Open your jukebox: Open-source alternatives for music management

Take an in-depth look at two of the most promising open-source jukeboxes: aTunes and Songbird. Their development follows different paths, with one emphasizing your existing collection, and another focusing on music discovery.

Not mere freeware, but open-source alternatives are well-known for nearly every major category of software. Firefox and Linux are probably the most famous, but OpenOffice, GIMP, Thunderbird, Pidgin, Miro, and others have made themselves known in practically every genre. Heck, there's even an open-source firmware for your portable MP3 player--Rockbox.

One area that's been notably lacking some open-source love has been music jukeboxes. Competing with iTunes takes serious chops, even for programs that haven't opened their code like Winamp and MediaMonkey. However, there are a growing number of iTunes competitors that are gloriously open. Two that are definitely worthy of more attention are aTunes and Songbird.

aTunes surfaces both primary and secondary info about your music on its main page.

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Right off the bat, aTunes was not instilling confidence. After a fast installation, the tree navigation that opens up when you run the program for the first time, to scan your media library, was shockingly sluggish. Then it scanned in my 7,500 music tracks in just a shade over 10 minutes, flawlessly. Quite the turnaround.

There are some nifty features in aTunes. First off, despite having a lot of options in the main window, the tabs keep the interface from getting too cluttered while keeping useful secondary features a click away. Second, although it may not appear to be modular, the icons just below the Menubar let users hide the AudioScrobbler, the navigator, or the song properties. Built-in links make it possible to discover similar songs and related videos on YouTube.

The AudioScrobbler pane is exceptionally useful. Unlike other jukeboxes that hide secondary information behind context-menu navigation, aTunes surfaces all of it--but keeps it behind tabs. This kind of one-click access makes it much easier to discover biographical details of the artist you're listening to, while the Album tab shows track listings, and the Song tab surfaces song lyrics automatically.

aTunes uses tabs to keep a multitude of information and options one click away.

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In addition to the unique layout and presentation of information, aTunes comes with 27 skins, has built-in Last.fm and various other Internet radio station support, and has decent podcast-catching abilities. Through the Preferences, users can set the unified window to appear as multiple and separate panes. You can also determine how long the tooltips show up for, if at all, if Smart Sorting gets used, and whether the tabs are visible. Metatag editing and autotagging work well, and I liked the "favorites" feature which creates an automatic playlist of your songs tagged as such.

There are some big problems, though. At the top of the list is the unimpressive MP3 player support. It will work on portable devices if they behave like external hard drives, but once they start utilizing fancy firmware--like the iPod--aTunes just ignores it. According to an aTunes help forum post, there are no immediate plans to address this. Thankfully, aTunes didn't freeze or crash when I connected the iPod. Linux and Mac users might find the installation to be too much work, with various components not bundled into the executable. aTunes would benefit from search-as-you-type, as well.

Even with those problems, though, aTunes makes a compelling case for giving it a spin.

Songbird should feel the more familiar to iTunes users, and it stands a better chance of getting attention because of origin. Like Flock, it's based on Firefox, and attempts to merge a browser and a jukebox into a simple, elegant interface. I've written about Songbird before, and have been impressed with its features, if not its stability problems.

Songbird mashes up Firefox and iTunes.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

The latest big update pushed Songbird a bit closer to the edge of its nest. It's still in beta and is still buggy. It has problems adding music files with non-English characters. Specifically, the import process hung repeatedly on various Japanese-, Chinese-, and Hebrew-labeled tracks in my collection. Still, Songbird now can handle Thankgiving turkey-sized music collections greater than 10,000 songs, something earlier versions couldn't do. The developers have also improved memory management, a big concern with such a massive mashup. There's a metadata editor, support for SHOUTcast, and improved portable player syncing including the iPod.

The code improvements have allowed for smoother scrolling, faster filtering, and just overall better management of music collections of any size. Songbird is well on its way to being a serious jukebox. Other fixes include the previously nonfunctional edit menu joining the land of the living and the introduction of in-page text searching.

One of its biggest draws might also be its biggest drawback. Songbird is shockingly similar to iTunes. Most other jukeboxes, whether open-source or not, have shied away from the tripartite top window and music library in the central pane. Songbird embraces them, and further pushes its homage to iTunes by copying player control default positioning, a rounded view screen, and a Mac-style tree.

Songbird also makes it easy to discover and download any music files embedded on a Web site.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

The benefit, of course, of having your jukebox mashed into your Web browser is that music discover can potentially get a lot easier. Songbird does just that, by opening a pane at the bottom of the browser when you visit a site with music embedded. From there, you can either download the tracks, if the site supports that, or at the very least add them on the fly to your current playlist. The pane surfaces the track name, artist, blog links, and multiple purchase links, including Amazon, eMusic, and without a hint of irony, iTunes.

There are more than just two open-source music jukeboxes, of course. SnackAmp has been around since the beginning of the century, and there's Jukes, JlGui, and JaJuk. Banshee looks promising as a cross-platform jukebox, but is only available for Linux users so far. If you've got a favorite open-source jukebox, tell me about it in the comments below.

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