As the open source music player Songbird prepares to take flight – Release Candidate 1 is available for testing, with an official 1.0 release due within days – it's time to ask whether it's a worthy replacement for iTunes, Windows Media Player or the media tool of your choice.
The answer is a definite "Yes, sort of, maybe, in a bit."
Songbird is very different from other media players, largely because its guts are made of Firefox. In the same way Flock takes the core of Firefox and adds lots of social networking stuff, Songbird adds more music power.
With more and more people hanging around the internet to get their music, Songbird blurs the lines between your tunes and all the other stuff you can get online – so there's integrated Last.fm, Shoutcast radio and the ability to subscribe to online playlists.
iTunes killer? Not quite yet
Like Firefox it's extendable, so you can add goodies such as lyric finders, Last.fm recommendations or related information about the artist you're listening too, and you can also get Coverflow-style album art browsing, access to new music via The Hype Machine and integrated MP3 searching via Skreemr.
If you've used previous versions of Songbird you'll notice a dramatic improvement in performance, and we were particularly impressed by the speed of importing: a 50GB library of music was imported in just a few minutes, with metadata intact.
Importing and checking for updates in your iTunes library couldn't be easier, and the forthcoming Watch Folders feature (due in February) will keep tabs on specified bits of your hard disk, such as your downloads folder, and automatically add any new music it finds.
The ability to skin the entire program should result in some decent artist-themed designs (amusingly it's already spawned a cheeky iTunes copy), and the ability to extend the program means Songbird could be as interesting and customisable as Firefox.
Because Songbird is Firefox-based it's cross-platform, so you can get it for Windows, Mac or Linux systems – but not PowerPC Macs, or at least not officially, as the developers have decided that supporting PowerPC spreads their limited resources too thinly.
However, the Firefox core also means you'll encounter the same issues that affect browsers: run too many add-ons or open too many tabs and you'll use more hardware horsepower than a mere MP3 player would normally need, and poorly designed add-ons or misbehaving web pages can cause chaos.
As you'd expect from a 1.0 release, Songbird is very much a work in progress. Format support is decent if limited: FLAC, MP3 and Vorbis on Windows, Mac and Linux, with support for AAC on the Mac and both WMA and AAC on Windows.
Support for protected AAC is available via an extension, as is iPod support, and the program supports a wide range of USB mass storage-based MP3 players. However, there are a few noticeable gaps: video support is sketchy and CD ripping is on the to-do list for February – as is volume levelling and crossfading, with equalisation and automatic track lookups due in April.
If you're looking for a single program that will do everything from ripping CDs to displaying music visualisations, or if using a different program for the odd CD rip is too much hassle, then Songbird won't be for you just yet.
However, if you've already got a big MP3 collection (or get your music from other places, such as eMusic) and you like the idea of a skinnable, customisable media player that combines your music library with the top online music services, then Songbird 1.0 should be winging its way to your PC.