Music and browsing take flight in Songbird

Music and browsing mashup Songbird has kicked the remnants of its shell to the curb, and the program's main emphasis as a music browser couldn't be more clear.

Music and browsing mashup Songbird has kicked the remnants of its shell to the curb. With the release of version 1.0.0 for Windows, Mac, and Linux, the program's main emphasis as a music browser couldn't be more clear.

Songbird's familiar layout should make it easy for many to combine their browsing and music playback in one tool.

(Credit: Pioneers of the Inevitable)

If you looked at some of the earlier beta versions, Songbird's interface borrowed heavily from Firefox. More recent versions took their cue from iTunes, with Web browsing occurring in a second tab. Although toggling between your music library and the browser is as easy as switching tabs, since Songbird opens your library by default it's apparent where the publisher thinks users will want to focus.

This is arguably a smart strategy, too, given the attention that the latest round of browser battles has garnered. The music library layout feels intuitive, owing much to iTunes. Album art appears in the lower left corner with a navigation tree above it. A button at the bottom of the sidebar lets you toggle both. The music player controls can be configured to appear at the top or the bottom of the main window via the Views menu. Drag-and-drop would be a nice feature here, although not essential.

The Filter pane defaults to appear, and lives at the top of the interface above the browsing tabs. Again, it can be hidden in the Views menu. The Filter pane is included by default, but if you click on the dual-pane icon next to the Search box and click on Get more media views, you can install extensions that provide you with a Cover Flow facsimile, a tag cloud, and others.

The Library browsing tab is hard-coded to appear and the tab lives permanently above the left sidebar. Overall, though, the interface shouldn't be a drastic change if you're familiar with iTunes, and shares enough options with other media players that you won't feel like you're locked in to what Songbird's designers had in mind.

If you're into skins or Firefox themes, Songbird supports those as Feathers. A quick search through the feathers options on the Songbird Web site indicates that, just as with Firefox, black themes are in. Way in. Switching installed feathers works the same as in Firefox, although in Songbird the reboot happens so fast it appears as if it's doing it on the fly. A right-nav toggle reveals a pane for managing your display pane add-ons.

Songbird's not just about its plumage--it's got some meat on its bird-bones. Besides the rolled-in jukebox, there's the native support for Last.fm, and an included add-on for MashTape. Additional add-ons can provide a lyrics pane, music recommendations, and more. The audio engine is Gstreamer, which is used in all Songbird platforms, and an included plug-in provides device support that's otherwise still in beta. However, when syncing files with an iPod Classic, I ran into zero problems.

Songbird doesn't have all of the features that Firefox 3 does. The address bar lacks its "awesome" upgrade--some users will surely see that as an improvement. It appears that many of the Firefox 3 visual security improvements, such as the favicon color change and the unsafe site warning, haven't made it into Songbird.

There are other major features that are still in development. Album art fetching is not yet natively supported, nor is video playback, watch folders, or feed management. These drawbacks, though, shouldn't keep you from checking out Songbird.

Editors' note: Last.fm is owned by CNET's parent company, CBS Interactive.

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