As I’m a daily commuter, podcasts are my lifeblood, so I’m particular about the software I use to listen to them. I’ve been listening to podcasts since Adam Curry popularized them a decade ago, and I have yet to find the perfect podcast client.
At its heart, a podcast client is nothing more than an RSS reader that can play audio. It should be a simple app that does one thing extremely well. As I (and many other people) often listen to podcasts in the car, it should have a simple interface that doesn’t require careful tapping. Most of us have mobile bandwidth caps these days, so it needs to be able to download and store episodes when I’m on Wi-Fi. At the same time, it also needs to be able to stream those I forget to download before leaving the house. As I often miss things while concentrating on what I’m doing (driving!), I need to be able to rewind a few seconds to catch up. And as I’ve listened to some of the same ads hundreds of times, I need the capability to skip past them. I don’t want to have to fumble with my iPhone to do these things either, especially when I’m on the road, so I need lock screen and headphone controls that let me rewind and fast forward within an episode.
It’s befuddling how many of these apps get this simple stuff wrong. For instance, in my days as an Android user, I tried Google Listen. At the time it streamed everything in lieu of downloads, which was okay because my bandwidth was unlimited. Unfortunately, it did a bad job of it. It had a nasty habit of losing its place in the middle of a podcast, so while the timeline would appear to be in the middle, the show would start playing from the beginning. I would have to exit the app and restart the podcast, which was unacceptable. Google never quite got it right, and put Listen out to pasture earlier this year.
Then there’s Apple’s Podcasts app. If Apple had merely implemented podcast downloading inside the iOS Music app, I would have been ecstatic. Instead, they moved all podcast management into this rather quirky app. Unfortunately, as our own Glenn Fleishman discovered, Podcasts tends to gobble data randomly (see “Does Apple’s Podcasts App Suck Cellular Data?,” 17 September 2012). As of this writing, it appears that the problem still exists. Bandwidth usage will be normal, then out of nowhere DataMan Pro will inform me that I’ve suddenly used 150 MB of data (for details on DataMan Pro, see “Track Per-App Data Usage in iOS with DataMan Pro,” 20 November 2012).
The good thing is, you don’t have to settle for Apple’s lackluster app. iOS has no shortage of respectable podcast clients. None are perfect, but none will unexpectedly wreck your bandwidth cap either. All of them have simpler interfaces than Apple’s Podcasts, and are easy to use. I’ve investigated five of them, and with the exception of PodCruncher and Pocket Casts, I’ve used each on and off for years.
Instacast -- Vemedio’s Instacast ($4.99), a long-time favorite of podcast fans, has just been updated to version 3. Instacast 2 was a controversial release because, while it was a free update for existing customers, it locked many features behind a $1.99 in-app purchase. This time around, Vemedio instead opted to require all users to purchase the app again, but bundled in all the former Pro features.
Instacast’s claim to fame is its simple, elegant interface. Long-time users won’t find any surprises in version 3. It’s still split into the same three tabs at the top: Subscriptions, Playlists, and Bookmarks. A button in the upper right takes you to the currently playing podcast, where you can play or pause the podcast, or skip forward or backward by a user-defined number of seconds. You can swipe this set of controls to the left to expose a second layer of controls that includes playback speed, AirPlay, and more.
This second set of controls is one interface change I’m not crazy about. In the previous version, there were two “hamburger buttons” on each side of the controls that could be slid up to reveal the extra controls. This worked well, because you could access all controls at once, and there was a clearly defined area to drag your finger on. In Instacast 3, it’s hard to slide back to the main set of controls without accidentally tapping something. However, this is more of a nitpick, as in practice, it hasn’t been an issue.
You can create a new playlist by tapping the plus sign in the lower left while in the Playlists tab. There are two types of playlists: regular and smart. Regular playlists are just a manual selection of episodes. Smart playlists sound intriguing, but in reality aren’t that smart. Your options are limited to Unplayed, Favorites, Downloaded, Partially Played, Recently Played, and Most Recent. I really wish they could be smarter, like a playlist for 5by5 shows or a list of every podcast featuring Merlin Mann. However, what’s there is simple to use and gets the job done. Instacast 3 includes three default playlists: Unplayed, Downloaded, and Favorites. I spend most of my time in the Downloaded playlist, which features every podcast episode currently on my iPhone.
Bookmarks sound great in theory, but in practice I almost never use them. The only way I have found to make one is to tap the info button while in the player screen, tap the Bookmarks tab inside, and then tap Add Bookmark. It’s cumbersome to navigate to, so I almost never use this feature. Besides, Instacast does a pretty good job of keeping my place.
Instacast has a few nagging quirks. I’ve found a number of minor bugs, such as interface elements disappearing or freezing. However, it’s being constantly updated, so I’m confident that those bugs will be short-lived. A longer-term problem is its streaming performance. Streaming has always been one of Instacast’s weak points, and continues to be so. On my iPhone 4, Instacast 2 would often fail to stream at all on AT&T’s 3G network, while Podcasts or Downcast had no problem doing so. This has improved since I moved to Verizon LTE, but cellular dead zones remain a problem. While Podcasts or Downcast will happily play for a few minutes without cellular coverage, Instacast stops almost immediately. There is no option to adjust the cache to improve this.
So, if you’re already an Instacast user, is it worth $4.99 to upgrade? Probably not, unless you were planning to buy the iPad version. The biggest change in the new Instacast is that it’s now a universal app. Previously, the iPad version was a separate $4.99 purchase. The iPad version has been redesigned to more closely match the iPhone interface, though there are still some minor differences.
The other major change is that Vemedio has abandoned iCloud for its own syncing solution, citing reliability concerns and Apple’s difficult API. While I can’t blame them for doing so, users now have to create a username and password to sync podcasts between devices, which is a pain compared to Apple’s baked-in solution. Also, Vemedio’s servers have had a hard time keeping up with the load, making syncing sometimes inaccessible for early adopters. I personally am still unable even to sign up for an account. Fortunately, previous Instacast users can import their data from iCloud. For users who’d like to run their own server, Vemedio has promised to provide a server for the Mac, as well as an eventual Mac client.
My favorite new feature is automatic file management. Simply set a storage limit of anywhere from 512 MB to 10 GB, and Instacast will automatically manage your downloaded podcasts to fit inside that space, with no micromanagement required.
Users on iOS 5 or below should be cautioned that Instacast 3 only works on iOS 6 or later. This means that those still using the iPhone 3G and original iPad are out of luck.
Downcast -- Jamawkinaw Enterprises’ Downcast ($1.99) is the podcast client for power users. While not as pretty or elegant as Instacast, Downcast has every option and feature you could dream of in a podcast client.
The basic interface itself is simple. There are five tabs at the bottom: Podcasts, Playlists, Add Podcast, Downloads, and More, which includes settings. The Now Playing button in the upper right shows the current episode, where you have all of the usual controls, plus buttons that let you skip forward or back 30 seconds, back 15 seconds, or 2 minutes forward.
There are no default playlists, but Downcast gives you the power to make any kind you wish. You can include or exclude shows, make video or audio-only playlists, and include only new episodes or partially played episodes. You can even set podcast priorities so that new episodes of certain shows will always play first.
One of Downcast’s weaknesses is the built-in directory. It’s not as polished as Instacast’s, and some of its categories are a little odd. For example, Leo Laporte’s “The Tech Guy” ranks at number 3 in Technology, while his venerable “This Week in Tech” ranks at number 6, which is strange for a power user app. You also won’t find podcasts separated by audio or video. However, none of these small issues should prevent you from finding your favorite shows.
Downcast offers an overwhelming number of options that can sometimes be confusing. For example, by default, the forward and back buttons on the lock screen switch between episodes. Their settings can be changed instead to skip by a number of seconds within an episode. However, the description of this setting, called Remote Media Switch, is misleading. It says that when turned on, “Fast forward and fast reverse will trigger next/previous episode.” Actually, the opposite is true, when turned on, that setting will skip backward or forward, and when off will skip between episodes. It has been like that ever since I can remember.
A unique feature of Downcast is location-based updates. You can set Downcast to update your subscriptions when approaching or leaving any destination, just like the built-in Reminders app. This feature appears to not use any additional power, so why other clients don’t do this is beyond me.
Another unique feature of Downcast, and one of my favorites, is its capability to import MP3s via iTunes file sharing. My job offers a number of free audiobooks as MP3s. They’re a pain to listen to in the Music app, because it doesn’t save my place or let me easily skip forward or back. However, I can import all of these into Downcast and have full control of MP3 audiobooks.
Unlike Instacast, Downcast still uses iCloud sync. While iCloud is far from perfect, you won’t have to create a separate user account to keep up with. Whether this is a pro or con is a personal choice.
I used Downcast as my main player for a long time, but two major issues made me switch. The first was power usage. Downcast would drain my battery, causing the iPhone to heat up, and leaving it almost dead at the end of the day. What finally made me give up on Downcast was poor design that led to excessive data usage. After upgrading to the iPhone 5, Downcast imported my subscriptions, but didn’t bother to redownload the shows I had been listening to. Whenever a show was next in my playlist, but the file hadn’t been downloaded, Downcast would automatically stream that episode, despite my setting it to download new shows only while on Wi-Fi. Over LTE, a 40 MB podcast would cache in seconds, burning through my data plan in the process.
Fortunately, it appears that these issues have been fixed. While testing Downcast for this article, my iPhone’s power usage and temperature appeared to be typical. The developer has also addressed accidental data usage in two recent updates. Update 2.7.11 added an option to stream only over Wi-Fi, and the next update, 2.7.12, made Downcast better handle data usage when exiting Wi-Fi coverage, so it won’t keep downloading a podcast when you leave Wi-Fi range.
At only $1.99 for the universal app, loads of options, and no major bugs, it’s hard not to recommend Downcast.
PodCruncher -- Obsessive Coders’ PodCruncher is only $1.99 and has a dead simple interface that’s split into five tabs: Podcasts, Playlists, Player, Downloads, and More. I really want to like this app. PodCruncher has an unpretentious interface that doesn’t get bogged down in details. Its playlists are simple, but powerful. As opposed to Instacast, PodCruncher provides a plethora of playlist options, without getting overly complicated.
The default playlists are thoughtful. There are four: one with podcasts released in the past 24 hours, one for the last episodes from each podcast, another for starred podcasts, and finally one for recently played podcasts so you can catch up on what you were listening to. You can of course create your own playlists, with an impressive number of options for each.
Unfortunately, PodCruncher has some drawbacks that prevent me from recommending it. The first is a nitpick. For some reason, the developer crammed the sleep timer into the share menu, which is sloppy and confusing, especially when there’s a blank space it could fit into to the right of the timeline. Another nitpick is the lack of URLs in show notes. Many of my favorite podcasts can be hard to follow without links to source materials, so for me this is a key feature.
A more severe issue is that unlike Downcast, the lock screen controls cannot be reconfigured in PodCruncher. By default, the lock screen controls only skipping between podcasts, leaving no easy way to skip around inside an episode. As I stated earlier, I consider this a core competency of any podcast app, so the lack of this feature makes PodCruncher untenable for my daily listening.
On top of that, many episodes won’t download at all. Even though Instacast, Downcast, and PodCruncher shared the same subscriptions, PodCruncher would download only two episodes, while Instacast and Downcast would download at least nine. I also received several error messages while using the app, leading me to think that the codebase is half-baked. It’s a shame. If Obsessive Coders could channel some of that obsessiveness and fix these issues, PodCruncher would be my choice of podcast app.
Stitcher -- If you listen to podcasts only occasionally, the free (and heavily advertised) Stitcher app may be for you. Stitcher tries to be the Pandora of podcasts (for more about Pandora, see “Comparing Music Streaming Services: Pandora, Spotify, and Last.fm,” 27 August 2012). Stitcher prefers to stream shows instead of downloading them, continuously playing related shows, and letting you vote them up or down. Also, like Pandora, it’s ad-supported, but unlike Pandora, there is no paid premium option.
Just like Pandora, you can create custom stations based on a podcast. Tap the star button while playing any podcast, and it’ll be added to the custom station(s) you choose. There is also a Smart Station full of shows Stitcher thinks you’ll like based on what you’ve listened to.
Since Stitcher is built for streaming, it’s not a great choice for mobile users with tight bandwidth caps. It does offer an offline listening option for your custom stations, but it’s obviously an afterthought. It’s also not ideal for those wanting complete control over their podcasts. It’s easy to skip to the next podcast, but the reverse is trickier, forcing you to navigate through menus to see the last one you played. Also, there’s no easy way to skip commercials, and even the 30-second skip back is hidden inside the cluttered interface.
Stitcher isn’t my preferred listening option, but it definitely has its strong points. It costs nothing, takes up little storage space, and is a great way to discover new shows.
Pocket Casts -- Several readers recommended Shifty Jelly’s Pocket Casts ($1.99), a tragically overlooked podcatcher that has been on the scene since 2011. It has a unique interface, impressive underpinnings, and a funky personality (according to the FAQ, only seven animals were hurt during production of the app). After only a few days of use, I have fallen in love with it.
From first launch, Pocket Casts is impressive. It automatically searches your iPhone to find your subscriptions in other apps. When I first launched it, it found nearly all of mine, which blew me away.
Like most of the apps mentioned here, Pocket Casts’ interface is split into tabs: Library, which has sub-tabs for podcasts and episodes, Now Playing, Search, and Settings. Subscribed podcasts are displayed in a similar manner to Apple’s Podcasts, as a scrolling grid of cover art. You can tap and hold on any of them to put them into what I call “shaky mode,” where you can rearrange and delete subscriptions just like apps on the iPhone home screen.
In the episode list, you’re presented with four filters at the top. By default, you have Recent, Unplayed, Downloaded, and Unfinished. These filters can be changed by pressing on them, and each shows a count of episodes that fall under that filter. This is a great way to sort through your podcast library. Each episode is listed in chronological order, with a brief description, a quick play button, status, and show length.
The player interface is clean, yet powerful. It offers a scrubbable timeline at the top, along with playback speed, a shortcut to your current playlist, and a share button. The share button is the best in its class, as you can share either the podcast, the episode you’re listening to, or even your position in the episode via email or Twitter. You can slide left on the podcast art to reveal show notes, and tapping the lower right or left sides of the album art to skip forward or back inside an episode. It’s a great touch for drivers who keep their iPhones mounted in their cars.
The podcast directory in Pocket Casts is fantastic. My favorite feature is the capability to view podcasts per network. So if you’re a fan of say, Leo Laporte’s TWiT network, you can easily view and subscribe to every podcast on that network. Its settings are equally good, providing everything you need in clear, simple language. An especially nice touch is the option to key in the specific number of seconds you want to skip forward or back when you press the previous or next buttons, and you can even set each to a different time interval.
What makes Pocket Casts fantastic is its attention to detail. Progress dots scroll under the Library tab while downloading episodes and under the Now Playing tab while playing a podcast. Subscribe to a podcast, and it falls into the Library tab. While in the episode view, pull to refresh and you’ll see an animated radio tuner. Unlike Apple’s Podcasts, which uses a reel-to-reel recorder as the episode timeline, it’s a decorative touch that adds a bit of fun instead of being a frustrating interface element. It’s how skeuomorphic elements should be. Pocket Casts’ interface surprises and delights.
Another impressive detail about Pocket Casts is that all episode updates happen on Shifty Jelly’s servers. While most podcast apps contact each podcast’s server directly, Pocket Casts connects to only one. The result is faster updates with less data usage. (The downside is that podcast publishers don’t get useful statistics.) Downloading hundreds of megabytes of podcast episodes can lock up most podcast apps, but Pocket Casts does it without a hiccup. And Shifty Jelly’s eleven servers update frequently throughout the day, so you always have the freshest content.
However, Pocket Casts isn’t perfect. My biggest gripe is that episodes don’t download automatically. Instead, you have to tap an arrow icon in the Episodes view, which downloads every episode in the selected filter. Pocket Casts also lacks smart playlists, though with the built-in filters, this isn’t much of an issue. Fortunately, the developer tells me that a forthcoming free update will feature automatic downloads, smart playlists, an iPad version, and syncing between the iOS and Android versions of the app. After that update, Pocket Casts may become my main client.
Recommendation -- In terms of overall value, my money’s on Downcast. It’s cheap, works well, and has most every feature you could ask for. While the options can be overwhelming, its interface is relatively clean and simple.
If you don’t mind paying a premium for simplicity, then Instacast might be worth the extra cost. For me, it’s almost worth the money just for the automatic storage management.
For those who are casual listeners, mostly listen at home, or want a new way to discover podcasts, then Stitcher is a great app to keep around. It’s free and won’t hog your device’s storage, but it will frustrate you if you listen a lot or have a low bandwidth cap.
While there’s a lot to like about PodCruncher, it needs a few fixes to become a serious contender, but there’s no reason that can’t happen.
Finally, Pocket Casts is a fun and refreshing podcast client that gets a lot right. With a little more added functionality, it could easily be the best of the bunch.
Unless otherwise noted, this article is copyright © 2013 TidBITS Publishing, Inc.Published in TidBITS on 2012-12-22.
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