Freedom from iTunes

Nine free downloads promise to help you get the most out of your iPod -- without iTunes.

Love your iPod, but hate iTunes? It's a common feeling among Windows-using iPod owners. We've already discussed what we hate about iTunes; now we present our list of alternatives to Apple's ubiquitous audio player. And almost every program on this list is free, just as iTunes is.

Techworld: How to get free iTunes music

The programs discussed here are a mixture of stand-alone replacements for iTunes and enhancements to iTunes. If you want to replace iTunes completely, we recommend Media Monkey--the most comprehensive of the nine programs on our list. If you just want to make iTunes more manageable, we recommend the super-intuitive program Sharepod. With the right software at your command, you can achieve liberty from iTunes--or at least make iTunes more usable.

Songbird

This open-source, customizable music player looks a lot like the iTunes player, but it has the potential to do considerably more than iTunes can. Songbird can handle multiple audio formats, including both Apple FairPlay-encoded audio and Windows Media DRM files. You can customize your player with third-party add-ons to change its appearance, enlarge the built-in Web browser's abilities, extend your playback options, add music discovery features, and more.

Still in beta form, Songbird lacked some important components when I looked at it. In particular, CD ripping, video support, and support for iPhones and the iPod Touch. You may not want to use Songbird as your primary music player yet, but its various add-ons are well worth downloading and playing with. And keep an eye on its progress: On the Songbird Web site, the service notes that it is working to add these missing features.

Download Songbird | Free

Winamp

Before iTunes, there was WinAmp--and it's still around today. Now in version 5.54, WinAmp has a redesigned Now Playing screen with artist photos and album art, similar to iTunes and to Zune's new Now Playing screens. WinAmp also has a slew of cool features, including a library of customization skins, a podcast directory, access to AOL's Shoutcast radio stations, and Auto-Tag (which downloads metatags from Gracenote).

Unfortunately, the free version is missing some ideal components. To burn more than eight audio CDs, or to rip audio CDs to MP3s, you have to get the US$20 pro version. And WinAmp is not currently compatible with the iPod Touch and iPhone--a deterrent.

Download WinAmp | Free

MediaMonkey

The best all-out replacement for iTunes, MediaMonkey has flexibility in spades. If you have a gargantuan media collection in dire need of reorganization, MediaMonkey is a must. The most comprehensive program on our list, it does just about everything that iTunes can--and more. MediaMonkey automatically detects duplicate tracks as well as tracks that are missing information and aren't synchronized with your player. Playback features are superb; you can fine-tune your audio with MediaMonkey's equalizer or download one of the audio-effects plug-ins. The software also includes a drag-and-drop playlist manager and Auto-Playlist, which creates playlists for you based on your search criteria.

You can rip audio CDs, too, but the free version's MP3 and M4A encoders are limited to 30 days. MediaMonkey's integrated burner, meanwhile, maxes out at 4X speed on the free version. To get a faster burner and unlimited MP3 encoding, you'll need to download the $20 gold version.

Download MediaMonkey | Free

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