How to kick iTunes' lock-in media formats squarely in the fruit
ZDNet Editor-In-Chief Larry Dignan came to the frustrating realization today that his iTunes media collection was rendered unusable on his new media device, a SanDisk Sansa Clip. When he tried to copy his files over, he quickly found out many of them were useless and wouldn't play.
I feel for Larry, I really do. I happen to utterly despise iTunes, it's a bloated, buggy, and wretched application, particularly on Windows. The first bit of advice I would give to anyone maintaining a digital audio library is that if you're not tied to using an iPod as your primary portable media player, or if you are just playing songs on your PC, then avoid iTunes entirely.
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There's any number of alternative media players and managers you can use, such as MediaMonkey, which will do a much saner job of organizing your media library and will allow you to store your files in any number of open formats. MediaMonkey will also rip tracks and perform the encode functions, and if you so wish, use iTunes to import your library and continue to use them in an open format such as MP3 or AAC.
Apple announced back in early January at MacWorld that it would be removing the long despised FairPlay DRM in downloaded iTunes songs from the iTunes Store. Recent updates to the iTunes software may have already removed these restrictions from your iTunes files, and all of the songs on iTunes should be DRM-free by the end of March 2009. However, If you've already downloaded an existing library of DRM-protected M4A/M4P files, there are a number of utilities on the market such as Daniusoft Media Converter Pro that will do the job of removing the DRM so you can then convert the files to a more open format.
While not directly related to media encoding, if you're a podcast junkie, you might also want to look into Juice Receiver, which is an Open Source podcast manager that replaces iTunes' podcast directory for Windows and Mac.
If you use an iPod, you also don't have to be stuck with iTunes as your management and synchronization program. I'm particularly fond of YamiPod, a freeware application which is cross-platform and runs on Windows, Linux, as well as the Mac. YamiPod has some unique features such as the ability to initialize and repair an iPod's filesystem, can find and remove duplicate tracks, recover lost files and has support for the Last.FM service. YamiPod does not actually perform the ripping and file encoding functions of iTunes, so you'll want to use Mediamonkey or two other Windows-based encoding/ripping applications I like, CDex or Mediacoder Audio Edition.
CDex is not under active development (the latest version is circa 2007) but it is still a very useful program, as it can encode directly to MP3, AAC and Ogg Vorbis or strip to raw WAV formats. CDex also has the ability to use the CDDB database to auto-title your stripped tracks. If you don't consider yourself a encoding nut and you want something very easy to use, CDex is a great utility. I set my wife up with it the second she got her new iPod 120GB a week ago and she's been merrily stripping her CD collection with it. The bonus is I can use her same iPod music files on any other device I care to play them on. While some devices support the iTunes M4A format natively (such as my BlackBerry Bold) I'd prefer to keep my files from iTunes' and Apple's intervention.
Mediacoder is a much more powerful program under active development for true audiophiles who really like to tweak their audio files -- it comes with a wide range of audio codecs that allow iTunes/iPod M4A and uncompressed WAV to be "transcoded" to other audio formats for other devices. Like any really powerful program with a lot of options, however, it's not exactly on the user-friendly side -- I'd describe it as the GIMP or Photoshop of audio encoding applications. MediaCoder also comes in video and iPod-specific editions for dealing with portable video formats as well, in the event that you have Windows Media or XVids you want to watch on an iPod Video or iPod Touch. MediaCoder also has a very large user community and support forums in case you need some help getting started.
But what if you're a Linux or UNIX user? Well, as it turns out you've got a large number of options. From the low-level device management perspective you have GTKpod which can easily be installed in Ubuntu and any number of other Linux distributions, and allows you to directly manipulate an iPod's filesystem as well as re-initialize it if required. In addition to YamiPod mentioned earlier, there is also Banshee for GNOME (which now supports Android devices) as well as AmaroK for KDE, both of which have been under active development for several years and have extremely polished GUIs, which in a number of respects are more advanced than iTunes in terms of supported features, the list of which is too long to enumerate in this short post. In addition to supporting all the major Linux and free UNIX distributions, Banshee and Amarok also have Windows and Mac OS X versions in early development, in case you want to give them a try.
In addition to Banshee and AmaroK, another relatively new cross platform iTunes replacement which has been gaining popularity is Songbird. Songbird is brought to you by some of the same developers that gave you Firefox, WinAmp and Yahoo! Music Jukebox. It currently runs in Windows, Linux and Mac, but has not reached a level of maturity comparable to Banshee or AmaroK yet.
Got any other good iPod utilities for Windows, Linux and Mac? Talk Back and Let Me Know.