iTunes Alternative On The Mac: Songbird vs Banshee

Can iTunes media player monopoly on the Mac come to an end? There are two noteworthy contenders: Songbird and Banshee. Let’s see if they have a chance at overthrowing  iTunes.

What’s wrong with iTunes?

It depends on who you ask. Some may say it’s bloated, it’s slow, a resource hog, lacks support for players other than iPods, you can’t customize it, it doesn’t allow you to organize music the way you want – you constantly need to import music files into iTunes library (aka no “Watch Folders” feature), no “now playing” playlist, DRM-ed songs bought through the iTunes store can only be played on iPods, cover art download feature doesn’t work most of the time and let’s not forget it’s closed source.
On the other hand iTunes is sexy, easy, pretty much painless, integrates perfectly with the Mac, iPod and iPhone, streams music with AirTunes, cover-flow library view is gorgeous, library syncing works fantastic, it has smart folders, built-in CD ripping/writing and it basically has everything you need for playing, organizing, syncing, encoding and downloading music, podcasts and movies.
We will take a look at open-source Songbird 0.7.0 and Banshee 1.4 from a Mac user perspective and compare them to  iTunes to see if there are any compelling reasons to switch.

Technology used

Songbird is built on Mozilla’s XULRunner platform and it allows skinning and add-ons similar to Firefox, but it uses a lot of RAM. It is called by many the Firefox of media players. Another selling point is browsing web pages from within Songbird (Gecko engine) and automatic music discovery(“url slurper”) – music files embedded on a web page are displayed on a separate pane where they can be played or downloaded.

Banshee is built on the Mono platform and Gtk – the reason why it has a certain Gnome look and feel, which is not actually a bad thing. This version of Banshee is the first technology preview release for Mac OS X which explains the glitches and frequent crashes. Before installing Banshee you need to install Mono.
Both Songbird and Banshee use GStreamer multimedia framework for decoding and encoding media files.

Media files support

Songbirds can play MP3, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, WMA and Apple FairPlay – encoded audio, while Banshee plays Ogg Vorbis, MP3,FLAC and H.264 videos.
Library Management
Songbird allows importing your iTunes music library. In my tests, songs and playlists were imported correctly, but no ratings or play counts. Banshee can’t import the iTunes library but you can import the media from the iTunes folder. I imported more than 7000 tracks from my external Firewire drive. Both applications were quite fast, but Banshee seemed a little faster. When importing is complete, Songbird automatically searches for duplicates and Banshee tries to find cover art from the internet.
When it comes to organizing your music, you get the usual stuff you might expect: playlists, smart playlists, ratings, live search and sorting from multiple criteria. Neither has playlist folders.

A feature that we long for in iTunes, Folder-watch (auto discovery and import of new music files from specified folders), is also missing, but is promised in a future release of Songbird. At least Banshee has a Rescan Library Tool, a tool that will rescan your media collection and update your library if any changes have occurred. A very welcomed feature is the Play Queue in Banshee, which allows you to queue up songs on the fly. Why isn’t this in all media players?

Metadata and cover art
Both have good meta data editors, but Banshee’s is better. A thing I’ve noticed: Songbird did not read the whole meta data:

When you import music files, Banshee will automatically try to download cover art from Rhapsody, Amazon and Last.fm. It does a pretty good job. Way better than iTunes.
Songbird does not have such a feature built-in and cannot import cover art from the iTunes library, but you can use Album Manager and Last.FM Cover Fetcher addons. From what I can tell, you have to manually right click each of your albums to download the cover art. Ouch!

Interface
Songbird has a fairly polished interface, very iTunes-like, and many Mac users will appreciate the similarities. Unlike iTunes, or Banshee for that matter, the interface offers a very high degree of customization. You also get a tabbed browser and customizable music search box, where you can add your favorite mp3 music search engines or use the defaults: SkreemR or The Hype Machine.
Besides the playlist pane and the central pane you get three customizable panes for add-ons: two at the bottom and one on the right side.

Also with the help of add-ons you can choose the library view from: List, Filter Pane, Album List, Album View, and MediaFlow (mimics iTunes CoverFlow and it’s not to shabby) . Album List is terrible.

While some may say Banshee’s streamlined interface could use some spicing up, when compared to Songbird, I find it easy, clear and uncluttered. It has only one view for the library, with three panes: the  artists. the albums and the songs. I consider this to be the most useful way to view my music library.

Considering this is the first beta preview on the Mac, I will ignore the little interface quirks like chunks of text disappearing or the absence of a functional progress bar for songs.
Both application offer a mini-mode, but Banshee’s interface is bulky while Songbird’s mini interface is highly stylized.

Skins
Songbird’s skins are called feathers. You can choose from well over 100 feathers and with the help of the add-on manager you can easily install them. I don’t really know what is the deal with Banshee themes. Apparently it supports skinning but I did not find a way to get and install such themes.

iPod support
Songbird has built-in support for managing iPods (but no iPhones or iPod touch). You can let it sync or manually transfer the files.

The Mac version of Banshee does not yet support devices, but the Linux versions supports iPods and mobile phones (even HTC G1 Android, but no iPhone) so hopefully this will not be an issue with future versions.

Music stores
With Songbird there is a Jamendo and eMusic add-on, but the integration with these stores resumes at displaying a list of tracks and a play button in the bottom pane. To buy a song you need to visit the website. As for Banshee, there is an unofficial iTunes Music store plugin, but more about plugins in the next section.

Extension Support
The strong point of Songbird is the ability to easily add extensions. There are over a hundred extensions for library views, social services like Last.fm and Twitter, lyric finders, music recommendations, concert ticket finders, artist bios, Apple remote-control support and many more. Some of these add-ons will fit nicely in the extra panes.

The recommended add-ons you can install on the first start of Songbird are:iPod Device Support, QuickTime Playback, SHOUTcast Radio,Concerts,iTunes Library Importer,Songbird Developer Tools.

Banshee also supports extensions, but their number is very limited. Most of these plugins have been included by default in Banshee and they are called Core-Plugins. The unofficial plugins are not that easy to install- you have to know your way with the command line. Among the core-plugins you can find: Bookmarks, Cover Art fetching, Digital Media Player support, Mass storage media player support, Internet Radio, Last.fm radio and Scrobbling, Mini Mode, Play Queue and Podcasts.
I find the Last.Fm integration very well built in Banshee.

Radios and podcasts
In Songbird there is no podcast category. To get a podcast to appear in Songbird you need to right click the Playlists category, choose New Subscription and enter the feed URL. The podcast will appear as a playlist and  you can begin streaming the episode you want, unlike iTunes where you have to wait for the download to finish.
Songbird comes with SHOUTcast Radio add-on. If your favorite radio station isn’t there, then you have to follow the same procedure as for adding podcasts.You guess it, the radio station will appear as a playlist. Awkward and annoying. No to mention the fact that if you add a radio, the download animation will constantly indicate a download is in progress.

Banshee has a dedicated Podcast and Radio category. You will see the cover art for all your podcasts in the album pane. An interesting feature is the ability to organize podcasts in playlists and smart playlists. Radio doesn’t work 100%. I could add all my stations but some refused to play.

Conclusion
With good looks, customization, addons and  integrated web browser with music discovery and download features, Songbird is an ambitious project.
With sheer elegance in its simplicity, Banshee for Mac looks very promising. But at the current stage it’s not really usable- it crashes every few tracks.
If you think about it, you have great plugins for iTunes too: Last.fm, iLike or the upcoming TuneUp companion. Most people don’t even care about the audio encoding or where the physical music files are stored on the drive, they just want to listen to their music. These people and those who like iTunes the way it is, probably consider Songbird or Banshee just a crippled-down iTunes.
For those who dislike iTunes I have bad news: neither Songbird or Banshee is an iTunes killer on the Mac. Simply put, at this moment there are no real compelling reasons to switch.
On the other hand, as an iTunes alternative on Linux, the fight is tough, as there are two more contenders: Amarok and Rhythmbox.

Thanks everyone, this post made it to Reddit!

14 comments
  1. bigbluealien said:

    It is possible, although very tricky, buggy and sometimes ugly, to get Amarok and Rhythmbox running on Mac. For Amarok see here http://mac.kde.org/ .Rhythmbox is much harder and you'll have to hunt around a bit for that.

  2. Obvious guy said:

    OSS. When will you ever learn? Portability is for canoes.

    Design an app for a single platform. Not a crap for every platform. Make it OSS, if you will, and share absolutely essential code like something the equivalent of Apple's Genius. But, if 80% of an application is about the GUI, then abstracting that away is moronic.

    I do dislike iTunes DRM stuff, but as a result, I simply don't shop from iTunes store. But, by god, I will never ever run these applications by principle unless iTunes implements the most draconian restrictions.

  3. James Joens said:

    Itunes is Dabomb! Why would anyone want an alternative
    http://www.privacy.de.tc

  4. Sam said:

    I tried out Songbird recently and was pleasantly surprised, but I agree that its definitely not an itunes killer.

    I've had great experiences with Rhythmbox for linux tho, its what I use exclusively on my linux box.

    http://projects.gnome.org/rhythmbox/

  5. rich said:

    What does this have to do with Ubuntu or Linux?

  6. Steven Bengtson said:

    I find the lack of clarity in this article disturbing regarding Songbird.
    1. Album Art Manager is actually a discontinued Add On as it is being integrated into the core application (this is noted on the add on site [http://addons.songbirdnest.com/addon/102%5D)
    2. AlbumList (and AlbumView) are both pre alpha so they are not expected to work in the slightest. Mentioning them in this article is very misleading.
    3. iPhone/iTouch support is not currently available anywhere except iTunes due to the new hash encryption implemented by apple. Once those are cracked then we can expect support on most media players. To expect it to not be an issue on future versions with Bashee is naive.

    Great progress has been made on both of these applications and deserve the praise they receive.

  7. Nathan said:

    I'd point out that both run on Linux as well. However, I think the article's intent was to see if either could be a viable alternative to iTunes on a Mac, so they were reviewed from the perspective of a Mac user.

  8. Erik said:

    Songbird has good looks? Surely you are joking. It looks like it was designed by engineers using Linux and it probably was. *sigh*

    • Alxe said:

      Forgive me, but what's so wrong of a designer in a Linux OS?

  9. Jimbo said:

    I have 25,000 songs and Songbird just sits there for minutes when I dare to search for anything. Amarok 2.0 was supposed to run on OS X and Windows, but these ports are like vaporware for 2 years.

  10. Jay said:

    Another alternative for Windows is CopyTrans Manager.

    I like it because it is very light and fast.. and of course free: http://www.copytrans.net/manager.php

  11. rambazamba said:

    songbird is a good application but more resource hungry than itunes. i compared ram and cpu-usage with my 40GB library in idle and playing-mode. itunes on the mac is the best at the moment.

    if anyone want a lightweight player without the librarystuff, try cog. if you prefer to have a library, use itunes on the mac – performance-wise still the best solution.

    if songbird or banshee would be native applications…

  12. I appreciate the information provided in this post. I have been comparing mac Itunes alternatives for a while now and am satisfied with the suggestions posted here. Keep up the good work and happy blogging :)

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