By David Chartier | Published: November 09, 2008 - 09:15PM CT

In a desktop media realm dominated by iTunes and Windows Media Player, Songbird is an open source player that dances to its own beat. Built on Mozilla technology, Songbird offers a very customizable interface and integrates a pleasant variety of web services that offer everything from artist bios, lyrics, music store integration, and much more. Since Songbird is now available as an official 1.0 release candidate after a two-year development journey, we felt it was time to plug in some headphones and check it out.

Songbird 1.0 RC1 is available for Windows XP/Vista, Linux, and Mac OS X (Intel-only). It defaults to a fairly iTunes-esque UI, with a left sidebar for managing media and playlists and a central boxed area for displaying artists, genres, albums, and individual tracks. While Songbird has built-in support for managing iPods, its resemblance to iTunes doesn't go much further than these initial similarities, thanks to Mozilla's signature array of customizable options that are powered by the same XML User Interface Language (XUL) and Gecko rendering engine behind Firefox. In fact, many of Firefox's familiar tools are present in Songbird's highly stylized UI, such as a tabbed browser, add-on manager, and a customizable music search engine box.

Quite a few add-ons already exist for Songbird, allowing customization of categories like appearance, web browsing, playback and management, and discovery. Extras like Cover Flow-style media browsers, lyric tools, extra themes, eMusic Store downloading, concert ticket finders, and sharing via social services like and Twitter endow Songbird with a very rich and integrated music experience. Three customizable panes—two along the bottom of Songbird's window and one on the right—allow you to play musical chairs with the add-ons you install. A fourth, located along the top, can house things like the MediaFlow album art cover browser.

In our Songbird testing, we imported nearly 8,000 tracks from our iTunes library, installed a few add-ons, and gave Songbird's experimental support for eMusic a try. The RC1 version of Songbird 1.0 includes GStreamer, a cross-platform multimedia framework that improves playback performance and supports more formats (including AAC). It doesn't play DRM-protected files from the iTunes Store or any other digital outlets.

Songbird 1.0 RC1 performs fairly well when it comes to the basics, like importing media from our iTunes library and organizing add-ons and their various view panes. Songbird was responsive, and the inspiration it took from things like iTunes' control bar design and Firefox's UI controls, provides a basic level of familiarity. Search is indeed quite fast in this first release candidate, though, since we haven't actually used previous versions on a library this large, we can't comment on just how much it has improved. Songbird's wealth of options for library management and add-ons are quite pleasant; we were amused by things like the love/hate/rating controls that appear in Songbird's information window when installing support.

Songbird's experience broke down a bit, however, when it came to the heavy lifting required for some of its other features, such as iPod integration and concert ticket searches. While Songbird recognized our 4G iPod nano and could play songs from its playlists, the software bogged down after a couple of songs, and couldn't eject the iPod properly, which triggered a couple of hardware removal warnings from Mac OS X. Searching for tickets with Songbird's built-in support for the Songkick concert service nearly brought the app to its knees. While we figure our 38.22GB library of 7,900+ songs is fairly average in size (perhaps even a little small by today's standards), Songbird slowed to a crawl when checking for artists that may have concerts coming up in the Chicago area. We eventually forced the program to quit so we could continue testing other areas.

One of Songbird's in-progress features is integration with web stores, which should be relatively easy, given it has a built-in, full-featured web browser based on Firefox's Gecko engine. For now, though, solid integration with stores like Amazon is still on the to-do list (as is CD importing)—right now, there is only an add-on for eMusic. This doesn't currently appear to support full purchasing and integrated downloading from eMusic, but it does have the pleasant ability to invoke a pane at the bottom of Songbird that contains a list of tracks and download links, with the ability to preview each one.

Once eMusic add-in is improved and polished versions become available for other stores, this integration of web-based music stores and playback software could provide the sort of appeal that has made the iTunes Store such a pleasure to use for many years.

Overall, Songbird is a great music application that's getting off to a great 1.0 start. With a rich UI, a wealth of customizable options, and a firm grasp on the fundamentals of what a 21st-century media player needs to do, Songbird is a very solid alternative for users who want a truly cross-platform option for organizing and getting social with their music libraries.