For as long as I could remember, Instacast was the podcast app1 that I felt provided the best overall experience on the App Store, and the one I recommended to everyone else who asked. But as it turns out, Instacast's recent 4.0 update sadly resulted in a step backwards in usability. I talked about this a bit in my recent article about the state of podcast apps on iOS 7:
“The playback controls cover up some of the podcast artwork, the advanced toolbar […] can no longer be hidden, and the cloud sync service no longer seems to work properly.”2
Replacing an app on my dock is a pretty rare occurrence since I'm picky about what gets put there in the first place, but Instacast just hasn't been cutting it for me anymore. And so, I found myself doing something I never expected: I decided to give Pocket Casts another shot.
The last time I can recall using Pocket Casts was on my old iPhone 3G, in the week following my son's birth. I remember this so specifically because I occasionally had some downtime at the hospital whenever he was asleep in the NICU, and it gave me a good chance to try something other than Instacast for a change. I'd certainly heard good things about it from my internet friends, so why not?
Unfortunately, it hadn't lived up to the hype. I mean, it worked well enough as a podcast player I guess, but any old app can play audio files. That's the easy part.
If a podcast app developer really wants to beat out the competition though, their best bet is to go above-and-beyond in terms of their app's design. These kinds of apps tend to share very similar feature-sets, so there aren't many other ways for these apps to differentiate themselves.
And frankly, Pocket Casts 3 looked like it fell right out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.
Yeesh, I still don't understand what they were thinking back then. Needless to say, it didn't take long for me to switch right back to Instacast, the app I subsequently ended up sticking with for the next two years.
The Ugly Duckling, Now a Swan
With iOS 7 and the release of Pocket Casts 4.0 though, the app's prior homeliness suddenly seemed like a distant memory. The new app was stunning, bearing almost no resemblance to its former self at all.
Let's take a tour of the new interface, shall we? Screenshots ahoy!
Pictured above are the subscriptions page (left) and main menu (right) of the iPhone app. The differences between 3.0 and 4.0 are immediately noticeable, especially in that the screen is no longer cluttered by pointless drop-shadows, toolbars, or weird iconography. Where the old app was dark and claustrophobic, the new version feels light and airy.
From the subscriptions page, tap on any podcast and then tap the gear symbol on the next screen to bring up some advanced options pertaining only to that show.
You can choose to turn automatic downloads on or off for that show, and even choose how many seconds to skip at the beginning (up to 500) if you don't like hearing its intro every time. The longer the - or + buttons are held down, the faster the counter scrolls.
Here's how the subscriptions page appears on the iPad (and notice the top-hand mini-player, since I had an episode playing when I took the screenshot):
Tapping the '+' button at the top-right corner will take you to the podcast directory, where new subscriptions can be searched for and added to your library. This is the only place left in the app that carries a hint of the old version's design:
There are several ways to find whatever show(s) you're looking for – Featured, Top Charts, Search, Networks, and Categories – all of which are accessible from the bottom toolbar.
The iPad app's main navigation has been tucked away in a left-hand sidebar menu, rather than getting its own screen:
I still can't get over how much better this app looks than it used to, right down to the icon. Absolutely gorgeous.
What would typically be dubbed a “smart playlist” in other podcast apps, Pocket Casts 4 refers to as an “episode filter”. You might wonder what the difference is, but don't worry, these are just different names for the same thing. Pocket Casts comes preloaded with a few filters — Unplayed, Downloaded, Video, and Downloading.
Each filter is essentially a series of configurable parameters:
- Filter Name
- Appearance — Choose one of five colors and one of eight icons. Whichever color you choose will subtly permeate throughout that playlist's UI, from the toolbars to the buttons.
- Playing State — Include episodes that are unplayed, playing, and/or played.
- Status — Include episodes that are downloaded, downloading, and/or not downloaded.
- Episode Type — Choose from audio and/or video.
- Podcasts — Choose which podcasts to include. Includes an 'all podcasts' toggle.
- Starred — A toggle that controls whether or not to include only 'starred' episodes.
- Sorting — List newest episodes at the top or the bottom
So for example, if you wanted to come up with a simple “Favorites” filter, you would tap the
Add Episode Filter... button on the main menu > name the filter > choose a color and icon (I chose green/star) > highlight every available “type” of podcast > toggle the “only include starred episodes” option, and hit Done. Sounds tedious in writing, but in practice it's really quite simple.
Side-note: the episodes shown in the right image only appear faded because they've already been played. No need to panic.
If you followed the steps above, you should now have a smart playli… er, episode filter…that will automatically display any episodes you mark with a star — a handy repository of all your favorite episodes. From there, the possible combinations of filters can make for a lot of interesting and personalized playlist setups.
Of course, you can also create normal, non-automated playlists if you want, but c'mon. That's boring.
Don't Hate the Player
While viewing a playlist, there are a number of ways to interact with its contents. Tap the name of an episode, and the show notes panel will slide up from the bottom (pictured below, left). From here, you can trash it, add it to another playlist, star it, mark it as played/unplayed, share it via link or audio file, or simply play it.
If you want to get straight to playing an episode without showing the info panel first, you can skip the middle man by simply tapping the 'play' icon on the right. This assumes that you've already downloaded the episode; if you haven't, then that right-hand icon will be a download button instead.
When you first start playing an episode, a mini-player is shown rather than the episode taking up the entire screen (pictured above, right). The circle around the play icon indicates how much of the episode has been played. You can tap on this mini-player panel to bring up the full interface where more controls are available, such as playback speed and a sleep timer.
As you can see, the player UI changes colors based on whichever podcast artwork is being displayed. It's a nice little touch that provides a more personalized experience and makes me appreciate the app all the more.
At the upper right are two buttons, one for bringing up the show notes for that episode, and the other for showing what's next on the playlist (assuming you've gone into a playlist or episode filter and hit “Play All”).
The iPad player takes advantage of the extra screen real estate, with the artwork and show notes being displayed as two side-by-side panels. Like the iPhone version, it also changes colors to match the artwork:
The in-app web browser – used for opening links in show notes – works well enough for viewing web pages, but that's about it. You won't find any fancy features here.
If there's one thing I'd like to see added to the web browser and the show notes section, it would be the ability to send pages to Instapaper (or any other such service) for later perusal. There are sometimes over a dozen links listed under a given podcast episode, and I don't like having to bounce back and forth between Pocket Casts and Instapaper to save all the interesting-sounding stuff for later.
Just as Beautiful on the Inside
Pocket Casts 4 is more than just a fresh coat of paint. As the developers mentioned in a recent blog post, they threw out every last line of code from version 3.0 and started over from scratch for this release at the beginning of 2013. And it shows, in a good way. The app is very snappy even on my two-year-old iPhone 4S, with no noticeable lag anywhere.
I realize how odd it sounds in the age of commonplace A7 chips to keep mentioning how fast certain iOS apps are, but I feel it deserves a special mention with Pocket Casts. You see, along with the code-rewrite came the introduction of a proprietary, account-based sync service that doesn't rely on iCloud. This service continually refreshes the podcast catalog on the server back-end so your device doesn't have to do it every time you open the app.
Federico Viticci explained this point more in-depth in his own review of Pocket Casts 4:
“For podcast authors, the Pocket Casts backend is interesting. [Developer] Shifty Jelly parses 110,000 podcast feeds per hour, with popular podcasts being hit by the parser every minute, and less popular shows going down from the 1-minute threshold to 10 minutes. When a Pocket Casts client refreshes through the backend, the server will give the client a full list of updated episodes in a few seconds, rather than forcing the client to go refresh each podcast feed URL on its own.”
Federico's experience mirrors my own — it takes only a few seconds for the app to cold-open, sync with the Shifty Jelly server, and pull the list of new episodes. With Instacast, you typically have to watch and wait as it refreshes literally every podcast feed one-by-one, which can take a full minute or two if your subscription library is large enough.
Most of the time though, I don't even have to wait the few seconds it would take to perform this sync process in Pocket Casts 4. Since it takes full advantage of iOS 7's new background-updating capabilities, it automatically downloads new episodes for me while my device is asleep and is connected to a WiFi network3.
Whenever this happens, the app sends me a push notification telling me that a new episode is ready to go. All I have to do is open the app, and boom, the episode is right there waiting to be played. It's like magic.
The only issue I've come across with this sync service so far is that episode playback position doesn't reliably transfer between my iPhone and iPad. I'd like to say that I can pause an episode on one device and pick it back up on the other, but that hasn't been my experience so far. The second device acts as if the episode hasn't been played at all.
If there's one takeaway from my experience with Pocket Casts 4, it's that the developers have put an enormous amount of work into overhauling the experience. What I used to think was a crummy app has made a surprising comeback and overtaken Instacast for the top spot in its field, which is exactly the sort of thing that makes the iOS App Store such an exciting place to watch.
Sure, there are a few issues for Shifty Jelly to work out (namely the playback sync issue) but I'm confident that they'll iron these things out in future updates.
From the delightful little details – such as the pull-to-refresh animation – to the snappiness and stability seen throughout, this is the premier podcast app to be using at the moment. We'll still have to see what the future holds of course, but for now my top recommendation is Pocket Casts 4.
I've debated internally for a while about the use of the term “podcatcher”, and to be honest, I'm still undecided. Unlike some, I don't really think it's all that bad a term, but I also don't want a bunch of people hounding me about it. ↩
I should point out that Vemedio, the development studio behind Instacast, has since explained that the problem behind the sync outage was due to a corrupt database on their provider's side and they had no restorable backup. Yikes. ↩
Instacast 4 has the same ability to download in the background, but in any instance where you have to wait for the sync process to take place, it still seems to take forever. And that's if their sync service is even online! ↩