Ape eats Apple: Why MediaMonkey is an iTunes killer

iTunes' performance on the PC has been less than stellar. MediaMonkey, on the other hand, has been steadily climbing to the top of the jukebox tree. Take a look at what makes this player the best freeware Windows player around, even for iPod owners.

At least on the PC, iTunes' performance has been less than stellar. Sure, it set the standard for jukeboxes early on, but most of that was probably tied to its then-exclusive ability to sync with the ubiquitous iPod. Now that device syncing, and especially iPod syncing, is a must-have feature, iTunes' other flaws are standing out like a mohawk in Mecca.

MediaMonkey provides a slick look, deep customization, and excellent playback. (Credit: CNET Networks)

Swinging in to the rescue on one heck of a lengthy vine is MediaMonkey 3. The latest free version of this Windows stalwart, which has been beating its chest since the beginning of the decade, showcases some great new features married to all the solid basics that you expect from your daily-use jukebox. The end result makes it a wonder that more people aren't using the Monkey for their boogie sessions.

iTunes is notorious for being a memory hog, for being a poor podcatcher, for having weak tag support, and for being stodgily uncustomizable. On all four counts, MediaMonkey takes big bites out of Apple.

As a WinAmp user, the feature that most impressed me was the tag support. WinAmp's tag support is overly complicated where MediaMonkey makes it a dead-simple procedure to accurately tag. Once you've selected your track or album, hit CTRL-L and the Monkey searches Amazon.com for album art, track names, and basically every field you could want attached to a song. Check boxes help you easily eliminate songs and discrete attributes from being changed, so it's quite easy to grab just the artwork, for example, without changing your tag for the track titles.

Tagging and downloading album art are easier than strumming an A chord in MediaMonkey. (Credit: CNET Networks)

MediaMonkey's interface is modular and customizable. Users can move around, show or hide, and skin pretty much every aspect of what you look at when you're looking at it. Drag the playback controls around, so that they live above or below any other module, in any of the three columns that make up the UI or across all of them. Hide the Now Playing playlist as you need it, maximize it to your heart's content. Shrink down the album art panel, blow it up to absorb your attention, or hide it completely.

Longtime Windows users especially will appreciate the tree-based navigation, but don't worry about getting lost in your own intricate jungle of folders. Right above it lives a row of quick buttons to help you navigate your way around. Conveniently, they're all linked to hotkeys, and because this is MediaMonkey and not iTunes, you can remap those keys however you like and change the display so you only see the ones you need. These nodes collapse the tree and highlight the Now Playing folder, which great for searching, playing, searching for something else but jumping back to what you are still listening to. Other nodes include one for your Podcasts, and one for Shoutcast and Icecast Internet radio. You can also use the node to focus on Artist, Album, Genre, or any other criteria you've set up.

It should be noted that WinAmp's high level of customization for creating playlists is free, while the more advanced choices, such as beats-per-minute, remain reserved for MediaMonkey Gold, but for the features I use the most, the Monkey was a far better match. The Monkey also supports WinAmp plugins, playlists, and even uses the same audio engine.

MediaMonkey lets you customize how your MP3 player syncs. (Credit: CNET Networks)

MediaMonkey also supports extracting audio files from your portable devices, great for, backing up your player to a secondary hard drive or transferring your collection onto a new computer. Other features that the Monkey has include multiple device support, so you can sync your MP3 player and your MP3-playing cell phone separately, an extensible visualizer, an Auto-DJ function that works like a "smart" shuffle playlist, and, cliched as it may sound, more. Plug-ins give the Monkey the superpowers, like the ability to videos. DSP audio plugins also boost the not-insignificant built-in audio equalizers, bolstering the Replay Gain and MP3 Gain tech that comes included. Support for scripts and an online database of user-written scripts truly make MediaMonkey extensible enough to satiate even the hungriest of music gorillas.

On Macs, iTunes is still the standard, but MediaMonkey 3's intuitive layout, deep level of customization, device support, and all-out attention to sound quality make it the one you should be going ape over.