Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: best podcast app for iPhone

Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: iPhone podcast app shootout!

Instacast, Downcast, and Pocket Casts all bring podcasts directly to your iPhone and iPod touch, which is one of the best ways to enjoy them when you're in the car, working out, sitting in the office, or simply lounging around the house. While all three allow you to browse and search for podcasts, which one has the best features geared towards the most users?

Let's listen and find out!

Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: Navigation and interface

Pocketcast-Main-menu-on-iPhone

When it comes to podcasting apps, it's important to have an app that not only lets you listen to the podcasts you already know and love, but search for and discover new ones as well. Of course, it also has to be visually pleasing and easy to navigate. Sometimes too many features and too many options are a hindrance and not a help.

Instacast main and browsing podcasts

Instacast has an easy to navigate interface that's streamlined and simple. Upon launching the app you'll be presented with a list of your current subscriptions. You can tap through the top tabs to view playlists and bookmarks as well. If you'd like to create playlists, you can do so easily but you'll need to purchase the premium in-app upgrade.

Tapping the "+" button in the bottom left of the main page let's you add new content. You can search through popular audio and video podcasts as well as sort by genre or search if you already know what you're looking for.

Downcast main and browsing podcasts

Downcast also has a super simple layout. The tabs along the bottom are pretty much self explanatory and even those new to podcasts should have no trouble finding their way around the main portions of the app. Tapping into a podcast and tapping on an episode will cause the episode to play. This is a bit odd to me as I'd expect tapping into an episode to bring me to a detailed information list and show notes followed by an option to play.

You can tap the info button to view info but this feels like a more awkward layout. Once you've selected a podcast or viewed info, show notes and information are then presented.

As you start to get into other tabs, it can get a bit more confusing. While you don't have to pay an additional fee to create playlists, the amount of options presented is overwhelming and is probably unnecessary for most users. Those could be buried deeper for power users so the higher level remains cleaner for general users.

The settings sections of the app allows you to fine tune many things including refresh frequency, how you want the app to handle new episodes, and specific player controls such as skip intervals.

Pocket Casts main and browsing podcasts

Pocket Casts is by far the most visually appealing of the podcast apps. When you first launch Pocket Casts you'll be presented with your list of podcast subscriptions. Tapping on the tiled button again will switch from titles and descriptions to a list view of episodes. (You can toggle these views from the top as well.) Selecting a podcast will give you a list view of all the episodes in that group.

The top of the screen also gives you a quick view of how many podcasts you have total, how many are physically downloaded, and how many you haven't finished listening to. Tap on any of the numbers at the top to view only those episodes. The second tab shows you what is playing, allows you to skip and stop, and gives you access to show notes.

Finding podcasts to listen to is easy with Pocket Casts. Either search for what you're looking for at the top or browse categories. When you find one you want to subscribe to, just tap add.

Settings is also easy to navigate and doesn't present overwhelming options. This may feel limiting to power users who want to tweak every last option, but its the better choice for most users who just want to play their shows.

When it comes to navigation and which app is more visually pleasing, Pocket Casts nails it on both counts.

Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: Listening to shows and viewing show notes

Instacast-player-controls

No matter how slick the interface or granular the settings, a podcast app has to be judged on how easily it lets you play shows, control the playback of shows, and access additional information like show notes.

Instacast player for iPhone and show note view

Instacast has a great player that's easy to use and nice to look at. It hides unnecessary controls out of view until you need them. Along the bottom you'll only see the play, skip, and back buttons. Slide them up and you'll see other controls you can use to fine tune scrub or jump back. While Instacast still seems to be struggling to nail proper touch targets for some of their controls, they're intuitive and when they work, they work well.

Accessing show notes in Instacast is simple. Tap the top left arrow on the play screen and you'll be brought back to the info screen, or choose the list icon in the upper right and view all links and bookmarks from the show notes. If you want to view a link within the show notes, clicking on it will bring up a built-in browser. You never have to leave the app while listening and following along but if you choose to close the app, Instacast will continue to play on in the background.

Downcast player for iPhone and show note view

Downcast's player has a pretty straight forward player but it tries to pack too much onto one screen. You'll find the skip controls towards the top and some other controls towards the bottom. Show notes are located in the middle of the screen (when available). Downcast also has a built-in browser so clicking any links will take you to them within the app.

If you like having all your information on one screen at the same time, Downcast will give that to you, but at the cost of looking overly cluttered.

If you decide to exit Downcast, audio will also continue playing in the background until you choose to stop it.

Pocket Casts player for iPhone and show notes view

Pocket Casts is less cluttered than Downcast but still squeezes a lot of information into a small amount of space. However, some of the controls feel hidden.

Tapping the left or right of the screen while playing a podcast brings up skip controls -- skip back 10 seconds or forward 45 seconds. Swiping to the left will bring up show notes. However, the show notes feel a bit cramped as they only populate the center of the screen.

Tapping any type of link will pull you out of the app and into Safari, while Pocket Casts will continue to stream in the background.

So this round goes to Instacast. It has the nicest experience when it comes to actually listening to podcasts and reading show notes.

Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: Streaming and downloading

Downcast-streaming-and-download

Most podcasts in most podcast apps can be streamed or downloaded. Both serve a useful purpose. Streaming can save you local storage space on your iPhone, which can be particularly important if you have 16GB but still want to watch a lot of video shows. It can also give you access to the show you want, when you want, even if you're on 3G. Downloading means you have the show on your iPhone whether you're online or offline, and can be done ahead of time over Wi-Fi so you don't use up your 3G data.

Instacast download and streaming settings for iPhone

Instacast allows you to easily choose whether or not you'd like to be able to stream or download when on a cellular (3G) network. If you don't want either of these options enabled, just tick them off and your podcasts will only download or stream when Wi-Fi is available.

If you don't want podcasts to physically download to your iPhone and prefer to stream, you can disable that within settings as well or tell Instacast to only download the most recent episodes.

Downcast download and streaming settings for iPhone

Downcast also lets you choose how you want it to handle podcasts when Wi-Fi is not available. If you don't want episodes to automatically download you can set it to never, or you can set it to only download when Wi-Fi is available. Otherwise you can stream when you'd like or decide to download at a later time.

Pocket Casts download and streaming settings for iPhone

Pocket Casts won't automatically download episodes to your iPhone. It will add them to your subscriptions and you can stream them any time, or you can manually choose to download episodes when you like. You can also view how much available storage you have, and what episodes you are currently downloaded and stored locally on your device. If you're concerned about storage, you can also set cleanup to remove older episodes to conserve space.

While Instacast, Downcast, and Pocket Casts all allow you to adjust settings, Downcast continues to be the most confusing of the three. Instacast and Pocket Casts offer the easiest ways to manage download vs streaming when it comes to handling your content. Tie.

Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: Syncing between iOS devices

Instacast-iPad-and-iPhone

If you listen to a lot of podcasts and have both an iPhone and an iPad or iPod touch, you'll probably want the ability to pick up where you left off no matter which device you're on. That's where syncing comes in.

Instacast and Downcast iCloud sync settings for iPhone

Instacast and Downcast both support iCloud syncing and have iPad apps. While the Downcast app is a universal binary for both iPhone and iPad, the Instacast HD app is a separate purchase.

However, iCloud data syncing is still problematic and it doesn't work all the time. Apple needs to fix this.

Instacast music library import from iTunes feature

Instacast also allows you to sync podcasts from iTunes that may not be available as a standalone podcast feed. The Music App tab will show any podcasts that you've imported from iTunes. The first time you open the app it will ask you if you'd like to import any existing podcasts from iTunes into Instacast. Currently it only supports audio and not video. If you've got audio podcasts you listen to that may not have a direct podcast feed and are only available in iTunes, you can use this section to import your podcasts so you don't have to use two apps to listen to podcasts. You can also search for that podcast within Instacast's catalog and if it finds it, you can subscribe via the app and not have to use iTunes.

Pocket Casts currently doesn't offer sync, or an iPad app, but they do have an Android app.

When it comes to syncing, Instacast offers the best support. (When iCloud works.)

Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: Playlists

Playlists-on-Downcast

If you subscribe to tons of podcasts, playlists become increasingly important. Instead of scrolling through endless lists of shows, you can set them up to give you what you want, when you want it, in a nice and orderly manner. And that makes how playlists are managed an important consideration as well.

Instacast creating playlists on iPhone

Instacast offers complete playlist support only if you're a premium subscriber. To create a playlist just tap the Playilst tab from your main screen. You can also tap the "+" button in the bottom corner to create a playlist. Name it and then check off the subscriptions you'd like to be a part of that playlist.

Smart Playlists are also supported by Instacast. Just choose to create a smart playlist instead of a regular one and you can automatically tell Instacast which types of podcasts to group in that playlist. For example, I've got one set to filter partially played podcasts by oldest first. It's a good way to remind me that I've got podcasts I haven't finished listening to yet.

Downcast creating and editing playlists on iPhone

Playlists within Downcast are a more customizable and allow you to group podcasts in several different ways. You can choose which podcasts you'd like included and then narrow that by which individual episodes you'd like to include by status. If you don't want played podcasts showing up, you can tick it off. If you don't want streamed podcasts showing up in a certain list, turn that off as well.

Most users probably won't use the extensive features that Downcast offers and, not surprisingly, they may appear confusing to those who are new to podcasts. Advanced users will appreciate the flexibility.

Pocket Casts lack of playlists but good controls

Pocket Casts doesn't support playlists as far as I can see. So if playlists are a feature you need to stay more organized, I'd rule out Pocket Casts as an option. Update: Pocket Casts does have playlists, they were just well hidden. I would, however, argue that the Pocket Casts interface is so simple and clean and easy to navigate that you may find yourself not even needing playlists.

When it comes to playlists, even though they cost extra, Instacasts has the best, simplest support.

Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: New episode notifications

Downloaded-on-Pocket-Casts

If you look forward to your favorite podcast becoming available each week, it's always good to have push notifications to remind you when it's ready for you to listen to.

Luckily, Instacast, Downcast, and Pocket Casts all provide push notifications and provide them well. Pocket Casts takes it a step further and handles them server side

Tie with a slight edge to Pocket Casts.

Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: Cost

Good apps should obviously cost more than bad apps, but all other factors being equal, what each podcasting app costs should factor into your consideration.

Instacast is $0.99 for the basic app, and an additional $1.99 for full playlist support (dubbed Instacast Pro). If you want iPad support, that'll cost you another $4.99 for Instacast HD. So, depending on your needs, you're looking at anywhere from $0.99 for he basic iPhone and iPod touch app, to almost $8 for the full Instacast "suite".

Downcast is $1.99 and is a universal app for both iPhone and iPad.

Pocket Casts is also $1.99 but is iPhone and iPod touch only.(There's also a free version, Pocket Casts Lite, that you can try before you buy.)

Instacast vs. Downcast vs. Pocket Casts: Conclusion

Instacast-iPhone-live

Instacast, Downcast, and Pocket Casts all provide a better and more powerful podcast experience than Apple's built-in iTunes and Music apps.

Pocket Casts has the best, most disciplined interface and is the simplest and easiest to use overall. If you're brand new to podcasts and just want something that works elegantly and well, check out Pocket Casts.

Downcast is the opposite -- complex to the point of being cluttered. That makes it best suited for power users who want to control and tweak as much as possible, and value accessibility over elegance.

Instacast is expensive if you want the full package, but it's also the best overall podcast app for iPhone right now. It strikes the best balance between simplicity and features, making it easy to use but still powerful. For most users, most of the time, Instacast is podcast app to get.

Instacast - $0.99 - Download Now

Downcast - $1.99 - Download Now

Pocket Casts - $1.99 - Download Now

Additional resources:

Allyson Kazmucha

Editor for iMore, Potter pundit, and the ninja in your iOS

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There are 45 comments. Add yours.

Chris says:

I've been using iCatcher for a while and love it.

RichDG says:

I too have been using iCatcher. It's really been working for me too. The options in it are crazy. What sold me on it was the Leo Jump gesture I thought that was pretty cool.

RC46 says:

I have bought all of these and still prefer iCatcher

tersoth says:

Pocket Casts does support playlists. It is the center button on the now playing screen. You can add, re-arrange, or delete podcasts from the list. Or in the settings you can have it automatically add downloaded episodes to the playlist. Good review though.

Carioca32 says:

Very nice comparison Allyson, thank you.
I'm a Downcast user and never had taken the time to know other podcast solutions.

yankle says:

boom u sold me on instacast!

Clint says:

Great review. I had been using Instacast for several months with good results, but really listening to only one daily podcast. Unfortunately, the app quit updating the podcast no matter whether I tried to do it manually or automatically. I tried every setting. I now have to unsubscribe to the podcast every night and then [re]subscribe before I can download each of the three hours of the podcast. I was planning on looking at other podcast apps this weekend and changing to one that worked when I saw this article and decided to ask if anyone knows what I need to do to get the app to update the podcast.
Thanks

bigg22 says:

iCatcher! is the best iPhone/iPad podcast app out there.

RichDG says:

Indeed! I wish they would have reviewed it also.

Tim says:

I use downcast, but i'm not sure about the push notifications. Can someone tell me how to switch them on in Downcast?

Fred Fenster says:

The biggest feature I think you missed, and the reason I switched from using Instacast to Downcast, is the use of gestures for navigating within podcasts. This feature is great for when I am driving and can't fumble around with a scrub bar to navigate. I know when I switched there was one other advantage over Instacast, but I can't remember what it was. Either way both of the apps offer a superior experience to the native music app.

bdegrande says:

I agree, the gesture control is very useful, and I also love Downcast's ability to customize the skip forward and back intervals, and, for me, one of the biggest pluses is the huge number of variable speed playback settings, I use 1.5X quite often. I also prefer Donwcast's Ui, although obviously Ally would disagree.

pjbaird says:

iCatcher gets my vote as well. I own all of the applications reviewed, and then tried iCatcher. It works flawlessly and is both simple and powerful.

SubjectNameHere says:

Asking truly from a point of ignorance and curiosity, what does the iTunes/Music app not do where one would need a third-party app?

iSRS says:

I actually use Podcaster and have had pretty good luck with it.
But to answer your question, it allows you to "uncheck" sync podcasts in iTunes, and rely soley on the cloud, which podcasts are the iOS weak point.

syds says:

I don't sync my 4S with my pc. Hate itunes for windows. so only switched to an iphone when OTA became available and you don't need itunes anymore.
Also for the build in app, it does not download your favorite podcast automatically. You have to manually check whether there is a new one available or not, Extremly annoying in my humble opinion for a power user like me.
Also I don't listen to music on my phone just podcasts, and downcast is in my opinion than the app to get.

Jaspal says:

When browsing podcasts, it doesn't let you view any info regarding it as well as sometimes cutting off the title with "...". If you know what you're looking for then great, but it's pretty unintuative for discovering stuff. (Apple and unintuative in the same sentence?? I know! Gasp)

syds says:

downloaded both downcast aswell as instacast, but am much happier with downcast. It just works for me. also have it set up to sync with my ipad2, but don't use that at all, was just a gimmick when i realized it was possible.
What I like more of downcast over instacast is that i can see how far I am in the podcast. Somehow Instacast didn't give me that information.
Am happy I got Downcast, just hoping I could get the money back from Instacast..

Inappropriate response says:

Downcast is a work of genius since the smart playlists came into effect. One stop shop for me, and the guy answers any questions problems within hours.

9thwonder says:

I prefer Downcast. I gotta disagree with some assessments of this review regarding downcast though. It's a matter of personal taste in many ways though. Specifically though I don't find having more features, cluttered or confusing. Part of the review that i just logically don't get. The part on "streaming and downloading" I don't get how downcast would lose to an Istacast/Pocket Cast tie when as is pointed out "Pocket Cast can't automatically download your podcasts." Downcast is too "confusing?" huh. Ok to each his own but personally i find it self explanatory. I don't find a list of 5 options in a settings panel confusing.
but it's a matter of taste. everyone has to pick what suits their needs and i guess it doesn't suit the author. me i like it over the others.

xrak says:

The most important thing for me is the ability to skip forward and backward easily while driving without looking at the screen. Pocketcasts has given me the most flexibility i.e. large skip targets and configurable skip intervals - although if I could have my way I could use 2 configurable skip options for forward skipping (one for a short interval and another for long interval).

jayman30 says:

Downcast allows you to skip forward and back using swipe gestures, works really well!

Allison says:

I'm actually a fan of Stitcher Radio to listen to my podcasts. I enjoyed the comparison between these three, however as I hear a lot of reference to each of these as the podcast ap of choice. Good article.

Jaspal says:

Stitcher was the 1st one I used, but the low quality but rates in everything annoyed the hell outta me. And their lack of a decent library of podcasts. I remember trying to add a podcast manually that wasn't in their 'library' (guardian science weekly) and it wouldn't let me. It appeared as though stitcher needs to 'approve' everything you listen to first.
Tried podcatcher too... Kept on crashing. Much happier with Downcast. I felt like I struck gold with how customisable it is!

devonair says:

Avid Downcast user here, and I have to agree with a lot of the comments above defending the app.
I was a long time Podcaster user, and briefly used Instacast (and hated it).
Downcast's push/automatic download support (and setting to keep downloads limited to wifi if you'd like to watch your data cap), smart playlists, and variable speed playback are superb. But for me the winning feature is the abovementioned gesture support. You don't simply have to hunt down and tap on an on-screen target to skip forward or back, but you can swipe right or left on the screen to do the same thing (great for driving, although I primarily depend on my car stereo's seek controls since I listen to my iphone over Bluetooth). Or just as often, I have my iPhone in my pocket and am listening on my earbuds... A double-tap on the play/pause/call-answer button and the podcast will skip forward. A triple tap will make this skip back. ...and you can set the time interval that it skips within the settings (or set it to skip tracks/podcasts if you prefer).
Consider this one more vote for Downcast over the other two apps!

Stuart Wooster says:

Pocketcasts all the way for me, it was the first app I bought for the iPhone after ditching Android.
Plus the funny notes in the updates are worth the price of the app alone ;)

macsmister says:

You got it all wrong. Podcaster is the best podcasting app for iOS. Podcaster 5 just came out and blows away any of the apps reviewed, both in style and function.

Glenn.eu says:

Really wonder what app is used the most.
My fav is Downcast!

JNGold says:

I have tried all of these as well as iCatcher and Podcatcher(5). Instacast is by far the class of the field with Downcast a close second. Instacast just feels so smooth and polished and has the most features that I want in a podcasting app. The smart playlists are awesome to go quickly to the 'casts I want to listen to quickly and easily without much scrolling, searching, etc. The one thing that is really lacking (but not necessarily the fault of the devs), is the iCloud sync. It is usually hit or miss in terms of stability and reliability. This is mainly why the dev of Pocketcasts has decided to forgo implementing it in his app. I have had it turned on for Instacast, Downcast, and iCatcher and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. From my understanding there is some daemon process that reads the values periodically and may cause problems when two devices are trying to access the data. Whatever the case, I have had mixed results when using it between the iPad and iPhone version of the apps in question.
Pocketcasts was the first app I tried when moving away from iTunes. However, when using it as my primary, I encountered various stability issues like podcasts disappearing, freezing, etc. I am sure there has been updates since but even so the feature set (no auto downloads) seems a little on the weak side when compared to the competition.
Overall, I would highly recommend Instacast on the iPhone. The Interface on the HD (iPad) version is a bit quirky in terms of UI but a decent companion to the phone version regardless.

SteveG says:

I used Instacast for a long time, but the app was recently updated and I don't really like the changes. I'm not against monetizing to continue development of an app, but they removed some functions of the initial free app that you now have to pay for via in app purchase. By all means update the app and charge for features, but make them extra features you didn't have, not make you pay for ones you did.
I now use Downcast on both iPhone and iPad and it seems perfectly fine, not cluttered at all.

JNGold says:

If you are referring to the ability to create smart playlists, I beleive the Dev will be restoring that to the non-premium version for the next update. If you are referring to charging for push notifications, I can understand that as the cost for maintaining push servers is an expense the devs must incur on an on going basis.

Pererau says:

As I listen to podcasts while I drive, usability in the car is most important to me. I have tried Instacast and downcast, along with many other apps, and nothing comes close to downcast for usability in the car. My playlists download in the background, and provide seamless listening from fun podcast to the next. I have more podcasts that I want to listen to that I have time to listen, so the ability to speed it up easily is valuable to me. But more than these features, the gesture control is by far the most useful to me, and it translates well to my car steering wheel controls with the forward and backward jumping in the track, instead of skipping to the next podcast. The other nice thing about downcast, is that it has a lot of hidden gems of settings, such as the ability to "preadjust" the volume for each podcast individually, so that a loud podcast or a quiet podcast don't give you problems while driving.
I just wish that you could default to your favorite playlist as the main app screen, and that iCloud syncing worked better.
Ally obviously listens to podcast in a very different way than me, but I have to say I wholeheartedly disagree with her assessment, and I suspect that she did not use downcast for very long before writing this review.

MikeNNN says:

I just started using Instacast and made the in-app upgrade. For how I comsume podcasts, I'm not sure that it's a compelling enough experience over iTunes to keep using it. I'm out hiking or walking most days and listen to quite a few enhanced podcasts. Using iTunes I don't need to take the phone out of my pocket to skip chapters; using Instacast, I need to look at the phone and switch screens to the chapter list to skip.
Instacast's skip ahead is nice for non-enhanced podcasts but I've gotten pretty good in fast forwarding these in iTunes.

Todd says:

It would be great if you could revisit this and include iCatcher and Podcaster.

Rob says:

I switched over to downcast after instacast 2.0 refused to work and it's borderling unusable for someone who has lots of subscriptions. It's so slugish to point where it can take 30-40 seconds for a screen to load after I click on it.
To be fair the support has been great but barring a total overhaul there is no way I can use it.
I wish instacast hadn't botched the 2.0 upgrade so badly, hasn't worked since it upgraded.
Must have a look at podcaster and icatcher

Corey says:

I just tried out Instacast in the hopes that it was a little less memory intensive than Downcast, but it doesn't appear to be so.
Also, is there a way to add a podcast to a playlist on Instacast? You can add episodes, but I didn't see a way to add a whole podcast. You can do this on Downcast, and it is very useful to have podcasts grouped by subject.

Jaspal says:

Downcast gets my vote too. It does take a little while to get used to, but when you do, you realise how much you need it's features. I can't go back to the limited user interfaces under the banner of "user friendly" any more. My standards are just too high now.

Jan says:

I would love to read a battery consumption comparison. I tried Downcast recently and it killed my battery in comparison to the Apple Music.app (just playing several poscasts). I really loved the features, but that was a deal-breaker...

Virusdoc says:

Downcast is a fantastic app, but your review has one detail wrong: it does NOT provide push notifications of new podcasts. What it does is push new episodes (of podcasts to which you are subscribed) each time you launch Downcast. A push notification would involve a popup notification on your device that a new episode is available to download. This would be a nice feature since Downcast can only search for more episodes if it is launched. If you don't launch the app for several days and a new episode expires from the website of a podcast you like, you'll never be able to download that episode. I confirmed with the Downcast developers that they are considering adding push notifications in the future, but in the meantime you might want to correct your review.

sanibel says:

This is an amazingly detailed report. Kudos! I'm officially a fan :)

Azzoth says:

Here is a ranking of iPhone Podcast Apps if you want to see more alternatives:
http://iOS.zRanks.com/ranking/iphone-podcast-apps

DigitalEH says:

Pocket Casters is $2.99 in Canada for Droid, via GooglePlay - not the $1.99 cited above. Just wanted to make note.

DigitalEH says:

*PocketCasts sorry - comment widget won't let me edit.