While it’s true that Apple iTunes has some compelling services, such as their TV/music/movie store, the media player itself leaves many power users yearning for something more.
To be sure, the alternatives don’t have Apple’s muscle with the media industry. This translates into a lack of a movie/TV download service to be seriously competitive with the likes of what iTunes can provide. Despite this drawback, there are still some great open source alternatives to iTunes for those who are more interested in software freedom than software convenience.
Songbird – Without question, this is one of my favorite open source alternatives to iTunes. Despite still being under heavy development, today’s Songbird application is cross platform and easy to use. And for those who have an iPod or MTP device such as a Creative Zen, it’s a smart match from the start.
On the flip side, however, newer iPod Nanos and the iPod Touch are not currently working with Songbird. Hopefully this will change in the future, but I tend to think it’ll be a ways off.
Songbird features that I enjoy include:
• Smart playlists – Build up your own playlists as your criteria changes. These playlists can dynamically adjust themselves to meet your given criteria.
• Skin it – This alone leaves iTunes in the dust. Because Songbird is built on Mozilla technology, it also has the Firefox-like ability to be skinned with themes of your choosing. Create your own if you have the skills or simply choose from a growing list of themes yourself.
• Setup assistant – Another stellar option that I like. The setup assistant allows the user to add in the ability to use an iPod or MTP device, include recommended add-ons for extra functionality or simply set things up in a fashion that best meets with your needs.
• Subscribe to music – Not talking about podcasts mind you, I mean you can go to a website with typical blog content and actually subscribe to their included audio files.
• Play music from music blogs – Without downloading anything, Songbird provides a feature where you can line up all the music found on a given page to play it inline, right there within the Songbird browser itself.
• Add-ons – iTunes-like media flow cover art, lyrics, related music – the add-on abilities just go on and on. This is without a doubt the most compelling reason I would use Songbird on OS X over iTunes. It allows Songbird to do much more that iTunes ever could.
AmaroK – On the Linux platform, amaroK was my first experience with just how powerful music players could be outside of a Windows world. While the software has come a long way since my first experience with it, the overall experience remains a pleasant one.
As you might expect, amaroK supports most iPods. And to a limited degree it has better iPod support than most other iTunes alternatives for the Linux platform.
That said, the iPhone/iPod Touch units you use have to be running older firmware as Apple has made sure that no one ever truly “owns” one of these devices outside of the watchful eye of iTunes. Then we have MTP support. As with Songbird, support is about the same. If it is truly a MTP device, then your device is surely supported.
amaroK features that I enjoy include:
• Dynamic playlists – While amaroK might not be the only application out there offering this, they have done it longer than anyone I know of. Create your own playlists that meet very technical constraints, dates, places, anything that can be found in the MP3 data.
• Scripts – Before Songbird was even a consideration, amaroK was providing users with the ability to create and utilize scripts to add functionality to their music experience.
• Usability – Easy to use, looks really fantastic.
• Cross platform to some extent – Despite the fact that Windows and OS X support is very much in beta at this standpoint, at least we’re seeing progress in this great media player coming to platforms beyond that of exclusively Linux.
• iTunes database importing.
• Strong music management – Neither large databases of music nor the method used to locate a specific song will keep amaroK down. Tagging, multiple renaming, this application has great management ability for big music collections.
Banshee – What amaroK offers to KDE desktop users on the Linux platform, Banshee works to provide to GNOME desktop users. Sponsored by Novell, Banshee is more about providing a great music/video player and less about add-ons and scripts. This is not to say that you cannot throw together some Banshee add-ons for extra functionality; rather, I don’t believe it has near the number of add-ons as the other iTunes alternatives above.
General functionality is good with Banshee. I can easily use the application to subscribe to podcasts, retrieve lyrics, enjoy relevant album art or sync up most iPods. As mentioned above, there is no known support for the iPod touch. On the plus side, there is great support for the T-Mobile G1 running Google’s Android!
Banshee features that I enjoy include:
• Smart playlists – As with the other iTunes alternatives, Banshee provides the same kind of great playlist functionality found in the above applications.
• iPod/MTP support – The iPod Touch/iPhone notwithstanding, Banshee has outstanding mobile music device support. The inclusion of the G1 support really makes this a winner.
• Podcast support – Subscribe and listen to all the podcasts you like.
• Powerful search – Easy to use and provides fast, accurate results on the keywords you provide.
What is missing from each of these applications?
Outside of the fact that each of these applications are limited to providing access to music stores that offer independent artists only, the above iTunes alternatives provide some very strong functionality.
Eventually I would like to see Amazon’s MP3 service integrated into at least one of these applications, if not all of them. Because it is not video that makes iTunes a killer app, it is the very easy access to a huge database of music for sale that then easily integrates into the iTunes media player.
Outside of that, the other factor holding back these apps is that they ask their potential users to forgo using cutting-edge devices such as the iPhone to sync their favorite content and instead opt for something more mundane. It’s a tough sell.
But for those who are willing to use compatible MP3 devices to sync up their music and who understand that purchasing mainstream music outside of iTunes alternatives might not be truly seamless, it’s not such a bad deal.