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First Look: Songbird Finally Gives iTunes Some Competition

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:

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

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, 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.

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 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.

38 Responses to “First Look: Songbird Finally Gives iTunes Some Competition”

  1. I tried Songbird long ago when it was around 0.4. At this time it was pretty much an exact itunes copy (but black not grey). I thought it was interesting but didn’t see much point in switching as it was just a buggier version of itunes with less features. This 1.0 release has impressed me tho, it’s layout looks more like amarok 1 (which is good, I dunno if I like amarok 2 yet), but what I really like is the customization. I always hated having the one mac OS themed program on my windows xp desktop, now I can make songbird match one of the many themes I have for my desktop. The plugins show album artwork, artist info lyrics and more, all stuff I would have to google before. It hasn’t crashed on me once or had any noticable bugs. This is impressive since itunes has had 8 versions to get it right, (and I only found it got stable on windows after the 7.0 release) The only thing I want in this program is an EQ, which i’m sure will come in the next few updates. As with a lot of opensource projects the 1.0 release is about getting more people interested and working on the project to really fill out all the features they want. As the community grows around this great program it will jump leaps and bounds over itunes.

  2. What is it with people who can’t handle the mere thought that maybe someone can do something better than Apple? “It crashes.” “It doesn’t do this or that.” “It won’t change my nappy when mommy isn’t at home”. Not once has this app crashed on me. The thing “just works” as simpletons are prone to say about every Apple product regardless of its shortcomings. Maybe your Mac can’t handle the thing…I mean…some Apple products do lack basic functions. The iPhone doesn’t even support a rather simple feature I like to call A-Capacity-to-Choose-a-Product-that-isn’t-Driven-by-Lies-Out-of-the-Mouths-of-Charlatans-like-Steve-Jobs-and-a-Frankly-Embarrassing-Tendency-Toward-Homogenous-Living. My girlfriend has a Mac and the f——g thing crashes at every given opportunity so the “just works” mantra is as dishonest as it is immature. Software crashes regardless of the platform and that’s a fact. Apple zealots, however, are insecure dimwits. Their Macs must be flawless at least within their imaginations or alas they’ll cry. Nobody’s forcing you to replace iTunes. When you come here and defend it so unconditionally you sound as hysterical as a whackjob evangelist. You may struggle with this morsel of cold harsh truth but some things exist outside your bedrooms such as other people whose experience with Songbird has been anything but as dire as you make it out to be. Grow up.

  3. Paul Stejskal

    You guys must not know how to implement podcasts well. It takes a bit of work which is a disappointment but here is the basics:

    1) Go File->New Subscription and take the URL of the podcast and put it in there. For example if you do Security Now, it is and that can be obtained by right clicking the link and copying the address. It will subscribe then.
    2) Create a seperate playlist for music. You will have to make sure it’s a Smart Playlist and does not include the Album name Security Now. Make sure you match all conditions if you have several podcasts and do the same for each one.
    3) Don’t go to your library, but your Music playlist.

  4. dennis parrott

    the thing we’re missing here is what made Songbird interesting in the first place: its built-in ability to find music downloads embedded on a web page, make them playable as if they were in your local library and download those that you find interesting into your local library without the tedium associated with right-clicking yourself to death in a browser window!

    Songbird is more about the ability to discover music on the web and play it than it is about organizing a music library!

    player/organizer capability was added so that it could be an all-in-one solution. bear in mind that iTunes has a several year head start… there are plenty of player/organizer solutions but not one of them has the ability to surf the web, find music and play it for you like Songbird does.

  5. There will be an unofficial contributed build for PPC for the 1.0 release, just as there is an unofficial contributed build for PPC for 0.7. I’ve been doing nightly builds and am currently rebuilding an optimized xulrunner & mozilla sdk in preparation for posting another build at my site. Due to the switch to gstreamer media support from the VLC plugin, this version will probably be only OS X 10.5 compatible as the 10.4 headers and libraries are old.

  6. Just to clarify a bit, I noticed that a few comments say that this is made by Mozilla. It’s not. It’s built on Mozilla’s technology.

    Also, the default Feather isn’t just an iTunes theme thrown around so it isn’t just like itunes, before version .7 the default theme was VERY different. I’m sure they changed it to that because that’s what people want. Before version .7 I always downloaded the iTunes feather. Now I leave it on the default because I like it. Actually I like it more than iTunes. I especially love the mini player. iTunes’ mini player is poop, songbird’s is awesome. I’d rather have shot and wide than tall and fat. That and it has everything you need. You like a song? Just hit the unobtrusive rating buttons right there in front of you. iTunes’ mini player, even if it had a rating system on the front of it, is just too bulky.

    I love songbird, it’s so much better than iTunes overall. It is still a bit buggy here and there, but that’s to be expected in an RC.

  7. IMHO a Sonos system with Rhapsody, a NAS device, Last.FM (Free now), Pandora (Free now), and especially now the new iPhone app iTunes is just useful to download podcasts and podcasts only. For consumption on my sonos system FTW.

    Sonos recently upped the Streams from Rhapsody so if you don’t like downloading a rent-a-library you can now stream 192kbs MP3. I’ve had my 3 zone setup for about 3 years now and I can say I”ve not had a single problem and I rarely use iTunes anymore except to read reviews and download podcasts. On my Ubuntu boxes I use Amarok which is coming out with a 2.0 soon.

    Give it a show yourself though. I’m simply blown away. (The Sonos/Rhapsody/iPhone combo)

  8. i don’t realy understand why its Intel-only now. in the past they’ve always had PPC releases.. hopefully they will fix this.

    if there were an iphone solution i’d definitely get this and use it as a replacement but i just don’t see that happening.

  9. I wanted to love Songbird, but there were problems.
    When I heard about it I was excited, “An iTunes replacement that has a built-in web browser, cool addons, concert data, and iPod support? I’m in!” I booted it up and I liked how it looked. I tryed out the browser, I got some new themes, I saw some of the features, and I was still excited. It crashed a few times, but I’ve come to accept that from something made by Mozilla. Then I installed the Mediaflow interface, Songbird’s answer to CoverFlow. I opened it and I noticed that it didn’t transfer my album art from iTunes. I wouldn’t be that mad at that, if they had let me get the art as simply as itunes does. Highlight the album, right click and select “get album art”. Well it doesn’t do that. So I downloaded the the album art manager from the addons page, hoping that that would do the trick. Well it didn’t, it just wouldn’t load the album art. Then I just accepted the annoying fact that I couldn’t get artwork. I’ve used it since then and have realized that it’s kind of choppy just by scrolling through the list mode.
    Hopefully, Mozilla will make downloading artwork easier and smooth out the interface, but until then, I’m sticking with itunes.

  10. Jonathan

    I’ve been using Songbird for a few days now, and I’m quite happy with it as a music player and geek resource. The browser integration is awesome – as it recognizes songs on mp3 blogs such as Hype Machine and allows you to use the Songbird controls to select and play the tracks. It’s also got built right in, so you can scrobble and favorite songs without an additional plugin. As a music nerd/fan, it’s also great to have tabs for allmusic and open in your player, and the lyrics add-on is pretty neat. As for it looking like iTunes – there are plenty of feathers to choose from that alter the appearance.

    The major flaw at this point – as others have pointed out – is podcast subscriptions. Yes, you CAN subscribe to podcasts, but unlike iTunes, Songbird treats your podcasts just like any other mp3 in your library, which is very annoying if you’re listening to music on shuffle and 30-minute Fresh Air podcasts keep popping up. I’d like to see a separate library for Podcasts.

  11. Feathers

    I think the greatest add-on for Songbird is the lyrics function…and the ability to add background…and how simple it is to get files from your computer…and the add on that connects you with artist info. via wikipedia…i LOVE this application…i enjoy songbird muuuuch more than i-tunes

  12. ** I’d be cautious with this release of Songbird. It makes your speaker pop when you play the first initial track. The popping noise was loud enough which made me weary. Then after I restarted, and tried playing another track, Songbird completely killed my speaker until I quit it, which was also followed by another big “pop!”

  13. I am thinking for many users, Songbird will not be different enough to get the download. My first impression is Songbird is an open source iTunes. It looks like the project was to do just that. I am sure with the right iTunes add-ons, we could acheive the same funcitonality along with a program developed by Apple’s talented and tried team. I think the big mistake is that Songbird looks too much like iTunes.

  14. Allister, that was exactly my impression: a browser that plays music. But there are some really cool features like the lyrics panel an the ipod/itunes integration. It’s a shame that my keybord shortcuts does not work in Songbird, though, and there’s a strange un-mac-like vibe on the whole app.

    All in all, it looks interesting enough to give it a try.

  15. It’s really great that apples’ iTunes gets some competition. Especially since iTunes 8 has become such a mish-mash with a garbled interface.
    It’s all the more disappointing that Songbird features an almost exact replica of the iTunes interface, but even more garbled.
    That’s no way to make a crowd go “oooh” and “aaaah” and “I want that too!”.
    Songbird, please try again!

  16. Allister

    Hmmmm. So apart from some new formats, all it’s doing is integrating Firefox with iTunes and crashing a bit more. I get the feeling a release of this kind of capability would have been a real hit, oooh, about 5 years ago.

    Great that someone *finally* has the guts to attempt proper iPod device support. But I bet they haven’t a hope in hell of working with an iPhone.

    iTunes, for all its shortcomings and quirks is STILL the only software that does everything for me as a (now) iPhone owner. If only they could get rid of all the bugs and fill out the existing features before adding more “genius” new features.