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Songbird: the Firefox of music players

written by: Profacgillies•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/28/2009

Songbird has been billed as the Firefox of music players: free open source software with add-ons. This review is based upon personal use of Songbird, considers its use in practice, and asks whether it will threaten iTunes in the way that Firefox has eaten into Internet Explorer's market share.

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    Songbird is an open source music player application. It is cross-platform running on Windows, Linux and Mac operating systems. It supports a range of audio formats: MP3, FLAC, and Vorbis on all platforms; WMA on Windows, including WMA with digital rights management; and AAC and Fairplay on both Windows and Mac platforms. The first thing that is striking is the visual resemblance to iTunes. This has the advantage that iTunes users will find Songbird very familiar. Many of the features are familiar from iTunes, too: playlists, including smart playlists, and imported artwork in this case from lastFM.

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    Rating Average

    The two biggest features of Songbird are its support for a wide range of codecs including lossless FLAC and its support for add-ons. Add-ons work in the same manner as Firefox, being developed by the community and adding functionality to the core product. Currently, the add-ons are quite limited, with many offering variations on a theme. You can, for example, make it look even more like iTunes. You can add a window organizing your albums in a library of album covers in the manner of the latest iTunes. There is an add-on to enable you to use your Songbird with your iPod. Songbird has web browser functionality built into it and there are add-ons to help you use this functionality for finding information and related music to your chosen tracks.

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    Importing Internet Audio

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    If you are someone who downloads your music you will be easily be able to import your tracks into Songbird.

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    Importing your own CDs

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    However, if like me you prefer to purchase your music on a disk and then rip it onto your computer (old fashioned, I know!) then you hit the first snag. Unlike iTunes, you cannot rip tracks from a CD in Songbird. You will need a CD ripper application like dBPoweramp to access your music. This does mean that you can rip one CD whilst listening to another on your music player.

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    Range of formats supported

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    Once the music is in a Songbird-friendly format, and it does offer support that the iTunes does not. For example, I prefer to encode my music in FLAC format for maximum quality and flexibility. Songbird happily plays FLAC formatted tracks, and thus it provides an iTunes clone that will play my music in my preferred format and not try to convert my entire archive into a closed proprietary format.

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    Ease of use

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    It works reliably and offers the chance to play you music in shuffle format as well as by album, or artist. In default mode, the tracks on an album are displayed and played in alphabetical order. However, although not displayed by default, the option exists to display the track number and then to order playback of the tracks in the order that they were originally intended. This was the only issue I needed to resolve to get Songbird working as I wished.

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    Will Songbird fly?

    Songbird is a good music player. For those like me who wish to use open source file formats, it offers almost iTunes levels of convenience with more freedom and flexibility. It is only in version in v1.1 (May 2009) and as it develops, the add-on facility may lead to killer features. However, there should be a note of caution at this point. The need for a separate CD ripper will undermine its convenience for many and fatally wound its case to be an iTunes replacement. A glance at the history of open source applications suggests that only when an established proprietary product is frustrating its users does an open source application take hold. Firefox grew on the back of people’s frustration with Internet Explorer, because it was a demonstrably better and more reliable product. iTunes is a good product, it is easy to use and it works. Although Songbird offers wider compatibility in general, to many users its inability to rip and play CDs directly is major flaw. By the same token, Open Office’s popularity grew on the back of people’s frustration with the ribbon interface of Microsoft Office 2007, which happened to coincide with a major upgrade release of Open Office. Unless Apple use their proprietary control over the iTunes/iPod to commit commercial suicide, the reason for the majority of iTunes users to change is unclear. Songbird needs a killer add-on to provide a reason for people to shift.