A media player for the times: Songbird

After about two years in the works, Pioneers of the Inevitable have released Songbird, a Mozilla-based music player, with which, POTI aims to do for music what Mozilla did with Firefox: provide an open source customizable multiplatform music player.

On first sight, it doesn’t look much different than several other media players like iTunes. Like it, the user interface is dominated by the music library with music in your computer, play controls at the bottom, a search bar that includes SkreemR (an mp3 search site) and The Hype Machine (a music blogs search site), and a tab bar.

As a music player, Songbird uses GStreamer, an open source multimedia framework and can play MP3, FLAC and Vorbis files in all platforms;  AAC on Windows and Mac; and Windows Media Audio (with and without DRM) on Windows only.

There is no CD playing or ripping capabilities however, which depending on your music buying habit may be a deal breaker or not. Personally, it’s been a long while since I ripped a CD as most of my music comes from eMusic, amazon MP3 or Walmart MP3 (serving Puerto Rico, yay!).

Podcast support is weak. You can only manually add podcasts URLs via the File/New Subscription… menu which is unbelievable for a player that is basically built on a browser.

Cool enough, it supports my Dell Inspiron media buttons right out of the box, and I can define as many hotkeys as I want.

Performance wise it took 2 minutes to import my songs (about 7,000) which I found pretty fair, and I have nothing to complain about the user interface responsiveness.

Its memory footprint however is another topic: 76 MB on Windows XP SP3. Being a Winamp user for more than a decade now, it seemed pretty high to me at first , until I gave a look at the task manager and found that Winamp is around 52 MB right after launch. When minimized, Songbird drops to about 25MB while Winamp practically disappears to about 5MB.

I can live with that.

A unique feature Songbird introduces is integration with digital music stores, providing the richness of a desktop application widgets to music sampling and downloading on sites that use the API and documentation POTI published.

Just like Firefox, what sets Songbird apart is its extensibility. There are currently about 300 add-ons at Songbird Add-ons including feathers (themes) to change the application look and feel.

Extensions add a wide variety of customization from iPod support (not for iPhone or iPod Touch yet), to some Firefox classics like VideoDownloader, Stylish, FlashGot, Minimize to Tray, NoScript, StumbleUpon, and a few others. Plus some new interesting ones like LyricMaster, that displays the correct lyrics in the right pane as soon as a new song starts playing. Press a button to add them to the track’s tag.

SongTapper, a service that let’s you search for a song by tapping the melody with the space bar is also quite addictive. Eyecandy lovers who crave for iTune’s album browsing good looks, will appreciate MediaFlow.

Add-ons just like Songbird itself benefit of Firefox’s update service mechanisms so staying current is a breeze.

Perhaps once you hear about Songbird add-ons and music store integration you will start to realize there’s something different about Songbird that escapes the typical definition of a media player. POTI calls it a “web media player” which I believe is an accurate description: it harnesses the power of the web to expand the music experience.

On the other hand, you can’t right click on a song and search for the artist, song, or album on Wikipedia, AMG or Rolling Stone, for example.

Songbird is a different media player conceived for a different music fan. One that is most of his time connected to the web where the experience can be extended with more multimedia and the social factor of this decade’s Internet.

I will avoid calling it an iTunes killer because, first, that’s setting the bar too low, and second, it is about selling content and keeping you inside Apple’s ecosystem, lowering the bar even more.

Songbird future looks very promising. According to the roadmap, watch folders, album art download, crossfading, and normalization are all coming in February 2009. CD ripping, an equalizer, and customizable toolbars should follow in April.

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