If you listen to as many podcasts as I do, you may already be familiar with the difficulties of deciding on a podcatcher app. Each app has something that directs it towards a certain audience and part of my problem has been deciding what audience I fall into. There has yet to be a single app that covers all of the features I find important but some come close. Here is a rundown (in no particular order) of the features and faults of my favorite four podcatchers on the App Store.
For most people new to iOS, Podcasts will most likely be their go to podcatcher. Podcasts, developed by Apple, is not the most feature rich app on this list but is smooth and stylish if you are willing to sacrifice some functionality. Podcasts is a universal app with pretty strong iCloud support (or as strong as can be currently expected of iCloud) to keep track of subscriptions and episodes. It sports a beautiful grid layout that will really make good podcast art shine, especially on the iPad. The app supports most of the features that we've come to expect, such as automatic downloads, playback speed settings, and AirPlay. However, there is currently an error with AirPlay that causes audio and video podcast to fill the entire screen and restrict use of the AirPlay target. This is manageable, but feels somewhat lazy considering that this is an Apple app, playing on Apple hardware, and streaming to Apple devices. But if you are willing to sacrifice a lot of features, such as playlists, OPML support, and custom artwork, Podcasts is a great way to listen to your favorite shows.
Instacast is the most recent podcatcher to receive a new point version. The major features being touted in the update include switching to a universal app over two separate versions and integrating their own sync service to replace iCloud support. I have to say, immediately after purchasing and installing the app these features stood out as the most well defined of their kind. iCloud support is a great addition to the other podcatchers but Instacast’s new system takes it up another bar, offering almost instant syncing between devices including played/unplayed status, bookmarks, and episode progress. Instacast supports easily customizable new episode notifications, making it easy to see when your favorite subscriptions update. Instacast also features what is by far the most beautifully designed playback screen. During playback, swiping left and right switches between controls and features (like AirPlay, speed, and continuous play) on a sleek grey/illuminated blue bar. But despite Instacast’s beautiful player, you still have to deal with whatever low-resolution/ugly images your podcasts come equipped with because at this time it does not support custom artwork. The few problems I do have with Instacast stem mostly from its intended user base. I am a hardcore podcast listener. However, Instacast is not a hardcore podcast player. My large subscription list often bogs down performance bellow the point of usability and finding the unplayed icon in a “dumb-sorted” list of podcasts can prove to be frustrating and tedious. Playlists in Instacast are manageable but lacks ease of use of Pocket Casts or the powerful smart playlist systems of Downcast. Instacast allows you to create smart playlists but the sorting options are limited to basic criteria like played or unplayed. Instacast 3 is a good app but it is designed for a certain type of user. I am not that user, but you may be. And if you are, Instacast may be a dream come true.
Like most powerful machines, Downcast comes with a lot of sharp edges. Indisputably the most feature rich app on this list, what Downcast does with fantastic utility it balances out with sloppy UI design. Downcast has a list of features so long I can't write them all here, but some of the most unique are gesture control, true smart playlists, and location based downloads. Downcast has never let me down in terms of functionality, if I want to do something with my subscriptions I can do it. Create a playlist of all my video podcasts that have come out in the past two days in order of length from shortest to longest? Sure! Add all new episodes to a queue when I leave work and download them when I get home? Absolutely! Where downcast fails is its UI design. Subscriptions can be smart sorted but are still displayed in long lists and the player is quite the eyesore. Episode descriptions are displayed in the player, cluttering the screen with text and harshly contrasting the on screen buttons. Downcast does sport a fantastic gesture control system though, and I think it would be a major improvement to redesign the player as a minimalist gesture pad and do away with all the unnecessary noise. I can only dream. If you have a lot of podcasts and want the most functionality, Downcast is hands down the best option. But if you like to look at podcast art or put emphasis on application feel, Downcast may be too much of a sacrifice for you.
Pocket Casts reminds me of an old pickup truck. It can be a little hard to use but it will always work. Pocket Casts has been my fallback application for a while now, taking the place of other podcatcher apps when an update damages their respective qualities. Pocket Casts features one of the better interface designs in the realm of podcatchers. Grid view allows just enough information on the screen without being overwhelming and custom artwork support can really help to clean up podcasts that have bad or missing art. One of the heralded selling points for Pocket Casts is its refresh speed and new episode notifications. Pocket Casts lets me know almost instantly when a new episode is available via push and refreshing for new episodes takes under 5 seconds, even for my massive collection of 70+ subscriptions. However, Pocket Casts has its own set of issues (just perhaps more manageable ones). Unlike the other three applications, Pocket Casts does not support automatic downloads and is not universal. Using the app can often times feel clunky and awkward, requiring users to navigate from grid view to podcast view to episode view and finally to playback. Downloading all episodes can be a chore considering that download all functions are only available for categories (such as unplayed or recent). Similar to Apple’s Podcasts app, Pocket Casts also suffers from inexplicable AirPlay issues that force all podcasts, video and audio alike, to take up the entire screen. If you happen to be listening to audio podcasts, Pocket Casts will black out the entire screen of the AirPlay target and attempting to navigate elsewhere on the Apple TV will close playback. But despite some concerns, Pocket Casts remains one of my favorite podcatchers. The developers, Shift Jelly, have promised additional features like automatic downloads and an iPad app in their long awaited 4.0 version supposedly coming early this year.
Written by: Samuel Strickland