Songbird 0.4 Review

I used to be a Songbird contributor before it came out. I heard the project management somewhere and some folks there called for localization. I then provided Thai translation for an unreleased software and hoped my effort will help it to become an 'iTunes killer'.

But when proof-of-concept Songbird 0.1 was released, it was just only a proof-of-concept. Yes, it can play your music files but the user experience was still crude and not ready for real life. At that time, I think it's Ok and fitted with 'Release early, release often' dilemma. I had kept my eye on Songbird development for a while after. The development rate was extremely slow and the core team seemed to be interested in small-little-black-bird artwork than the software itself. Like many others, I lost my interest in Songbird and went back to iTunes.

Since then, I've never heard about Songbird again on any open source-related sites while I saw many mentions on its video counterpart, Miro (then named Democracy Player). Miro has become mature and usable but Songbird seems to lose its hype.

2 years has passed, Songbird is now version 0.4 and I think I should take a look on it again.

The download and installation process is straightforward. The startup time is a bit longer than iTunes (which is also bloatware now). Like Firefox, the XUL applications have never been champion in loading time. This seems OK with me. Optimization can come later after the feature-complete stage.

Once the main window appears, my first thought is, "It's iTunes clone, in black!!". See the screenshot and you will definitely agree on this point.

Songbird 0.4 Screenshot
Reverse iTunes

I begin to explore its functionality by import my music. Songbird comes with no library importer at all so that I need to import my music by hand. As same as release 0.1, it plays my music flawlessly (thanks to VLC backend). It perfectly manages my library. The interface and functions are very close to iTunes. But does it become iTunes killer? Still not yet. There are many essential things missing.

Visual clue is easiest to detect. There is no album artwork in Songbird. I've never expected Cover Flow-liked feature but the Album View is also missing (because there is no album cover!!!) Come on, it's 2008 now and how can the album artwork is still not included in music management program?

One of the advertising features of Songbird is tabbed browsing. Press Cmd+T (or Ctrl+T) and the new tab will pop up, as same as Firefox. Some may please with this feature but don't count me on. I'm still not convinced that we should have tab in music software. Furthermore, now the navigation of program is about tree (from sidebar) vs tab metaphor. I think it's not good in term of usability.

Songbird 0.4 Screenshot
Do we need MDI in media player?

I look around further. The worst part of Songbird might be its Preferences (or 'Options' in Windows/Linux sense). I know that Songbird is built on top of Firefox and promotes itself as media player/browser hybrid. But why it need to take all Firefox preferences with it? Do I want to config my proxy or popup blocker in my music management program?

Songbird 0.4 Screenshot
Isn't it Firefox?

We can also see some browser elements left in program. I can change my zoom level, select alternative stylesheets and change character encoding from the menu.

Songbird 0.4 Screenshot

However, the best and 'killer' feature of Songbird is also its integration with the web. It has built-in search interface (using OpenSearch plugin, as same as Firefox) and comes with several default music search engine. I've never heard these services before in my life.

Songbird 0.4 Screenshot

When I try to search something, the results show up in web page as usual. But few second later, the 'web playlist pane' shows up in the bottom. Just click on 'download' button in the rightmost column, that music file will be downloaded to your hard drive, imported into your music library and ready to play. Very impressive.

Songbird 0.4 Screenshot
Songbird Startpage. Let's try 'Leona Lewis'
Songbird 0.4 Screenshot
Directly download music file by 'Download button'

It works like purchasing songs from iTunes Store but don't need to pay anything. It's definitely illegally but, in term of feature, amazingly.

In brief, my first investigation yields the missing of some core features:

  • No album artwork
  • No Album view
  • No CD burning capability
  • Can not change the number of column in Library view (I prefer 2 columns instead of 3)
  • Tree vs Tab metaphor for navigation
  • No smart playlist
  • No party shuffle
  • and no keyboard shortcut for music playback!!!

As compulsory in modern applications, Songbird can use 'Add-ons' to extend its ability. I look on its add-ons web site and find some missing features above in the form of add-ons.

  • Album Art Manager - manage the album artwork (Anyway, the 'grab artwork from Amazon' does not work for me)
  • Album Applet - enable Cover Flow (still not work with 0.4)
  • Audioscrobbler - send your music log to last.fm (its function is still limited)
  • iTunes Library Importer
  • Now Playing List - for those who still stick with WinAmp one playlist approach
  • Other nice features such as Wikipedia Extension, display the Wikipedia page for the current artist (Unfortunately, it grabs not only page content but whole Wikipedia page)

For themes (or 'Feathers' in Songbird), there are several themes available on Songbird site. However, I only find two usable themes (and one is iTunes exact clone). The other is minimalist theme called 'Goose'.

Songbird 0.4 Screenshot
Can Goose sing?

The most innovative theme is 'Birdie', which display Songbird in small and cute black bird playing music. Click on the bird's eyes to adjust volume, its wings to forward or rewind, its leg for jump and its tail to change to another theme. Brilliant.

Songbird 0.4 Screenshot
It'll be better if there are album artworks

I look further more in Songbird web site and forum. From developer's blog and presentation, Songbird is a platform, not an application. I think the developers have spent recent years in development infrastructure: backend, API, document and tools. It seems to be good strategy and will ensure the extensibility in the future. But should that be the first priority? Do people care about these things while the main function is still not perfect?

Compared with Mozilla family, now Songbird 0.4 is equal to Mozilla Seamonkey, the suite for semi-pro users that lay the basic for future development. What Songbird is missing is the 'Firefox for music', mass market product that everyone love to use and gains some spotlight in mass media market.

My quick advise:

  • Integrated above extension above into default installation. Then polish them to make sure the unified look and feel.
  • Whole new preferences dialog
  • Remove menu clutter
  • Good marketing campaign, can learn from SpreadFirefox.

Notes

  • I don't have iPod or any portable music player so that I can't test on this feature.
  • See another good review for 0.4 release by Jon Ramvi.
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Comments

thanks to your review, i've tried this songbird a while ago. at first, i just didn't understand why did they have to clone iTune which it made me kind of disappointed and when i play music, i don't think it can replace my current music player which is foobar. however as you've said in your article that songbird intends to be a platform not an application. therefore it's still not suit my type because i'm just looking for music player application.

anyway i do like its logo "black little bird" it' so cute...^^ it makes me wanna use songbird. ha ha

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