Singing Songbird’s praises

To tempt people away from the easy default options – Windows Media Player and iTunes – a rival music player needs to have something special.

And it’s for that very reason that the vast majority have died out, or at least been relegated to obscurity. Even among the ranks of PC Pro staff, we tend to take the easy option and default to Windows Media Player.

That’s not pure laziness, since Media Player is a good piece of software, but there are better options out there. And one of the best is the free, open-source Songbird.

It’s a relatively young program – the project only started in 2006 – but in that time it’s risen above almost every other alternative player. And yet it remains (if you’ll pardon the pun) relatively unsung.

It’s odd that Songbird hasn’t hit the mainstream. Plenty of people are familiar with other “alternative” players, such as VLC or the once-popular Winamp.

We suspect it’s because people tend to associate free, third-party media-player apps with clunky interfaces, poor media support and a tendency to fall behind the times, as Winamp has done.

That’s a shame, because Songbird is a superb application and capable of competing with any commercial offering. It has managed to stay ahead of the game largely thanks to its talented developers.

Songbird

Think of Songbird as being to Windows Media Player or iTunes what Firefox is to Internet Explorer: a serious alternative that’s breaking new ground rather than just playing feature catch-up.

Installation

The core Songbird application is a simple, good-looking but robust system for playing audio. You need to install add-ons to get it up to speed and competing with other players, but that’s not difficult since the installation routine gives you a list of recommended add-ons that can be automatically installed along with the core player.

At the moment those include various features you’d expect as standard, such as CD-ripping ability and a Gracenote look-up add-on, which automatically finds and names CD tracks.

You also get integration with the 7digital music store (selling appropriately DRM-free MP3 albums and tracks), plus a neat little add-on called mashTape, which gives you a view of track data pulled in from a variety of web sources, including video.

But the true power of Songbird is realised when you browse the other available add-ons. If you want an iTunes-style Cover Flow interface with animated album art, just download the MediaFlow add-on.

Want to know more about the artists you listen to? Get yourself the Wikipedia extension and you can view the page for the artist in the main Songbird window. Love Spotify’s method of browsing for music? Just add the Spotbird Artist Browser.

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