iTunes Alternatives Road Tested (1)


HORSES FOR COURSES

So, what’s so bad about iTunes? Why don’t I use it and what do I use instead without having to sacrifice functionality?

Read on, it’s great.

Honest.

Prerequisites

So, as all you long term readers of my fantastic blog are aware, I made the switch from using any old portable media player to using an iPod, but the problem was, I don’t like some of the functionality that comes with the iPod, and I like even less the software that comes with them. Or rather, should I say, used to come with them as you now have to go out and download it yourself because they can’t be bothered to include it in the packaging.

Anyway, there were a few criteria that any application I was going to use with my iPod had to fulfill, and those criteria were that it must:
(1) be portable just like the iPod itself so I can run it on different machines.
(2) not be platform specific as I use Windows, Linux and occasionally Mac.
(3) support Drag and Drop so I can don’t have to carry around a media library.
(4) support adding Video as well as Audio.
(5) be stable.

There were also a few other criteria that were desirable but not essential, and those were that it should:
(1) allow streaming of content through the host computer.
(2) support album artwork.
(3) categorise podcasts and videos for easy browsing later.

So, how did they all measure up?

Let’s find out.

iTunes

There’s nothing like a little lightweight, low resource app for managing your media, and iTunes is nothing like a little lightweight low resource app for managing your media. It’s a hog. A 50 Meg download that consumes a whole lot more once installed, and that’s if you can find a version that doesn’t have some other crappy software attached to it.

If I want to install iTunes, I just want iTunes, I don’t want it bundled with Quick Time Player, so if you install it and then uninstall the attached Quick Time Player, guess what? iTunes will stop working. Yeah, thanks Apple, your crappy Quick Time Player is so bad that the only way you can get people to use it is to attach it like a limpet to iTunes which you tell people they have to use with their iPod.

Already we’re off to a brilliant start here, but it gets worse. The biggest problem I have with iTunes is that I would have to maintain a media library for it, so if I use a 30 Gig iPod I could be required to have 30 Gig of music and video just sat there on a machine doing nothing but waiting.

I do actually maintain a media library but I keep it on a Server attached to my network which allows me to stream content around my home and beyond. Plus, I like to be in control of things like that rather than allowing some errant software to have its wicked way with my carefully constructed folder structure. I know every file and folder on my media server because I put it there, and I don’t want anything moving it, renaming it or deleting it.

Anyway, aside from this issue, there is another, iTunes does not like you transferring your iPod from one machine to another and transferring music among them all which as you remember is one of my prerequisites. In fact, iTunes finds this so disdainful that it will kindly offer to format your iPod for you if you so wish.

Why thank you.

I am never going to buy content from the iTunes Music Store for reasons discussed elsewhere in this blog, so we are not going to cover that aspect here, but despite the bad press, iTunes does some things very well so it would only be fair for me to outline them here because for the short time that I used it, it didn’t let me down in these respects.

Once running, it is easy to subscribe to a podcast and have it automatically downloaded and transferred for you. Importantly it will be listed in your iPod under the Podcasts category where you can easily find it later.

If you are transferring videos it will also sort these into the correct video category for you too, something which not many others I have tried will do.

If you wish to add album artwork to your collection and have it shown on your iPod then iTunes is more than able to cope with that and make a good job of it. It is also fairly simple to edit the artwork for an entire album rather than having to edit individual tracks.

If you wish, iTunes will also make your library available for playing on the host computer, not surprising really, as that is where your library has to sit doing nothing. It is also available to stream over a network too which can be handy.

So, most of my criteria have been met here but not all, and crucially not the ones that matter the most, and make no mistake about it, iTunes is a resource hog, my advice is switch on your computer, double click the iTunes icon then go and make a nice cup of tea, maybe even have a relaxing soak in the bath, and by the time you return, there’s a good chance it will be up and running.

Slowly.

Anapod Explorer

I like Anapod Explorer, I liked it so much I bought it, and I don’t often buy software when there are other free alternatives available, but it did what I wanted and I liked it, but it soon became problematic, and I wanted something quicker and easier.

Oh, and more stable.

Anapod needs to be installed on a PC and runs on Windows only, but if you buy it you can use it on multiple machines so that wasn’t a problem. If you wish it to integrate into the Windows shell it gives you the option during the install which means that you will see it show up the right click menu. If you have a folder or file(s) that you want to transfer, just right click on it and use the “Send To iPod” option. This is recursive too, so you can select the parent folder, and all subfolders will be included.

Now, this is why I mentioned stability. Adding content in this way was hit and miss for me. On one machine it worked unless I added a large number of files at a time when it would freeze. On another machine it didn’t work at all, even following reinstalls.

The most common way to add content in Anapod is truly drag n drop, just drag the relevant file(s) folder(s) into the window and they will be transferred.

One thing that Anapod does not do is support podcasts. It won’t subscribe to them or download them, but it will add them for you if you download them manually, but the problem with this is that they are added as ordinary mp3s so they no longer show up on your iPod as podcasts, they just appear as normal music tracks. This problem presented me with a workaround that became a bind and is ultimately what drove me to use a different application.

I had to use Juice to subscribe to and download Podcasts, then use Tagedit to alter the id3tags then they all showed up on my iPod together by the artist Podcasts and on the album Podcast. Another way to easily find them later for playing is to create a playlist when you add them which Anapod supports, but then when you want to delete them later, you have to scroll through your list to find them then, so you may as well edit the tags and have them all in one place.
Once edited, Anapod did have a neat feature which allowed me to transfer them easily. I created a folder called Anapod Sync and in there created a shortcut to each Juice folder I wanted to add, and once in Anapod just click the Speed Sync button and they would all be transferred.

Another good feature of Anapod is it’s artwork support, but be aware that this is a double edged sword. If you have a folder full of mp3s and an image file in that folder called folder.jpg, when you play one of the mp3s in most programs, they will display folder.jpg as the album artwork. Try it in Windows Media Player and see for yourself. Well you can tell Anapod that when you add a folder of music, to use the file folder.jpg in that same folder as the artwork for that album. Easy.

Now, I said it was a double edged sword, and here’s why. When you close Anapod and eject your iPod it updates the artwork database, and this can take a while especially with 30 Gigabytes of music. If you forget to properly eject your iPod then this syncronising won’t take place, and your 30 Gigabytes of artwork is screwed. This happened to me several times and I lost all my artwork which was a little bit annoying after the second time, but after 3 or 4 it becomes a little more than that.

This is what made me decide that future artwork support was an option rather than a necessity, I mean, how long do you stare at your iPod when listening to it? Once you have selected a track, 5, 10 or 15 seconds later the backlight goes off and it returns to the Now Playing screen anyway. This is even less of an issue when you are listening in the car like I mainly was. it is a nice feature to have as an option if it works, but if it doesn’t, c’est la vie.

Anapod has one more ace up its sleeve though, and that is it’s streaming capabilities, just turn on Xstream and allow access for everyone or certain users then in your web browser got to either http://localhost or http://127.0.0.1 and the player windows is displayed, allowing you to stream any of your music collection from your iPod. the beauty of this is that if you know your computer’s ip address you can access the player from anywhere on the network. Sadly, this doesn’t include video content, but the audio streaming works really well.

So, over all Anapod is an OK application with a few hangups and I believe bad customer support though I never experienced it, but it did also cause me a further problem even after I stopped using it. When I tried to use some of the programs listed below, they came up with errors, and one of them told me the specific error was caused by a 3rd party application corrupting the music database. That 3rd party application was Anapod.

Oops.

Well, this has gone on long enough for one blog entry. Not even Stephen Fry’s blessays are this long, apart from maybe the first one.

The second one was quite long too.

Come to think of it, his blessays are all quite long.

Anyway, this is the end of this one, and the concluding part will appear as if by magic later.

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