Music, music everywhere, and a ton of programs with which to organize it. But how will you know which of the many iTunes-equivalents (if not iTunes itself) are going to be right for your needs?
If you're one of the many people using Windows' default music libraries to organize and store your files, stop. Just stop. There's so much more you can do beyond that-which-is-given by Windows Media Player's library features, it's not even funny. Conversely, if you're one of the people who clings to Apple's iTunes with a death grip by virtue of it being one of the first big music organizing tools to really "stick" amongst the general geek population... you might be in good hands. You also might be missing out on a ton of additional functionality, depending on what you're looking for and how you typically go about rocking out on your computer.
To keep the playing field fair, we'll look at three different applications in this ultimate guide to media organizing: iTunes, Songbird, and Zune. For those keeping score at home, that's one big solution from Apple, one big solution from Microsoft, and one big solution from the open-source community. There are certainly other options around--Foobar comes to mind as one such example. None are as comprehensive in their combination of features and/or customizability as these three, however. They're all easy to install and easy to set up, but which application has the features and usability that'll make it a hit?
Apple introduced iTunes into the world at the 2001 Macworld Expo. At the time, it was fairly trimmed-down piece of software that was really only meant to do two things: play audio files and burn discs in a single program. Apple's app wasn't quite as slick as its chief rival, Windows Media Player 7. The latter built Internet connectivity into the usual list of media playback features to deliver a player that could not only burn and rip CDs, but also connect to Internet radio, surf online media guides, and download new skins for the whole application.
My, how times have changed.
Apple Support: Duh. Apple's iTunes is the only media player/organizer that fully supports all the features of Apple's various handheld products. Other media organizers simply can't bypass the encryption Apple keeps between its products and its players.
Online Store: It's hard to deny the power of Apple's online store. With downloads of more than 8.5 billion songs, three billion apps, and one million video files since its inception, the iTunes Store is a veritable powerhouse of content in the marketplace.
Customized Data Dump: Want to list your music by the last time you accessed the file? Okay. You're your music by beats-per-minute? Sure! Want to organize your files by bit rate? Go ahead. iTunes comes with a full list of sortable options for listing your jams.
Powerful Playlisting: Automatically assign new songs to a playlist based on customized criteria you select. It's a perfect way to have a perfect, hands-free organization for your music library.
Apple Authorization: Want to connect your app to your iTunes Store account? You only get five authorizations (and one do-over) per year. That's not much for a single computer user, but if you're running iTunes on multiple devices using one account, and forget to deauthorize your computers when reinstalling the OS, you're hosed.
Clunky Interface: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I can't help but feel that the iTunes UI is a bit kludgy. Throw in Apple's marketing efforts--like the Genius-based callbacks to the iTunes Store, as well as the entirety of the iTunes store itself--and the whole app just feels a bit out of its element on the Windows platform.
Lookups, Schmookups: Apple's iTunes isn't that good about looking up cover art for MP3s you've imported, even when the album seems pretty easy to identify-in my case, the Avenue Q soundtrack. If the ID3 tags aren't perfect, isn't there some kind of fancy technology iTunes can use to suggest a best-guess fix?
Lost Music? Lost Money: Delete a track you've downloaded from iTunes and you're stuck--unless you send a mea culpa to Apple itself, you'll have to repurchase the song from the iTunes Store.
Ahh, yes. Microsoft's answer to Apple's iTunes-if-we're-not-talking-about-Windows-Media-Player. Like iTunes, you won't be able to use the external-features of Zune with any device but... the Zune. Go figure. However, unlike Apple's iTunes, Microsoft has really hit one out of the park from an interactivity standpoint. Zune is easy to install and setup, and it works wonderfully with your preexisting music libraries in Windows. Provided you've dumped your music according to Windows' design, you won't have to go through any annoying re-importing via Zune.
Interface: ‘nuff said. With beautiful backgrounds, fading windows that pop up and down, and awesome auto-collages of your entire library's cover art--to name a few--Microsoft's interface for Zune is simply amazing. It's responsive, it's artistic, and it's a lot more fun to navigate than any other music organizer out there.
Social Interaction: Since Zune ties into your existing Microsoft Live account, you gain access to a wealth of awesome social features that you don't normally find in music organizers. Track what you're listening too, message your friends and see what they're listening to, and gain mini-achievements for your rocking out!
Home Page: That's right. The Zune software comes with its own "You just loaded the app" page that gives you quick access to bands you've selected to care about, music you've recently imported, and Smart DJ mixes that--in theory--should give you the same kind of sound as the band you've selected.
Limited Ripping: You can only rip tracks from CDs to a WMA or an MP3 format. That's not a lot of choice.
Zune Pass: Microsoft is really pimping its Zune Pass service all over the software. While admittedly neat--unlimited access to all music on the Zune Marketplace for $15 a month--I don't need it thrown in my face every time I'm trying to play a song or mix.
My Library? Zune Marketplace? Whenever you click on related links to what you're listening to, you might be pulling up a preview track from the Zune marketplace instead of an actual related song--e.g. clicking on Sara Bareilles when listening to Ben Folds could get you a 30-second preview of "Gravity" instead of an actual Bareilles song in your library. Zune needs a way to restrict recommendations to offline-only.
Long Loading: I'm currently sitting at 2.5-hours and counting just for Zune to make a Smart DJ mix of my files. While this will hopefully offer stronger musical recommendations than iTunes' default "eh, whatever" DJ service, you'll want to make sure you enable this functionality... a few days before your party.
Crazy networking: Streaming audio files in iTunes is a breeze--just click on a shared computer and play away. Zune requires you to go through Windows Media Extenders. Admittedly, this opens up your software to more devices for playback. However, it's a bit more involved of a process than iTunes--also, no Zune remote software for your device or wireless speaker connectivity.
Open-source, here we come! The third entrant in the "best music organizers ever?" category is its only open-source creation. Thousands of developers--ranging from Mozilla Firefox geeks to Winamp hackers--have descended upon this application in hopes of providing an awesome third-party solution to the predominant media tools on the marketplace. Have they succeeded? Yes and no. Unfortunately, some of the program's faults are elements that don't really have an open-source solution.
Add-ons: Right off the bat, Songbird prompts you to install a number of awesome add-ons that take this music organizer light-years beyond its closed-source competition, including last.fm integration, a built-in lyrics auto-downloader, and a concert-tracker to tell you when artists in your library are on tour. Excellent.
Tabbed-browsing: Ahh, now you know it's an open-source program. In all seriousness, Songbird's tabbed-browsing-friendly interface does help you look up information on-the-fly, as these tabs serve as a built-in Web browser analogous to Mozilla Firefox.
File-formats: You'll be hard-pressed to find a music organizer that supports more file formats than Songbird, including: MPGA, MP3, M4A, M4V, MP4, M4P, M4B, Ogg Vorbis, Speex, AAC, WMA, WMADRM, FLAC, LPCM, ADPCM, and AMR.
Skinnable: Don't like how Songbird looks? Change up the look at a whim by installing a new skin overtop the program's core!
iTunes integration: Sorry, Zune. Songbird works alongside your existing iTunes configuration, enabling you to pull up your playlists from that program into this one. It's a great trick if you're still on the fence about switching from one to the other
Video: Not gonna' happen. Songbird is the only media organizer on this list that can't play video files... for right now. This support is promised in the February revision of the program. We'll see just how well it works then!
64-bit: Sorry, Windows 7 x64 enthusiasts. The current version of Songbird (as of this article's writing) doesn't work perfectly in your 64-bit operating system. Hello, problematic disc burning. For what it's worth, Windows 7 support as a whole is also fairly limited--no Aero in this one, folks! [author's note: fixed this section for additional clarity!]
Not very speedy: Clicking through menus and selecting options in Songbird feels like you're wading through molasses. This could be a direct result of the program's lack of 64-bit support (confession: That's how I was running it on my system). Or, at least, here's hoping that's the fixable culprit--this app is s-l-o-w.
Less-than-perfect device support: Although Songbird will sync up with devices like the Palm Pre and Motorola's Droid, and a other handheld audio players like Apple's iPods and MTP-based devices, it employs workarounds to sync with Apple devices and won't sync with a Zune unless you go hunting for add-ons.
No streaming: Want to share your library to other computers on your network a la iTunes' shared libraries or Windows' libraries? Not with Songbird, you won't!
So which music player should you go with? All three. No, really. There are compelling reasons to pick any of these media organizers--your personal "best match" really depends on your use scenarios. For a no-frills audio experience with super-fast sharing capabilities and a powerhouse store of content to purchase, you'll want to hit up Apple's iTunes.
If you're looking for a bit more flair for your rocking out and prefer to synchronize your tunes with more than just computers, Zune is an excellent choice that bridges a beautiful aesthetic with excellent, recommendation-based functionality (provided you don't mind the constant links to Zune's store).
And, naturally, if you're looking for features that you simply can't find in either app, Songbird is your ticket--its powerful add-on database extends the capabilities of this application light-years beyond what you'll find in either iTunes or Zune. The downside? You can't stream your audio and, honestly, the program feels a bit sluggish.