Podcast App Comparison
In the past the only app that used to be available for managing podcasts was the built in iPod app on the iPhone itself. These days, after Apple amended the rules of the AppStore, there are now a handful of good podcast management apps available, that give you a lot more control over podcasts than the built in iPod app.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I am currently looking for a good app to manage my podcasts, automatically download them, in the background if possible and not be too fiddly to use, so that it can be used in the car on my long daily commute. I was in the past using a combination of the iPod and Flicktunes while in the car but I switched to Instacast and lost the ability to use Flicktunes, I also wasn’t totally happy with the podcast management capabilities of Instacast or the fact that in the background it only pulled down the stream and didn’t cache the episode.
So I went looking for alternatives and came across a lot of excellent apps that seemed to offer what I needed. I was however unable to find any reviews that compared them or answered some of the questions that I had, so I decided to do the research and write a comparison myself. I couldn’t afford to buy every app available but the ones that stood out were Downcast, Podcaster and Pocket Casts, so I obtained those and put them through their paces over the past couple of days. Hopefully the comments I made below will help you to decide which one of these apps is the right one for you.
Interface - looks
Instacast, Downcast and Podcaster all present a very similar view when you first launch the application and have subscribed to some podcasts, essentially they all display a list with the icon for the podcast on the left, the title next and then any other relevant information.
For Instacast this is the total number of episodes underneath the title and to the far right a large number showing the number of remaining episodes still to be listened to.
Downcast takes a similar view but only displays the titles and the number of unplayed episodes.
Podcaster’s view is almost exactly the same as the one used in Downcast, graphically it’s different but the same amount of information is displayed. What I don’t like about Podcaster though is that I can’t find a way to let is know what episodes I have already listened to without playing them, so it tells me that I have 20 episodes of This Week in Tech to listen to, when I should have only 2.
Pocket Casts breaks the mold a little here and instead of displaying a list of the podcasts, displays a series of tiles using the podcast cover art, there are two settings for this, large or small. In both cases the tile is badged with the number of unplayed episodes, tapping it causes it to flip over and display the episodes.
I confess that I like the interface from Pocket Casts, it makes it easier to tell at a glance what the podcast is, without having to read through the list and quick to select. It would be nice if you could just tap the album icon twice to start playing the current episode and once to make it flip so that you could select another episode.
Interface - Usage
Instacast is very Mac-like or Apple-like in the way that it works, that is, that it has a flow to it that makes it work like something from Apple. You tap a podcast in the list to bring up the list of episodes, swiping to the right marks an episode as played, to the left it stars it, tapping it brings you to the episode info and a green button that says either Stream or Start (if you cached the episode) or Continue if the episode is already playing. This is where I had my first problem though, sometimes the button doesn't react when I press it and I have to press it repeatedly to get it to register. This only happens to me in Instacast, other applications are fine.
At the bottom you will find another menu bar that replicates some of the functionality from the previous screen, there are icons for marking the podcast as played, starred, for downloading (caching) it or sending it to Instapaper or Read It Later or Email.
Pressing start or stream brings up the player window, there is a built-in player in Instacast or you can use the default Apple player, I’m using the Instcast one. It looks very similar to the standard player as you can see below. Personally I would like to see them add the ability to use the whole screen to pause or play the podcast, as it’s quite easy to miss hitting the play button in the car and instead skip to a different part of the podcast.
Downcast doesn’t seem to have the same kind of flow for me that Instacast does, that’s not to say that its a bad application as it’s not but it just doesn't have that same feel to it for me. One difference here is that swiping on a podcast episode offers to delete it, no matter which way you swipe. Once you select a podcast to play, the main player interface comes up and here it seems that the Downcast team have gone for functionality. The overall display doesn't look as elegant as say the iPod or Instacast apps but it does offer a lot more information and options. A large version of the album art is displayed, which you can tap once and a small version is displayed with the show information under this, some links to the show notes and sponsor info.
At the very top, above the progress indicator is a menu bar that allows you to skip forward or backward in intervals via four buttons marked −30, −15, +30 and +2 minutes. Next to and slightly under the total remaining time for the progress indicator is what looks like a speech bubble, tapping it allows you to share the podcast on Twitter, Facebook and more… Tapping more brings up a new window that lets you email it, open it in Safari, SMS it and send it to Google Reader.
Finally at the bottom is a volume indicator, next to it is an icon that looks like an alarm clock which is the sleep timer a repeat icon and a speed icon, allowing you to change the playback speed. Then there are the standard playback controls.
Although I like the extra functionality offered here, for me it’s a little too busy, what is amazing though is that tapping twice on the album art during playback will pause or play the podcast. Swiping to either side with one finger, skips forward or backward through the podcast, swiping with two fingers left or right switches to the previous or next podcast, while swiping up with two fingers marks the podcast as unplayed and down with two fingers marks it as played. I didn’t find a way to adjust the volume other than using the slider at the bottom, it would be nice for this to work as a gesture as well I think. Overall, I am really happy that this functionality is present.
Podcaster works pretty much the same way as Downcast, in that it doesn't seem to have the feel to it that Instacast does, and swiping on a podcast in the list does nothing, it just takes you to the podcast. Any podcasts that you have downloaded have a little disk icon next to their name, anything that doesn't is available for streaming. As I mentioned earlier, it would be nice here to be able to trim the list, while its good that I can go back through older podcasts, I’d much rather be able to have this as an option that I can turn on or off.
Tapping on a podcast episode brings up the standard playback window with the artwork prominent in the middle, at the top is a progress bar, repeat icon, skip back 30 seconds, skip forward 30 seconds and a playback speed icon. At the very top in the title bar is an icon that if tapped displays the show notes or information.
At the bottom are the standard playback controls, volume indicator, an icon to delete the podcast if its downloaded or to download it if its a cached file and the obligatory share icon, that in this case offers mark as played and sleep in addition to email or facebook, there’s no Twitter button present.
Podcaster also offers the ability to tap twice on the album art during playback in to order to pause or start playback, however no other gestures I tried there worked, so it seems just pause and play are supported by default.
Pocket Casts follows on in the footsteps of Downcast and Podcaster in terms of feel, however when you select a podcast, only the unplayed, downloaded episodes are available, there is an option underneath these to view the rest of the episodes if you need them. Once the list of is displayed the podcasts are available for download, I didn’t find a way to stream them. Back in what I call the main list, that is the list of podcasts that you have already downloaded, the screen gets a little busier. The episodes are listed with a short summary an icon indicating roughly if the podcast is played and how far through that you are and a play button.
Tapping on the podcast episode directly doesn't play it, instead it brings up an information window with the summary in it, a delete option, a play option, a show notes icon and a close button. I really would much prefer to be able to tap the episode to have it play and exchange the play button for this information window instead.
Pressing the play button brings up the standard playback window with the album art, at the very top is the progress indicator, underneath the playback speed and another button for the show notes, at the bottom is an icon for playlists, playback controls and volume.
Tapping on the album art during playback brings up two large buttons to skip forward or backward through the podcast but no combination of swipes, gestures or taps that I tried started or paused playback.
Underneath all of that, right at the bottom is the master toolbar that is consistent throughout the application.
Whether playlists are required for podcasts seems to be a matter of taste, some people don’t mind as long as there is a method to play the podcasts back sequentially, while others prefer to be able to sort them or play them in some kind of order. I fall into the latter camp as I have different moods for different podcasts and so prefer to be able to choose based on this.
Instacast doesn't offer playlists as such, it instead gives you an All Episodes option at the top of the main window, tapping on this lists all of the podcasts that you have to date, sorted in order from oldest to newest and grouped by podcast if the middle stripped icon from the bottom toolbar is selected or in the order that they were downloaded from oldest to newest if the download arrow is selected.
Besides this there are no other options that I am aware of in Instacast, even if you select an individual podcast, it still pauses after each episode is played.
DownCast offers playlist management, on the bottom toolbar there is an icon for playlists, selecting it takes you to a new screen with a large Create Playlist button at the top. Pressing it takes you to a new screen where you can give the playlist a name and then choose from various options, Include Played, Sort Date Descending, Group by Podcast, Include Audio Episodes, Include Video Episodes and Include all Podcasts. I didn’t find a way to just create a blank playlist and add episodes to it. Once your playlist has been generated, then you need to go into it, select edit and then remove episodes and or podcasts that you don’t want and slide the podcasts up or down to change the order that they will play in. Once done, selecting the first podcast in the list will start the playlist going.
Podcaster also offers an option to create playlists, press the playlist button at the bottom and you are taken to the playlist screen with some smart playlists already created for you, Unplayed Downloads, All Downloads, All Unplayed and All Unfinished. I didn’t see a way to delete these but you can select one of them, choose edit and remove the podcasts inside. If however you want to create your own playlist, then on the playlist screen, you need to select the edit button on the top left corner, this will change the now playing icon in the top right corner to a + symbol. Pressing this brings up a create playlist window where you have the option to give the playlist a name, select show only downloaded or show only unplayed. However once you press next, a list of the podcasts that you have subscribed to appears and from the list you select the podcasts that you are interested in and once done, press save, this will generate the list for you. You will then need to go into the playlist and choose edit and remove any episodes that you do not want to have in the playlist.
Pocket Casts has an option to add podcasts to a playlist but it seems to be hidden and rather than creating separate playlists, you add episodes of podcasts to a master playlist. The only way that I found to do it, was to start a podcast playing, then next to the playback icons at the bottom, you will see an icon that looks like bullet points with a musical note, press this and it takes you to the playlist, at the bottom is an add episodes button, that you can use to add set up the playlist. Pressing edit at the top allows you to change the order or delete the podcasts from the list.
All of the applications allow you to download or cache podcasts locally on your device but with different levels of control over the process. All of them, with the exception of Pocket Casts also seem to allow you to decide whether you want to download over 3G, Wifi or both.
Instacast will automatically check for downloads when you start it for all podcasts or you can just pull the list down to force a manual refresh. If you want to refresh an individual podcast, then you need to tap on the podcast and from the episode list pull down to force a refresh.
Downloads are indicated by a little arrow appearing next to the episode count for all episodes on the main screen. I haven’t found a way to see all of the podcasts that are currently downloading though, without going through the podcasts themselves and checking. Basically there doesn't seem to be a download management screen. If you go to a podcast itself though, you can see any episodes there that are currently downloading, signified by a progress bar and a red button next to it allowing you to cancel the download.
For any episodes that you do not have downloaded but would like to, all you need to do is tap the download icon in the bottom right corner, the list will slide over to the right, revealing what look like bullet points, tap these (as many as you want) to select them and then tap on Cache in the bottom left corner. The episodes will start downloading, at this point you can go into another podcast and repeat these steps to download other episodes. Downloads started this way will continue in the background, however if there are new episodes that become available while Instacast is in the background, then it will only add the stream and not the episode. I’m not sure if this is by design or an issue with my device but I filed a bug report with the developer.
Downcast has a download management screen, when a download becomes available the icon at the bottom is badged with the number of downloads available. Tapping this icon takes you to the screen where all of the downloads available are displayed. The shows are displayed by title, with a progress bar underneath on the far right is an icon to get more information about the show. At the top of the screen is a large button for pausing or resuming the whole list, there does not appear to be an option to pause or restart individual downloads. Swiping on one of the downloads will bring up a delete button.
Downcast makes you aware of downloads in the background but for me, it only downloaded if I brought the app to the foreground, I test this by sending it to the background during a download and the podcast never finished until I brought the app back to the foreground. Update: When I initially wrote this, I was performing the downloads at home and I believe I must have been experiencing some connection issues as when I tested this later at work on our faster connection, the downloads continued in the background without issue.
Podcaster takes a similar approach, it too has a downloads screen that it badges and like Downcast, it displays the progress however in the form of a percentage and not a progress bar, swiping it also offers an option to delete it. There is a button at the top of the screen that allows you to pause and resume downloads, again this affects the whole queue and a clear queue button. Downloads can be paused and resumed and seem to complete in the background, I sent the app to the background and when I brought it back to the foreground the download had completed. I didn't receive a notification that it had though.
Pocket Casts as with the two previous apps has its own download window, it’s accessed by tapping on the recycle like icon at the bottom, this brings up a screen with all of the new episodes that are available listed, grouped by podcast. The shows episode number and size are listed along with an icon to stream the episode or download it. At the top of the screen there is also an option to download all of the episodes currently available.
To download an episode tap on the download icon and a progress bar appears, somewhat confusingly a red X also appears, at first glance it’s not clear whether this deletes the podcast episode or cancels the download. It actually cancels the download, what was nice with Pocket Casts is that tapping the download icon again after canceling it resumes from where you left off. Swiping across the episode deletes it. As with Podcaster, downloads complete in the background but I did not receive a notification that it had finished.
Instacast stores its settings inside the settings app on the iPhone, so to access them, you need to tap settingsand then scroll down towards the bottom of the list but when you do get there, there are quite a few of them to play with, I think that the screenshots here speak for themselves.
Downcast keeps its settings within the app, there is a separate icon on the bottom right, appropriately called settings, as with Instacast above, I’ll let the screenshots talk for themselves.
Podcaster actually has it’s settings in two locations, the first is hidden inside the settings app but this is just a reset button for Podcaster to perform a factory reset on the app itself. Inside the app however, if you tap more and then settings you get the following options.
Finally, Pocket Casts also keeps its options contained within the app, these appear to be restrained to the essential. There don’t seem to be any options to choose whether or not you download the episodes over 3G or Wifi though.
Now in an ideal world, this is a big no-no and not something that should be condoned. However (and this doesn't make it right), we all listen to music or podcasts from our phones or MP3 players in our cars. Therefore an increasingly important point to take into account is the ease of use of the app or perhaps it would be better stated as having an interface that can be used without taking your eyes from the road. A lot of the more modern cars have iPod or iPhone functionality built into their systems and so integrate into the car controls, some of us though, still have older models that only support connections via FM transmission or an aux in and in these situations all control and operation take place on the iPod or iPhone directly. At least this is the case for me and so being able to do this safely is a big concern for me.
Unfortunately, this is an area where Instacast could improve, there is no way to operate playback without looking at the screen and trying to find the button that you need to press, whether it’s to pause or play the podcast or select another podcast, plus theres no way to quickly play a podcast, you select it from a list, select the episode that you want, get an info screen and on there a little button that says start. Given the not so flexible playlist options in Instacast, this means that you may decide you want to listen to another podcast but there is no easy way to switch to it without focusing on the app directly and tapping through numerous screens.
Downcasts is a better, at least on the main playback screen you have gesture support, so its possible to tap twice and play/pause the podcast or swipe once with one finger to skip ahead or back or with two fingers to skip to the next or previous podcast. Combined with the ability to generate custom playlists, this makes Downcasts much more flexible and means that during driving, providing that you have set up a playlist in advance, you can operate the iPhone without taking your concentration from the road. The only thing missing that I couldn’t find was gesture support for volume control. Switching between episodes without using a playlist still requires that you focus on the app, so creating a playlist in advance and using the gestures is the best way to go.
Podcaster also provides playback support but it is limited to play/pause and swipe forward or back to skip within the podcast, there doesn't seem to be an option to skip to the next or previous podcast. As with Downcasts, playlist support is good, so its quite easy to set up a playlist before leaving and much easier than trying to navigate through podcasts while on the move.
Pocket Casts loses some ground here as like Instacast, there is no gesture support for pausing or resuming playback, during playback however, tapping on the screen brings up two large buttons for skipping forward or backwards through the podcast. Playlist support is present though, so you can start a playlist and leave it going but you will need to pay attention to the device if you want to pause or resume playback.
After having spent some time with each of these apps now, I find that I like different things from each of them and for me the ideal app would be one that combined all of these different features, for example I like the tile display of Pocket Casts, it makes it easy to tell at a glance the podcast and select it. I like the ability to quickly star or mark as played in instacast. Downcast has the best playlist and gesture support whereas Podcaster has a nice simplicity to it, you have what you need and the rest is out of your way. If one of the apps combined all of these I think it would be the killer app for me, perhaps in future revisions as these apps are updated and features added, one of them will manage to check all of the boxes on my wishlist.
At the moment though, I find myself torn between Downcast and Pocket Cast, I like Downcast for its gestures, really I can’t say that enough as you know from the article but this is major for me and I like it’s flexibility. The interface is more Android than iPhone though or at least that’s the way it seems to me. Pocket Cast I like because I think it screams potential, they have a good offering out of the gate and I think that with some tweaks and a couple more features added it could be an amazing podcast app. I will definitely be keeping an eye on it.
Podcaster I am afraid that although it is a nice app, it’s not for me, it gives a good showing but it’s missing too many of the things that I need day to day and Instacast although it is a nice app and I like the feel of it, I am afraid just can’t compete with the gesture support, playlists and download management offered by the other apps.
My pick for the moment and I reserve the right to change this at a moments notice in the future (see how fickle I am?) is Downcast, as it best fits what I need and what I want to do right now.
I hope that this article helps you find an app thats right for you, they are all excellent applications that there developers have clearly put a lot of time into but it’s about finding something that fits you, for me thats Downcast, for you? Well as I say I hope this will help you to decide :)