Review: Podcasts for iOS

The Apple rumor mill got another one right today as Apple released a standalone podcasting app on the App Store. On the surface, Podcasts looks like a nice alternative to third party alternatives such as Instacast, Instacast HD or Downcast.

However, after fiddling with it for 30 minutes or so, I made up my mind to stick with Instacast for the foreseeable future.

The Good

Before getting into all the reasons why Podcasts is ultimately not going to be my primary Podcast app, I will talk about what I did like about it.

Visually, I think the interface actually looks pretty good. You can view all your subscriptions in a grid format or a list. I really like the look of the grid, but unfortunately I would not be able to use this format because there is no indication of unread counts for individual shows. But it does look good.

The list is a bit more conventional and shows unread counts for each show and also includes another list for all unplayed episodes. My only complaint here is that the unplayed episodes are sorted newest first (with no option to change), which is the opposite order that I would typically listen to them in.

While the organization here is not great, it is workable.

My favorite part of the app is the playback screen. It has a skeuomorphic that a lot of people will not like, but I think it looks really good. The background consists of two tapedecks that animate; and as the episode plays reels visually move from one side to the other [1].

Grid of subscribed shows
Grid of subscribed shows

Playback is controller by large buttons that are easy to tap without having to stare at the screen. The playback screen also includes options for speeding up or slowing down playback speed for people who use stuff like that.

Playback screen
Playback screen

Another cool feature (although one I would never use) is the Top Stations section. With Top Stations, you do no subscribe to a podcast like normal: you pick a topic that you want to listen and listen to the newest shows about those topics from the iTunes library.

For me, that is where the good in the Podcasts app ended.

The Rest

The thing that I was most excited about when I saw Podcasts was the ability to have everything in sync between my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Currently with Instacast, I use iCloud to keep things in sync between my iOS devices, but it does not always work well and that does not leave me with a way to listen on my Mac.

An Apple-provided solution gave me hope that I could sync across all devices (heck, maybe even my AppleTV too!). And after looking in the app, you can sync across Podcasts on iPhone, Podcasts on iPad, and iTunes on Mac.

With a cord [2].

All syncing has to be down through iTunes. Apple has a great cloud solution that is perfect to syncing this type of metadata across all your devices. They already do it with things like iTunes Match and iBooks bookmark syncing. And they chose not to use it for their podcasting platform.

This alone was enough to keep my from switching to Podcasts from Instacast. But don’t worry, there is more.

On the app, you are limited to subscribing to shows that are listed on iTunes. This is great for most shows, but there are other shows that have a legitimate reason for not being on iTunes. One is Shawn Today, which is a near-daily shows by Shawn Blanc for members of his site. As it is a members-only show, having it listed on iTunes is not really an option. I can still listen to the show in the app, but I have to subscribe on iTunes and sync every episode over as they come out.

Dave Caolo at 52 Tiger also pointed out that show note links are not clickable. I regularly use the show notes links, and not being able to use them is a deal breaker.

Wrap up

As someone who listens to 6–8 hours of podcasts a week, I am glad that Apple is turning their attention to the platform. However, I don’t think this app is even good enough for me to recommend to people who only casually listen to podcasts [3].

I am glad that they made this first step, but I hope their second step is a lot further.

I got something wrong in my review. Playback syncing does work with iCloud, but subscriptions don’t. So it is not quite as bad as I thought.

  1. This is one reason that I never liked the fake-book look in iBooks. No matter what page of the book you were on, it always looked like you were in the middle of the book. Podcasts fixes this problem.  ↩
  2. I guess you can use iTunes Wifi Syncing, but it has the same affect.  ↩
  3. If they made syncing work through iCloud, then it would be good enough for this group.  ↩