Turning little robots into iPods (Part 1)

I got myself an nice new Android phone (an HTC Desire, precisely). And what should I say? I love the thing. Great display, great apps; alright, there’s no good games, and the iPhone may look better (i.e. not be brown) – it’s an unbelievable device, I can install a great and free SDK and run my own software on it, and I can run it on a 10€ per month plan. Enough said? – well, I’m trying to replace my iPod with it, and that is kind of harder than it looks.

I’ve got about 2609 tracks in my library: a medium-sized one, I’d say. I have been using an iPod nano 1st gen, then an iPod Touch 1st gen, and I’ve bought about a third of the music on iTunes. A lot was already DRM-free, some was still old DRM-infested AAC files. So the first investment in using the Android as the primary music player was to get everything in non-DRMed format – it took me first about three evenings of burning music to disc and then import it again, then 30€ for Apple to upgrade some of the rest because I got tired of it, and then I just decided I wouldn’t be hearing most of the rest anyway and just let it go.

The Library

I did not want to use iTunes any more. It has become so slow. So unbelievably, nerve-twisting, nail-chewing slow. The machine I use is a Intel CULV on 1.3 GHz – not a race horse, but I can everything on it from Visual Studio to Eclipse to games like Portal, and a web server, and a database server, and some cheese on top. ITunes however just crawls. The shop is totally unusable. And yes, I run it on Windows, but I know from trustworthy sources that it’s just not any better on MacOS.

However: iTunes needed to be replaced by something. Here’s what I tried:


Songbird is a free OS media library and player that builds on top of the Mozilla UI framework.

I loved Songbird from the first second on. Or better: I tried to. Because the version (1.5, I think) that did not support Windows 7 (in May 2010!). And that weren’t empty threats, it was really crashing left, right, and center. There was a beta version that is now final, it had some problems as well, but was generally OK. That version was just lovely: solid functionality, and a variety of plug-ins that integrate smoothly into all kinds of cloud services. For example, a sidebar that docks on the right gets the lyrics of each song that plays. A bar on the bottom gets information and pictures for the band. And of course, each played song is submitted (“scrobbled”) to Last.FM so it adds to your profile there. And: plug-ins to generate playlist based on similarity to the song you’re just listening to (aka “Genius”). So sweet.

Until you plug in a phone that is not explicitly on the list of supported devices. Like the Motorola Droid, or the Nexus One. But not the HTC Desire. Although that is of course a media player with exactly the same supported formats. But as long as Songbird does not recognize the exact model, it assumes the device can only do MP3. In order to be still able to get the music onto the phone, Songbird will encode each AAC or OGG encoded song into MP3. Remember I’m not running on a fast computer? That started to take a long, long time. And my relationship with Songbird severely suffered. Why did it not just copy the files across? To me, that looks like a stupid piece of over-engineering. Instead of assuming that the device can play most anything, and then dealing with the exceptions, Songbird assumes that the device can’t do anything until it is presented an exactly matching and badly documented file that needs to be present on the SD card. That was probably a good strategy five years ago, but right now, players can seriously deal with formats.


DoubleTwist is a free beta of a commercial product.

DoubleTwist has received some very good press as being polished and compatible to a lot of devices, so I thankfully installed it after some days of figuring out how to get Songbird to sync the phone. DoubleTwist is in fact polished, easy to use, and it works with the HTC Desire. What it lacks is: any feature. No rules-based (“smart”) playlists. No Genius. No Last.FM. If you’ve got a collection of up to 300 songs, that may all be OK. For everyone else, you can’t help but smile at such an feeble little application.


Amarok is an OS media player/library for Linux.
Everything about Amarok looks so great – except the walk-through to installing it on Windows. And that due to length and windedness of that description, no-one else would have tested it. Amarok had me wishing to install Linux for the first time in years (but I resisted).


MediaMonkey a media player/library for Windows. There is a freeware version, and a approx.20€ paid “Gold” version.

I don’t really like MediaMonkey. It is one of these skinned applications where you wish it would just show a niced standard Windows UI. The buttons are small. There are about 5000 options and features of which you’ll use 10. There are no good community-supported plug-ins. It does scrobble to Last.FM, but that’s as good as it gets. But what should I say? MediaMonkey _works_. It’s _fast_. It has great support for tagging files. Knows all formats. Sorts files into the right folders. Is stable. Does not mind when you put more than a few songs into it.

And: MediaMonkey does a great job in supporting devices. Per device, you can say what exactly should go to the device in which format. Configuring that is not really a job for my mother – she’d be better off with DoubleTwist – but you don’t have to any obscure XML files either (looking at you, Songbird).

The free version of MediaMonkey is quite OK for trying it out, but you won’t stay with it. Mostly every advanced organization feature does not work, and there’s an ugly nag banner on the UI. But hey, I’ve just spent 450€ on a phone.

So, MediaMonkey it is. In the second part, I’m going to deal with the player app on the phone itself.


Christian is a software architect/developer. He lives in Germany, reads a lot, and likes cycling.

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2 comments on “Turning little robots into iPods (Part 1)
  1. Stefan says:

    Hi there,

    I also didn’t like DoubleTwist or Mediamonkey. Songbird has the most potential but for some reason it doesn’t pickup my HTC desire at all! I have tried having it plugged in in various modes (including disk drive) but Songbird doesn’t pick it up at all. Any ideas?

    • Christian says:

      That is exactly my experience: Songbird is great, but they drop the ball because they require an exact match for devices. Although I like Songbird best, it’s unusable for me too.

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