Continuing my reader requested quest for the best music organizing software, I’ve made my way to one of the big ones in the field. MediaMonkey has been around for ages, and continues to stand as perhaps the single biggest independent music organizing application out there. Read on to see how it holds up.
Download and installation
MediaMonkey can be downloaded from their website either as a free application with some limitations or as a “gold” edition with added functionality. A MediaMonkey 3 license is $19.95 while a lifetime license is $39.95. The latter will work also for MediaMonkey 4, 5 etc if/when that is released.
Being an older application MediaMonkey doesn’t run on any fancy (read: useless) software platform like Adobe Air and installation is therefor straight forward. During installation it will ask you what files to associate with it, so if it’s not you main music playback software you should uncheck these when you install the software.
As with SongBird, MediaMonkey apparently haven’t heard of Windows 7 yet and doesn’t support the library feature. In short, the library feature is a Windows 7 feature which lets you consolidate folders from various places on your computer into a single virtual music folder. MediaMonkey doesn’t support this so you have to point to actual folders instead. I know Windows 7 has just been released and that I keep bringing this up in every software review, but the beta has been out for 8 months so it’s not like they haven’t had plenty of time to make this small, but yet so extremely important feature work. Other third party music applications already support this, so it’s not an impossible task. There are also other Windows 7-specific features that aren’t yet supported in MediaMonkey which I’ll cover later.
Another issue is also that the free version of MediaMonkey requires you to manually tell it to update the library as it won’t watch any folders for changes. Considering the great review I just gave Windows Media Player 12 which has this feature built in, being greedy about a feature like that doesn’t impress me, MediaMonkey.
When you do get your music into the library (and I say music because it doesn’t do videos or photos) the view is pretty much like Windows Media Player, which is a good thing. You have the option to view a long list of files or various thumbnail views, sort by artist/album/other metatags and so on. There’s also an option to show track browser, which is basically a filter that appears on top of the other view modes to filter the tracks. By genre, artist etc. It works well, just as it should, however the thumbnails appear a tad slow the first time you scroll down.
MediaMonkey also has a sidebar where you can browse your music in a sort of folder/metadata hybrid mode called nodes; it looks like a file/folder tree structure, but you actually browse by metadata. It provides you with long lists of files and «folders» with virtual names based off the metadata, and this also includes a node that lets you browse by folders. While thumbnail browsing in the main window is nice and all, having a really fast, really easy method of getting easily browse-able lists of files is very useful and a feature I like very much with MediaMonkey.
One annoyance I found with the library was that I couldn’t just drop files into the file list and have them added; I had to manually re-fresh the music list after putting them in that folder. I’m not sure if this is meant to be a kick in the behind to get people to buy the pro version or what, but if you have a lot of songs it can be tiresome to rescan the folders every time you add a song and it would have been easier to just drag them into the application.
Like any other music organizing application MediaMonkey also has a search function in the library, allowing you to search and have results appear as you type. To make this feature a bit more interesting and stand out from the crowd, MediaMonkey also saves the search results in a drop down node in the sidebar so you can easily do the same search later.
The sidebar also has options to look through the computer and external devices for files to play directly (while not in the library), and this includes support for networked computers- albeit you have to wade through about 5 nodes to get there. Devices also show up in the sidebar, including MTP devices and external drives etc. As usual, no playing files from MTP devices. This is an issue with MTP of course, not MediaMonkey.
MediaMonkey has a dedicated bar on the bottom for music playback, which displays the track information, a progress bar, volume button, a small visualizer, playback controls and options and the album art. This works well and I particularly like the big play/pause button. There is also a MiniPlayer and a MicroPlayer mode, although this feature is so stupidly hidden I completely missed it in my initial review and someone had to point it out in the comments. Basically to get this, you have to hit a very small button about 1/3 the size of the minimize button thats located to the left of the minimize button. The color of this button, dark grey. The color of the background, slightly less dark grey. On a 1080p screen, it’s close to impossible to see that there’s anything there even if you know what to look for. WMP12 has a much nicer strategically placed button to switch between mini and max modes. The mini mode is basically a smaller window with playback controls and a song list, which the micro mode is apparently supposed to minimize the application to a small controller on the task bar. I say “apparently” because this didn’t work at all for me, doing it with the button or selecting to minimize to the MicroPlayer in the settings menu. This was an option I had acually seen and tried when I though there was no such function, but when it didn’t do anything I skipped the “minimize to MiniPlayer” and thought it was related to another feature in MediaMonkey that let’s you “outsource” the music playback to WinAmp, which then opens all files you click in MediaMonkey in WinAmp instead. The miniplayer is nice, however very hidden for new users. Seeing that it doesn’t support the library feature, it wasn’t surprising that jump lists hadn’t been implemented yet either, which means no fast taskbar access in Windows 7 – for now.
When it comes to eye candy, I
I very much like how MediaMonkey lets you have a dedicated place on the screen with a scalable album art window. This window lets you choose whether to display the album art of the selected track or the now playing track, as well as switch between embedded images (for those that didn’t know: you can put as many album art pictures you like in a MP3 file even if most players and software will only show the first one). If the album picture isn’t enough eye candy for you, there’s a very good visualizer where you can even specify resolution and what monitor to run it on. If you like me run multiple monitors, this is a nice way of using that extra space for something…flashy.
MediaMonkey also has an equalizer, which is about as useful as any stock equalizer – meaning it’s not. It doesn’t sound that good and that frankly isn’t surprising. If you really want sound enhancements there are extensions out there for that. One feature I do want to mentioned however is a fading effect that fades out the song playing and fades in the next song when you have natural transitions (as in not caused by skipping tracks manually). It’s nice if a bit unusual.
Another feature I quite like with MediaMonkey is a very easily accessible «now playing» list. This lets you drag files directly to the list to add to the queue. I do wish it wouldn’t create a new list every time I manually started a song from the library instead of the now playing list.
One of MediaMonkey’s big selling points as a music organizing application is the built in id-tag functionality. This supports not only ID3 tags used by MP3, but also tags for AAC, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, APE and WAV. You can auto-tag from online sources like Amazon, tag from filename or manually edit the details. This tagging feature is on par with MP3Tag which I’ve written about before and while I would still recommend MP3Tag if you only want an application for tagging, the built in MediaMonkey tagger will fully replace MP3Tag if you want MediaMonkey for other reasons.
While MediaMonkey doesn’t have any built in music stores, it does have a built in browser – and links to music stores like Amazon MP3, eMusic etc. This allows you to purchase music from within the app form a variety of places. While a true built in store would be better, this is definitely better than anything – and it does allow you to buy music when you are tinkering with your music collection. MediaMonkey also has a right-click option to «get info/buy» a track in your library from the same music stores (and get info from Google, Wikipedia etc), but these links actually open the external browser instead of the internal one.
Finally a music organizing application that supports podcast downloads properly! The built in directory is more or less useless, claiming the wrong format on most the feeds, but you can add podcasts manually. Also, if you use iTunes it will import your podcast subscriptions from there. Adding feeds manually gives you a very nice set of settings including the option to either use global podcast rules or specify them for each subscription. Available settings include what you want to download (latest tracks, no episodes, all episodes, older episodes), how many (1 most recent, last month etc) as well as options for auto-deletion based off a period or time or whether it has been listened to, and lastly you can tell it to re-tag the podcast based on data from the RSS feed.
I do wish it would have a better way of showing when it’s actually download anything as all it does to indicate this is show a small green progress bar from the download in progress. A list showing progress bars from all the downloads at once- like iTunes has- would be much better. I also don’t like that it shows the podcasts in the music library, as this makes it very annoying to play the library on «shuffle all» and suddenly bump into a podcast.
Like most music playback applications, MediaMonkey has an Internet radio feature. Since this is basically just a way of playing music from an online source instead of a local one, it’s not really that special- but MediaMonkey has managed to add some features to it by having links to Shoutcast and Icecast which opens in the built in browser. Unfortunately the built in browser follows the file association rules of your OS, which means that it will open the file in the application associated with that file. That can be WinAmp, MediaMonkey, or in my case- notepad. This is specific to the way you have configured your own system to recognize specific files, but I would think it be possible- and desirable- for MediaMonkey to automatically open these in MediaMonkey to get a smoother experience. I was also unable to find a way to add bookmarks to stations or add them manually in the Internet radio section of MediaMonkey, which means that the Internet radio section serves as nothing but a menu of links and that the actual playback part of the Internet radio is handled by using URLs and playlists from the main library and playback sections like in other applications. This works, but when you’ve made a deal of having a Internet radio section it should be a bit more refined.
MediaMonkey has a party mode feature which when activated will make the application full screen, disable access to settings and basically make the application the only front end to the computer (since it’s fullscreen and minimize/close buttons are hidden) with any feature that tinkers with the configuration of the application disabled. This can be password protected, so that if you have a party you can leave the computer alone without anyone messing up your library by disabling party mode. Party mode also turns the «click to play» feature into «cli
ck to add to queue», which means that if people browse your library and click on a song it will be added to the queue instead of playing immediately- to prevent people from constantly changing tracks.
MediaMonkey lets you create playlists by simply dragging music files onto a playlist in the sidebar. You can also right-click tracks and choose «send to» and then the playlist. Syncing playlist to a device will also transfer the tracks in the playlist, which means you can choose tracks from your main music library when you make the playlists without having to redo the playlist using songs on the player. This is of course how it should work, so I’m glad it does.
MediaMonkey also has something called «auto playlists», which is basically a playlist that creates itself based off certain criteria you input. With the free version of MediaMonkey you don’t have access to the advanced auto-playlist settings, but the basic settings does allow you to match text in any text field or in specific metadata tags (like artist, genre) and even in the lyrics. The latter requires you to have the lyrics in the tags of the file, of course- no magic lyrics recognition.
CD ripping and burning
The CD ripping feature in MediaMonkey is very pretty nice, allowing you to rip to a lot of different formats including Ogg Vorbis and FLAC, as well as being able to tag the files automatically from info on the net. In the same way, the built in CD/DVD burner is nice if you want to create physical media from your music library. However, MediaMonkey decided that burning was a premium feature and limited the speed to 4x in the free version. Considering there is free software out there that does the same and more, like ImgBurn, I have a hard time seeing the reasons behind limiting this feature in the free version. If you want to burn anything quickly- or rather without installing additional software (as doing it quickly is exactly what you can’t do) the feature is there, but I don’t really consider them that usable if you’re going to use the feature more than once.
There is also a convert feature I’ll mention quickly. It will let you convert files between formats including MP3/AAC/WMA/Ogg Vorbis/WAV and FLAC. The MP3 encoder is time limited and the AAC encoder is not available in the free version due to licensing issues, but they are available in the gold version.
This is a rather fun feature that is somewhat hidden in MediaMonkey (read: no dedicated buttons on the rather crowded toolbars) . Basically it lets you create reports with various statistics about your music library, from simple things like the number of tracks, artists etc to more complex things like top artists/albums played and averages (average rating, length, tracks per artist etc). A fun feature if you have a lot of music and use the application a lot as the statistics will grow more and more informative the more you use MediaMonkey.
Scripts and extensions
MediaMonkey supports both scripts and extensions. Scripts will let you customize MediaMonkey in a lot of ways including the interface etc, using available scripts or by making them yourself. Some example scripts are included, such as scripts to export playlists and podcast feeds, a case checker and a couple of more. Scripts available on the MediaMonkey website do all kinds of things including adding more nodes to the tree structure sidebar.
Add-ons/extensions are also available and include the standard set of extensions you’d expect to find with such an application; last.fm plugins, web interfaces, sound enhancements plugins, visualizers etc. Unlike SongBird which I reviewed a short while ago MediaMonkey doesn’t rely on additional extensions to sell the ceoncept but rather uses them as- what it says- extensions. You could use MediaMonkey with it’s stock configuration without ever touching additional plugins or scripts, but if you’re a power user they might be worth looking into.
Some plugins also come with MediaMonkey by default- including plugins to sync with Apple devices (yes MediaMonkey is an iTunes alternative), USB mass storage devices (UMS/MSC players) and MTP players. There is also a plugin available to download that let’s you use a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device to hold your music library.
No music software would apparently be complete without skinning abilities. This lets you customize the look of the application, including making it look like other software- like Windows Media Player. Again a feature you could easily live without, but it’s there if you want it.
Syncing a device luckily has a few more settings to get things right than a lot of other music software, but there are still a few things missing. You can configure the sync to include specific music, playlists, audiobooks and podcasts, sync everything or randomly sync music and playlists up to the capacity limit. Note that audiobooks in this case means tracks tagged with the genre «audio book», as MediaMonkey doesn’t support Audible – or rather Audible doesn’t support MediaMonkey, seeing how it’s Audible that has DRM. With music, playlists and audiobooks you also have an advanced sync option which lets you specify where to transfer the content. It’s rather ironic that the podcast feature doesn’t have this, as some players including the Sansa Clip/Fuze and the Sony S630 use specific directories for podcasts and without the advanced sync option you can’t make this work- unless the players also go by ID3 tag for podcasts (in which case it doesn’t matter where they’re placed). You can however specify what default location to sync everything to, and so you could technically tell it to sync everything to the podcast directory and then add advanced options for playlists, audiobook
s and music to have them sync somewhere else. That’s a lot of work to make up for a feature thsat should have been in there, however.
Other sync options include autosyncing when the device is connecting, auto-unmounting when sync is complete, deleting tracks not on the sync list, syncing album art to external .jpg files, auto-embedding album art if external, remove album art over a certain size, and options to use only the first genre/artist tag if several exists. There is also a tab in the sync options for auto-conversion which is only available in MediaMonkey Gold, so for the sake of keeping the software reviews to free software only I won’t go into that.
Syncing is rather painless when everything is set up, but again that tiny green progress bar that MediaMonkey uses for everything should be replaced with something a bit bigger to indicate when it’s actually doing anything. Again, MediaMonkey doesn’t play nice with Windows 7, but in the future I would like to see them use the info available through device stage to give the players a nice «home page» with a picture of the player, capacity meter, battery status etc and sync settings instead of indicating the player as nothing more than another node in the sidebar and hide the sync settings in a right-click menu.
I would also like to see support for video and photos in the future. As a friend of mine pointed out, «MusicMonkey» would be a better name for the software as it is today. I don’t necessarily want video playback or a photo viewer etc as that would no doubt be a somewhat large implementation, but it would be nice to be able to add files to a section of the library and have them sync to a specified folder. You don’t need to be able to play back video to recognize a file called . Avi and list it in a node called «video», then letting the user sync that node to location X. Most people handle conversion etc outside the sync application anyways, so it would only be a method of having it all in a single applicationl. The same goes for photos, recognize .jpg etc and let people stuff that in location X when syncing. You don’t need to be a mechanic to deliver car parts, and you don’t need to be a video playback application to sync such files.
MediaMonkey didn’t try to take over my computer at any point during the testing and didn’t have any trouble keeping up when doing multiple things at once- like syncing and playing music. This might seem like a «duh», but trust me it’s not in this day of half-ass applications. I also didn’t notice any bugs with this version of MediaMonkey, which is nice seeing that I haven’t been much of a MediaMonkey fan previously due to random crashing. I did notice a weird bug with using Synergy; an application that lets you use a single set of keyboard and mouse on several computers. Whenever I would drag the mouse from the computer running MediaMonkey to one of my other computers it would glitch the music with the same sort of «frozen computer» sound you get moments before a BSOD when playing media (you know what I mean if you’ve ever experienced this). If you aren’t aware of the problem it will freak you out the first time and then become a constant annoyance, however not that many people (relatively speaking) use Synergy I imagine.
MediaMonkey is a massive application that does most things right. It doesn’t put a strain on your system and let’s you do pretty much anything you need to from the default setup without relying completely on extra plugins like some other applications do. The free version has some limitations that make sense and others that don’t, which in some ways drags down the overall impression of the software slightly. I’m all for paying for things you use, and it’s not that MediaMonkey Gold isn’t worth $20 if you use it a lot, it’s just that while limiting premium features like auto-playlists and AAC conversion is fine since it’s not part of the core application, limiting features like burning as well as folder monitoring is just dumb as there are other applications out there available for free that does this. If you want people to pay for your product then offer them something that no-one else does, but don’t restrict features that your customers can get elsewhere for free. I also wish they had a system for video and photo synchronization, even if it’s only a system of moving files without being able to play them.
MediaMonkey is a very good choice for keeping your music organized, offering the same core stability and features as Windows Media Player 12 but giving you more options and not to mention better format support. It will play back and handle pretty much any format you throw at it, including converting, tagging and ripping to said formats. Given all the features in MediaMonkey, I think the $20 price tag for the Gold version is more than justified, if only to help the software stay afloat and move forward. An extra plus for me personally is the built in podcatcher, which is the best podcatcher for non-iPod I’ve seen, even though it really needs a better podcast library. Frankly MediaMonkey needs a better system of external content gathering altogether; Internet radio, music stores and podcasts alike. As much as people might dislike iTunes, the built in media store and podcast library still stands as the unbeaten champions of content fetching in a media organizing application.
Bottom line, MediaMonkey is a keeper. It has been around for a while and shows this by offering a myriad of features that «simply work» and some that could be better. Two thumbs up.