Recently the subject of people's least-favorite software came up. Instead of the usual suspects -- Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, Norton Antivirus -- I was surprised by the unanimous response of a mixed group of Mac and Windows users: "iTunes stinks" (or words to that effect).
Apple's media software doesn't earn a spot on my personal list of adventures in bad coding (which is dominated by products from Microsoft and Adobe), but I rely on the program primarily because of ancillary products: the iPhone, iPad, iCloud, and iTunes Match.
As stated in CNET's iTunes 11 review from last October, the program's interface is much improved from previous releases, but it's still too complex and too much of a resource hog. Using iTunes simply to listen to some music is like renting a backhoe to plant some tomatoes in the backyard.
I was struck by the disparity on Download.com's iTunes page between the program's five-star rating by CNET Editors and its two-and-a-half-star rating by users.
I looked at two very different iTunes replacements: the free MediaMonkey for Windows (also available are $25 and $50 Gold versions) and PixiApps' Ecoute for Mac OS X and iOS. Ecoute's page on Download.com indicates that the program costs $8 after a 15-day free trial, but the PixiApps site's FAQ states that the Mac version is free due to "sandboxing issues for the Mac App Store." The iOS version of Ecoute costs $2.99.
(An alternative to iTunes for transferring media from a Windows PC to an iPhone, iPad, or iPod is the free CopyTrans Manager.)
All your media-file information at a glance
The first time you run MediaMonkey, the program prompts you to register (optional) and to make the program the default for playing various media file types (deselect some or all of the preselected types to retain your current default player). If you change your defaults, iTunes will prompt you to change them back to that program the next time it opens.
Next, MediaMonkey prompts you to select which locations on your computer you want it to scan to discover your media. The current user's Music folder is selected by default.
The option to scan for new media files at startup is selected by default; you can choose to scan for files continuously. Click the Options button to make other changes, such as enabling a password-protected Party Mode.
MediaMonkey's main screen has the multiple panes of Windows Explorer and File Explorer: a folder tree in the left pane, and folder contents on the right. Categories in the left pane include Music, Classical, Video, Playlists, Net Radio (Shoutcast and Icecast directories), and Web (five popular music retailers).
The chunkiness of the main MediaMonkey window takes some time to get used to. Stacked above the iTunes-like list of songs are small panes that sort your library by genre, album, and artist. On the far right are two Now Playing panes. The playback controls at the bottom of the screen include a mini volume bar and buttons for shuffle, auto-DJ, equalizer controls, and playlists (although not your iTunes playlists).
MediaMonkey's scan of my system discovered 5,074 files using a total of about 25GB of storage. The iTunes library on the PC has 5,191 files and just over 26GB of total storage (note that both libraries include many duplicate titles -- not MediaMonkey's fault).
My favorite MediaMonkey feature is the small playback controller that pops open when you hover over the program's icon in the Windows task bar.
After switching between iTunes and MediaMonkey for a couple of days, I came to appreciate some things about both programs. (Note that my testing was limited to audio playback and file management. I didn't test MediaMonkey's CD burning or on-the-fly volume leveling, nor did I use the app to sync with an iPod or iPhone.)
The Gold version of MediaMonkey costs $25 for a version 4.x license and $50 for a lifetime license (which begs the question, whose lifetime?) Gold features include support for multiple music collections, automatic file organization, automatic playlists, and "professional-quality" CD ripping.
Ecoute outshines the iPhone's music player
Where MediaMonkey throws eight categories of information at you in one big window, Ecoute comfortably squeezes your iTunes library into an unobtrusive box listing only a handful of items at a time. (You can resize the window all the way to full screen, but you really don't need to.)
You navigate your library via a single drop-down menu in the top-right corner. The current track's progress is shown at the top of the window, and playback controls are in a row at the bottom.
Click the eyeball icon in the bottom-left corner to switch to the current track's cover art and rating. When the shuffle setting is off, the icon in the bottom-right corner of the window pops up an alphabetical list of your library. When shuffle's on, the upcoming tracks appear in the pop-up window.
Unlike MediaMonkey, Ecoute displays your iTunes playlists. Select a playlist on the left side of the window to view its contents on the right side. When I tested Ecoute I sometimes had to switch between views to have the vertical scroll bar appear in the two windows.
Similar to MediaMonkey's taskbar playback controls, Ecoute shrinks to a thumbnail on the desktop with tiny buttons for stop/play, forward, and reverse.
Ecoute really shines on the iPhone. (As noted above, the iOS version of Ecoute costs $2.99.) Both Ecoute and the iPhone's built-in music player give you the same basic view options: Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists. The iPhone player lets you swap out one of these options for Compilations, Composers, or Genres. Ecoute's iPhone app has a Podcasts button and a Search box that slides in and out of view.
The big difference between the two apps is the appearance of their lists. With the exception of small thumbnails in the Album view, the iPhone's lists are text-only, but Ecoute shows each entry's cover art when it's available.
Other differences between the two apps are more subtle. For example, when you select an album in Ecoute, the cuts appear in a pop-up window. On the iPhone the track list slides over the album list. Both apps give you the option to shuffle the album tracks.
When you're listening to audio in Ecoute, double-tapping the iPhone button shows the playback controls on the lock screen just as when using the device's built-in music app. Ecoute works with Siri as well: when the app is active, say "play" and the name of the song to start playback in Ecoute.
Open the device's Settings and choose Ecoute to activate shake to shuffle and to choose a shuffle behavior. Other options let you change the player view to show the player when a track is selected or when the app detects inactivity. You can deactivate left or right swipes to move to the next or previous track, and switch the program to left-handed mode.
In the bottom-left corner of the Ecoute window is a button that lets you send Last.fm a list of the tracks you've listened to in the past two hours. You can also post a message about the track now playing to your Twitter feed or Facebook status.
I'm much more likely to use Ecoute on my iPhone than on my Mac because I like having easy access to the iTunes Store, playlist creation, and CD burning, among other features. Some people rarely use more than the play and stop buttons on their iPhone's music player. For them Ecoute's interface improvements may not be worth $3. But anyone who spends time rummaging around their iPhone music library will find the Ecoute app a genuine bargain.