face it, almost every Mac user uses iTunes as the primary way to store, organize and playback media. iTunes is also the de-facto way to get content–music, video or applications–onto your iPod or iPhone. iTunes, to put it bluntly, is its own monopoly with no competition–until now.
Thanks to the hard work of the Pioneers of the Inevitable, Songbird is finally in its 1.0 Release Candidate stage and nearly ready for prime time. So how does it stack up against Apple’s built-in 800-pound gorilla? Can it replace iTunes for many users? Read on for TAB’s initial view of Songbird 1.0.0 RC1.
Songbird: First Look
One major difference between iTunes and Songbird is that you will need to have an Intel Mac to work with it. There are no PPC builds for this release candidate and I suspect that may be the case for the first official release as well. The 31MB download ends up taking 126MB on disk just within the Applications folder, which is just slightly less than the 136MB occupied by iTunes. Not surprisingly, Songbird makes use of the XUL framework and a host of open source libraries to do its work, all of which must be factors in the difference in resource consumption just after startup when compared to iTunes.
You will be asked to import your music after firing up the application for the first time and Songbird will either scan your system for content or it can import your existing iTunes library. While it may re-create your library and playlists item-for-item, Songbird cannot play protected AAC content due to the QuickTime add-on not working with RC1 just yet, so do not expect to play many of your iTunes store purchases unless they are either in iTunes Plus format or you have already taken measures to de-DRM your library.
You will also be asked if you want to load any extensions at this time. Songbird ships with five add-ons:
- iPod Device Support
- SHOUTcast Radio
- Concerts (including ticketing info via Songkick)
And you can find many more in the Songbird listings.
Once the initial setup is complete, you will be greeted with a window that will seem very familiar and intuitive.
But, Does It Play Music/Videos?
As the previous window-capture shows, Songbird most definitely plays music. With the proper add-ons installed, it will even give you some details about what you are listening to.
Because it is open source, Songbird supports Ogg Vorbis content without having to fiddle with any settings and also supports MP3 and FLAC on all platforms; WMA and WMA DRM on Windows; and (once the add-on is updated) AAC and Fairplay on Windows and Mac.
Video support was “interesting” as I tried playing a movie trailer from the iTunes store (not in a DRM-format) and it played, but with a slightly different experience than one would get in iTunes.
(The video was “squished” with no way to correct it, but it played “correctly”).
Songbird does let you modify the media metadata and will display song lyrics if you have meticulously entered them yourself or utilized one of the handy add-ons to fetch them from the dark corners of the internets.
How Does It Measure Up?
Because of the virtually identical interface to that of iTunes, the experience was very…iTunes-like. Everything worked as you would expect and audio playback was indistinguishable from that of iTunes as well. Smart Playlists worked as expected along with subscriptions (i.e. podcasts). Video playback was a bit tenuous and Songbird did crash on me twice, but that is to be expected given that it is still a release candidate. The developers were even thoughtful enough to include a mini-player.
I was very pleasantly surprised with the level of support for iPods. I was not brave enough to subject my own, personal iPhone to the test, so I commandeered my daughter’s iPod and managed to perform all operations that one would expect to perform without any errors or warnings. That same iPod worked fine again in iTunes as well.
It was also unexpectedly useful to be able to utilize the tabbed-browsing capabilities within Songbird, especially when I used it to explore the “similar songs” content via Last.fm.
Tabbed-browsing was also useful when I jumped over to Aimee Street to find some tracks (it further displayed a list of files I could download immediately).
However, my experiences with the preferences system left much to be desired.
With a bit more polish and working add-ons, I could definitely use Songbird as my primary audio media player if it weren’t for the need to sync everything but music and video with my iPhone. It would also be useful to have a “remote” application for Songbird that worked on the iPhone and iPod touch.
Beyond The Player
The real power of Songbird comes from add-ons. These extensions are what make iPod support, album art download, Last.fm functionality and skinning (now called “feathering”) possible. The best way to work with add-ons is to use the “Songbird Add-ons” bookmark from the leftmost pane. By viewing the Songbird Add-ons gallery from within the application you will only be able to install those extensions that are compatible with the version of Songbird you are running, which will take quite a bit of the guesswork and frustration out of finding ones you want to use.
After putting Songbird through it’s paces, here are some add-ons I can recommend you install to get the best experience out of the application.
- MediaFlow for a cover-flow like view
- Last.fm Album Art to make MediaFlow useful
- Music Recommendations for pseduo-Genius-like recommendations
- LiveTweeter to annoy your social networking friends
- LyricMaster to read what you are hearing
- Mac Remote Control Support which enables the use of Apple’s remote control
- iTunes for an even more familiar GUI
Getting Your Hands Dirty
Because Songbird is an open project, you may contribute as little or as much as you’d like to the community of users. You can work on skins (OK, “feathers”), general add-ons or fiddle with building display panes and Songbird-specific web pages.
One very interesting idea would be to fully integrate social networking sites within Songbird itself so one could, say, monitor Twitter Search for “listening to” tweets and have them queue up in a stream from Last.fm or perhaps find a way to integrate Amazon MP3 into Songbird so that tracks can import directly into it instead of first having to go into iTunes then wait for the library sync. Personally, I’d really like to see support for Growl via some nifty add-on.
For those users that like to know where an application has made footprints on their system, Songbird will store music in
~/Music (you probably should create a subdirectory called “Songbird” that instruct the application to use it if you like your top-level Music folder tidy) and correctly utilizes
~/Library/Application Support/Songbird2 (note the “2” on the end) for application extras. Application preferences are not fully stored in
~/Library/Preferences/org.songbirdnest.songbird.plist, but it does use it for some of them.
Scripters will be a bit disappointed as Songbird does not have a rich dictionary in any way, shape or form. Only basic application controls are available and no way to do any type of media content-based automation whatsoever. All customizations and integration attempts must be done via Songbird add-ons.
Songbird has come a very long way since the days of version 0.3 and it is definitely something the iTunes development team within Apple should keep an eye on. While iTunes bloats (though Genius is truly genius), Songbird innovates. When 1.0 finally comes out, I suspect I will have little hesitation recommending it to even the most casual of Mac user.