Comparing iPhone podcast apps at a glance

Why compare 6 popular iPhone podcast apps this time? Because after comparing 27 iPhone weather apps and 18 iPhone Twitter apps side-by-side, I needed to catch my breath this week and focus on something with a smaller scope.

You'd think with Apple entering the podcast app space demand for alternatives would go down. But, apparently, that's not the case. Taking podcasts out of the iTunes Store app and getting people to go to the App Store has resulted in -- wait for it... -- people going to the App Store. Once there, they're often times settling on something other than Apple's fare.

Since podcasts, video and audio, are media files, the playback screens pictured below obviously focus on playback controls, almost always set off by the podcast's album art. How many controls are exposed at once, verses hidden a tap or two away, varies, as does the overall simplicity or complexity of the screens themselves.

Here, in order, from top left to bottom right, are:

  1. Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Instacast 3
  2. Downcast, iCatcher, RSSRadio

There are other factors to consider when comparing podcast apps, of course. How good and quick the experience is for finding, subscribing, and playing podcasts, whether there's sync for multiple devices, how well show notes are handled, and how well it animates the hidden reel-to-reel recorder. (Kidding!) For more on all of that, look here:

For now, look over the designs above and let me know what you think. Which podcast apps do you use, and are they the same ones that appeal to you most in the comparison above? Any of the players attractive enough they encourage you to give them a shot?

(And if you think the timing just oh so conveniently coincided with the unveiling of our all-new, all-awesome Mobile Nations podcast album art, well, then, you're as smart as you are good looking!)

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Comparing iPhone podcast apps at a glance

38 Comments

I have tried all of them (Instacast, Downcast, Pocketcasts, Podcaster 5, etc). Downcast to me is a bloated old school 2007 UI and is in need in a refresh. Instacast has a much cleaner UI but I have had a lot of problems with Vemedio's new cloud sync. Pocketcasts doesn't currently support auto downloads so that's out for me. PC is currently being re-designed and if the iOS version looks anything like the new Android version 4 to be released this month then it's going to be killer. Shifty Jelly is a small shop with 3 devs so they decided to Android first and iOS will follow later this year.

After all that being said, I am currently using Apple's podcast App. I have had no issues with podcasts being updated, downloading, and syncing via iCloud. I also enjoy that downloaded podcasts are part of the native DB in iOS that is recognized by my cars' Audio system when connected via USB which means I can browse the podcasts content using the car system. I mostly use BT in the car, but it's nice to have that feature when charging and connected via wire.

Apple's podcast app is far from perfect, but it certainly does not deserve the bum rap it's been getting in iTunes reviews.

I've used Apple's Podcast app since it came out and it has deserved most of the bad rap it has gotten in reviews. It is a lot better now but I still have issues with iCloud sync and iTunes.

Thanks for the input, I was thinking about buying a podcast app, but I think I will stick with the default podcast app in iOS. I just came over from Android and miss Doggcatcher.

It gets the bum rap because it took away useful features (e.g. playlists, some voice control music app had), hid some controls behind a swipe, and bifurcated podcast management in frustrating ways - for little apparent benefit to the end user other than a virtual reel to reel player on the screen. It gets flack because, to put it charitably, it is not up to Apple's usual standards. The volume and intensity results from the fact it is a step backwards from what we had before.

spot on analysis to me. I gave a good faith effort to use exclusively the apple app. but after about 3 weeks i didn't like it for all the reasons you highlight.

I used Pocket Casts for years, then I switched to Instacast, then back to Pocket, and the a brief stint on Downcast. My favourite among these is Pocket Cast, smooth, quick, not bad looking. It only misses the auto download feature. For the past few weeks however, I have been using Podcasts, and guess what, no complaints. I am planning to stick with it, I like the icon.

I've been using the Apple Podcasts app since it came out as well and have had many many problems actually getting the content to play. Some times it never starts at all, other times it plays for 10 minutes then starts over, I'd say about half the time it makes it all the way through the podcast. Now I'm looking for an alternative that's more reliable.
I'd love to find something that has a web interface as well so I can listen from my pc at work as well and keep everything in sync. Does anybody know of a service that offers this?

I've used Downcast for a long time and I was attracted to its' UI in your comparison too. iCatcher looks interesting, I might try it.

I've used Apple's Podcast app since it started. I flirted with some others when Podcasts was really, really bad but it improved enough for me to stick with it. As of right now there isn't really a compelling reason to switch it up. The designs pictured above don't really seem different enough from each other to compel me to go to anything else, either.

Apple's Podcasts is the one to beat here, it's very good.

Though it's clear that podcast apps don't enjoy the same design treatment as the twitter apps, the rest are quite a mess of overloaded buttons and features.

I have tried all of them and iCatcher is definitely my favourite.
Apple's Podcast app doesn't allow me to create playlists, doesn't allow me to change the download order of the podcast episodes in the download queue and if the next item in the podcast list is not yet downloaded, it will stream. That is a feature I do not want, I have limited data each month and I have been caught out with excess data usage due to the Podcasts app.
If those features were fixed, I would give the Podcasts app another try. I do like how I can download the episodes to my MacBook Air and then sync them to my iPad and iPhone without having to download them multiple times. One other fault that syncing brings is that it will remove episodes from your device that I have specifically downloaded to my device and net yet watched (or listened to) because there are other episodes that take syncing priority since I am syncing the 5 earliest podcasts & there are more than 5.
On the other hand, iCatcher let's me move an episode up the list to download sooner, allows me to create playlists, syncs playlists, podcasts and episodes watched across devices, allows me to download on my wifi network at home, but not use my work's wifi for downloading (unless I manually tell it to), this is configurable. Plus, it doesn't remove episodes that are not watched when I sync to iTunes. One downside is that I do need to download to each device if I want to switch from playing an episode on my iPhone to my iPad, but it syncs the play position. One other thing that I have noted is that the Apple Podcasts app will check for new episodes too often and it uses extra data to do this, while iCatcher let's me set the time between checking for podcasts. So even if I set it to check hourly, it uses less day than the Podcast app that checks for podcasts even if I leave the Podcast app for a minute to respond to an iMessage and then return to the Podcast app and find it checking for new episodes again.
So iCatcher is great and doesn't seem to get as much discussion as others such as Downcast, which really surprises me.

I am using iCatcher too and agree what you said completely. Big plus is that the app get updates frequently and is getting better.
You do not need to download episodes on each device, you can download them on one, and through iTunes Share import them on another device - iCatcher/Settings/Import Media. I am doing it when I am on slow internet or when the episodes have large files.

Thanks for that. Actually, I gave that feature a try, but the podcasts are just named as numbers and I found it difficult to match them up in the other device with the episode names. If the app could export them with full names or do the matching automatically, then that would be great to use. Unless that gets updated, it's still easier for me to download to each device while on wifi.

I've used downcast and instacast but still stick with downcast for it playlist management and robust syncing across all my devices. I still have Apple's podcast app on my phone hoping it will get better.

I've been using downcast for a long time and while its UI is dated the feature set is great. I am constantly using the two different jump forward buttons to get through all the different podcast ads. And the fact I can have it auto download podcasts when and where I want it to is great ( I pull in my driveway and it automatically starts downloading). There are many other great features as well. I might have to try out PC once the updated app is released.

Pocket Casts is my favorite. Large-size "forward" and "back" tap areas are very useful, especially when driving. Easy to organize playlists.

In reading the other comments, it seems Apple's new Podcasts has some unwelcome issues compared to the previous version (built-in to 'Music' on my older iPod touch). However, it does get one BIG thing right, that the other apps seem to miss... the button layout for play/pause and forward/back track.

I constantly hit the wrong button on my iOS 4 iPod touch unless I'm completely still and focused on getting the right one. It was OK before I had a Bluetooth headset, as the 'external device' icon didn't move the controls so close to each other. But, currently, they are just WAY too close. If you hit the wrong one, you lose your place in the podcast! That's no fun if it is a 2 or 3 hour one.

Podcasts seems to have done a GREAT job of fixing, at least that UI blunder. It looks like the other apps didn't do so well. If you miss on Podcasts, you'll just skip forward or back a bit so many seconds, which is easy to fix. As I listen to somewhere between 25 and 30 hours of podcasts each week... that is my #1 'feature.' :)

Used most of them and all got me frustrated except apple's podcasts app on iPhone 5.
However, on iPhone 4 podcasts app is too laggy. Maybe something to do with multithreading/multicore?

I really like Instacast and have been using it for a few years. That said, some of the design changes made in Instacast 3 were steps backwards IMHO.

Having the scrub bar in a UI element that also slides left to right to reveal new tools is a TERRIBLE choice. I can't count the number of times I've been trying to scrub only to have it thwarted by the app thinking I want to access the second control panel.

I also don't use the Apple Podcast app since I have a few podcasts I still like to manage on my Mac (so that I have an archive), and I don't want to have to switch to another app in order to access them. If you don't have "Podcasts.app" installed than the little Podcast tab is still present in Music.app, the way I like it to be.

I have been using Pocket Casts for months now, and really enjoy it. I have about 15 - 20 podcasts I listen to, and I am able to download the ones I want, star ones for future listening, and discover more all in the app. Love the big forward and back buttons also. It's been the one for me for now. Who knows when that will change. Once feature that I would love would be syncing between my iPhone and iPad. Maybe someday...

The biggest problem with all of these apps is that their UIs are *not* (at first glance) in-car friendly. Accidentally hitting a wrong button with music isn't a big deal. With a podcast, it can put me in a bad mood for the rest of the trip.

I currently use Big Button Music Player (https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/big-button-music-player/id354903233?mt=8...) to get around that particular problem, but it doesn't remember what I've queued if it's been inactive for a while, so I have to set up a queue of podcasts at the start of each journey. Some controls remain small/fiddly and it takes a long time to start post iTunes Match.

I suppose your car does not support USB or BT connection? Most systems allow basic navigation ffw/rwd, next/back, etc.

I agree, though I'm not sure I like that Big Button Music Player either. I'll have to take a closer look. At least Podcasts got the button positioning (if not the size) down much better.

Big Button Music Player is working reasonably well for me, but it's far from perfect. All controls except play/prev/next are still too small. There's easy way to go back and listen to a portion again (standard slider control).

I'm toying with writing something myself, but it'd be easier and cheaper just to get a new car!

Downcast all the way. I tried the stock app but it lacked features, customization, an other things.

So bad i paid for Downcast. Downcast is very robust, you get custom save and delete settings. like save last 3, last 4, last 5, last 5 unplayed etc. You can set custom forward and back skip intervals. You can add your own files which is useful when one bbc podcast didn't upload their show and i had to rip it off of iplayer. I like that it has custom downloading settings where it automatically download podcast on wifi but not (if you set it up) on 3G. Has icloud sync. I love that the "add podcast"/ podcast searching is a list, with lots of info not like the apple app where it's a giant dial that gives very little info and makes you endlessly scroll images that tell you nothing. it's also easy to add rss link if you have one. For example Grantland podcast feed is like 20 podcasts but i only like one show. So if you subscribe to grantland you're forced to sift through all the podcasts in the feed getting a bunch of stuff you don't actually want. the problem is the individual show was not listed in itunes feed or in the downcast list. well i found an individual rss feed on the show site for one show and simply added that and voila, single shows, no extra shows.
It also gives stream options for podcasts. That's useful for podcasts that i only listen to occasionally but don't want constant downloads swallowing hard drive space. Playlisting is also a great feature too that i've started to use. A final word about criticisms about the interface being "dates." I disagree. The interface is pretty much just what i want. I also don't feel a need to change simply to change. I looks nice and it functions. But it's in my pocket during 99% of the app use so i only minimally care what the app looks like. And Honestly the Apple IOS app is eyecandy at the expense of use. Like searching for podcasts. It's giant thumbnails forcing you to endlessly scroll. A list is quicker and more useful. So I'm all for upgrades, pretty up an interface but i don't subscribe to the notion that Downcast needs to change it's interface for change sake. My two cents.

I use Pocket Casts as a recent convert from Android, and on both platforms it works with the way I want to listen to podcasts the best. Looking forward to the update coming later this year.

I was furious after I first tried Podcasts! I took its flaws personally, leaving a scathing review that predicted Apple's post-Jobs demise, and went to Downcast. It's pretty good, but needs a good bit of maintenance and wasn't so good visually. I've used Stitcher Radio since 2009 as an adjunct to iTunes. It's great for discovery. Podcasts froze constantly among other frustrations. Now it's fixed and I really love it, especially the layout. I like being able to rearrange, add and delete Podcasts so easily. A poster upthread complained about lack of syncing between devices. I've never set it up on my iPad but it's always exactly the same as my iphone, which is where I usually listen. (Make sure you have the same iTunes account enabled on all devices.) I still listen to Stitcher, especially now that they've added off-line listening. Stitcher only plays the most recent episode, but it does have playlists. I'm happy now with a combination of the two. I guess I should go back and edit my review in the iTunes Store.

Pocketcasts is my fav podcast app. I prefer the UI, the push notifications of new episodes, quickest download of new podcasts of any other app I've tried. Pocketcasts has a Lite version and a full version.

I used Instacast for a while and was happy with it until I discovered PodCruncher. It's not on your list, but it should be. My favorite feature is after launching, I can quickly see when each podcast last added a new episode. Saves me from having to manually check each one for latest update. Also I can customize the skip forward and back buttons to 5, 10, 20, 30, 60, or 120 seconds.

Have been using iCatcher! for a long time. It's very good except sometimes the update will reset my unplayed episodes.

Also tried Downcast, I found the UI is cleaner/simpler, but two things I just can't get around it. First, playback speed, I often found 1.25x is the best for me, but Downcast only supports 0.5 step up or down. Second, navigation, once I'm inside a playlist, I have to navigate back to be able to switch to other menus. I found this additional step annoying, as I often want to check how my downloads are going. Also I found have "Add" function occupy one space in the menu unnecessary, how often does one add new podcast I wonder.

So, iCatcher! is the winner here, especially with the function to set playback start offset which was added recently.