A Songbird of a different color

SongbirdAs an unashamed Mac user, I love iTunes. In fact, I rarely listen to music (for pleasure) outside of the iTunes/iPod environment. I like the ease and convenience of iTunes for listening to whatever music strikes my fancy at the moment. Plus it’s a Mac thing, and that makes me happy too.

So it was with a spirit of exploration and adventure that I downloaded Songbird when the first official release was made available earlier this week.

Songbird is an open source media player/browser. Think of it as a mash up of iTunes and Firefox. Songbird is available for Mac, Windows, and Linux.

It has a media player interface very similar to the classic browser look in iTunes, allowing you to browse your music library by genre, artist or album. Of course, there’s a search feature as well. Playlists are supported in the left-hand column, just like iTunes. In fact, on launch it allowed me to “import” my iTunes library including media and playlists. It didn’t copy anything, it just designated my iTunes library directory as the library directory for Songbird. Very smart.

Songbird is also supposed to be able to sync to your iPod and manage your device similarly to iTunes. I didn’t have the courage to try that though.

It doesn’t have the fancy coverflow feature, or the newest grid view layout iTunes is currently sporting. At least not by default. Like I said, it’s open source. There are a LOT of add ons for Songbird. It took me less than two minutes to find MediaFlow, with makes Songbird look like the CoverFlow version of iTunes. It didn’t find all the artwork like it should have, but it worked pretty well.

Add ons are installed by browsing for them online. The media player incorporates tabbed browsing reminiscent of Firefox. The tabs allow you to browse for add ons, or even new music. Built in searches take you to skreemr.com and The Hype Machine, where you can browser/search for new music which can then be downloaded or purchased depending on availability.

All that is interesting and very open source, but the really intriguing feature of Songbird is the Content Pane. This is a feature Apple would be wise to emulate in the next version of iTunes.

The Content Pane occupies the bottom portion of the apps interface, in the same space formerly held by the now defunct iTunes ministore. Songbird’s Content Pane is infinitely more useful and interesting than the iTunes ministore ever was.

When browsing or searching for new music, the Content Pane serves as a download center and ministore. It’s function is largely determined by which site you happen to be accessing at the moment.

When listening to music in your music library, the Content Pane gets very interesting. Pull up a Tony Rice song for instance and you’ll be presented with last.fm info such as a short artist bio, a discography, band members (if applicable), and last.fm tags.

Clicking the “News” tab will present the latest news from Hype Machine for the selected artist.

The “Photos” tab brings you a clickable slideshow of images tagged with the artist name on Flickr, complete with the user name of the the person to who’s flickr stream the photo belongs, the image title, and the age of the photo (how long ago it was uploaded). Clicking a photo in the slideshow will open the flickr page in a new tab. The music will continue playing all the while.

The “Videos” tab functions in like manner to the “Photos” tab, only presenting YouTube videos instead of Flickr photos. Clicking a Youtube video for playback will halt playback of the song file from your library automatically. Tagged videos are presented in a vertically scrolling pane on the left, while the currently playing video is presented on the right.

These features make Songbird very intriguing as a song discovery platform, as well as an advanced way for a music fan to explore and enjoy his favorite artists.

Using Songbird to discover new music via SkreemR.com

Watching a Flickr slideshow of Tony Rice photos while listening to Tony in Songbird

Browsing Flickr while listening in Songbird

Watching a Youtube video in Songbird