The program's strength lies with its perfect integration with the iPod and the iTunes Store (which for all intents and purposes, IS iTunes the application). So what do you do if you don't like iTunes - but still want a program that will easily (and reliably) work with your iPod? We've scoured the web and found the best iTunes alternatives, both for music and iPod management for Windows, Linux, and yes, even some OS X alternatives.
Here at DownloadSquad, we like software to be free - especially if it is replacing another free program - and almost every utility or program we mention is free or has a free version available.
In our experience, the majority of the problems with iTunes, are really with iTunes for Windows. The interface and version numbers may be the same, but the overall user experience is completely different in Windows XP or Vista than it is in OS X. For many Windows users, a primary complaint with iTunes is the large amount of system resources the program consumes. Even on a fast, well configured system, it can be frustrating to see one application consume so many processes or use so much RAM. iTunes is also less customizable and configurable by nature, which can be a problem if you are an advanced or trying to become a more advanced audiophile. Additionally, if you are willing to keep QuickTime installed on your system, most of the programs we list will still be able to play your purchased iTunes tracks.
foobar2000 - foobar2000 tackles both of these issues with ease. Not only is it built to be lightweight and to efficiently handle large playlists or music libraries, it's incredibly customizable. HydrogenAudio keeps a well updated list of components (plugins) that are available and compatible with the latest releases. The most barebones set-up includes compatibility with everything that iTunes will play (including purchased files, if you have QuickTime installed) plus FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and more. This iPod component works really, really well with most iPods (we havent tested it with the Nano 3G or Classic series units).
One of our only complaints about foobar2000 in the past (and we know that for many users, this is actually a benefit) was the user interface. Although the UI is actually a component itself, the default and even some of the additional UI components never really met our standards as far as aesthetics and usability goes. With version 0.9.5 (now in its third beta), the default UI is getting a complete overhaul. The results are fantastic - and usability is significantly increased.
If foobar2000 doesn't fit your needs, here are some other good music management/players available for Windows:
MusikCube - MusikCube is very fast and very lightweight. It has playback support for most formats. Unfortunately, it does not support protected iTunes music files or provide built-in iPod management. Still, if you want something very easy to use without a lot of mess, this is a good option.
Winamp - This thing is still around? Yes, the grandfather of Windows music players (that do more than just play a CD) is still alive and kicking (and like Weblogs, Inc. owned by AOL) and while it is not as feature rich as foobar2000, nor is it as pretty (even with the famous UI skins) as iTunes or Windows Media Player, Winamp will still get the job done. The Full version (which is free) and the Pro version both include integrated iPod support and all version will playback iTunes protected files, again, as long as QuickTime is installed.
Historically, Linux users have kind have gotten the shaft, as far as full-fledged music management programs. Sure, programs like VLC and MPlayer will play back most audio formats, but features of actual music management programs like search, playlist storage, etc. were a long time coming. The good news is that those features are available and they are available now. The downside, most DRM formats are incompatible with Linux (unless the DRM is stripped), and the lack of Linux compatibility, out of the box, with the iPod/iTunes means that purchased files cannot be played on a Linux system, at least with the DRM intact. But if you are using Linux, you knew that already.
Our two favorite music management applications with built-in iPod support for Linux are Amarok and Banshee.
Amarok is based in KDE, though released independently (and it will function without any problems in GNOME, it just might not look as pretty), and is very good at not only playing back different audio formats with ease (which is a problem many Linux music players/managers have) but also at managing large music libraries. It comes with built-in iPod support and will also work with iPods loaded with Rockbox. Pre-compiled binaries are available for most distributions via Amarook's site, or apt-get.
Last week, we covered the latest Songbird update and it remains a great option for Linux users to try. It's built off of the Mozilla API and combines the web and music management in one, and is a great way to find new music.
Mac OS X
Although iTunes is really the best music player for the Mac (shocker), it is not perfect. It's encoding/rip options are atrocious from an audiophile POV, FLAC support is non-existent and for older systems, it can be slow (we recomend turning off album art and the music store if you are on an older PPC machine and iTunes is slow). Still, as far as integration with the iPod, nothing is going to beat it - especially not on Mac.
If you want other audio playing options, take a look at Cog and Play. Both have been recently updated (we thought Play was dead, but it got an update last week!) and both have Leopard support in beta. If you want to play FLAC, WavPack, Ogg Vorbis or other formats alongside your MP3s, either of these programs will do the trick. They both feature light footprints and are low on resources (though Cog has a memory leak issues that should be resolved with the next version - it disappears after the program is shut down).
Cog is a music player, first and foremost (like old school Winamp or Audion) and it does not try to manage your music. It's newer in the development cycle, but it is showing lots of promise.
Play tries to be more of a lightweight version of iTunes. It handles music management, search and tagging features in a manner similar to iTunes, but with fewer resources and support for more formats. The development seemed stalled for a bit but seems to be back. The developer is the same guy responsible for Max which is the closest thing Mac users have to EAC
*Neither Cog nor Play will currently play protected iTunes files*
Getting files on/off your iPod sans iTunes
Perhaps the most frustrating feature of iTunes is not what it does, but what it does not do, namely, allow the user to take music off of his/her iPod and put it back onto his/her computer. Support for retrieving purchased files was only added within the last year, an no official solution exists for retrieving music off of your iPod, unless it was stored in Disk Mode (you use your iPod as an external drive). Fortunately, managing and reading the iPod database was one of the first hacks figured out for the iPod, going as far back as early 2002.
Lots of these programs are available both as shareware and freeware, and they vary in how well they actually perform. Here are a bunch of free (and reliable) options, and one pay (but cheap) option:
Floola (Mac OS X, Windows, Linux) - supports all iPods; Beta Classic and 3G Nano Support - Free
YamiPod (Mac OS X, Windows, Linux) - Beta Supports Classic and Nano 3G - Free, and we have used this many times in various version of Windows to retrieve/transfer songs.
Senuti (Mac OS X) - works with Leopard, Free
PodWorks - (OS X) - works with Leopard, iPhone, iTouch and Classic Nano 3G support - $8 and worth it for keeping meta-data and playlists intact.
GNUpod (Linux, may also work with OS X) For the real badass.