Overcast for iPhone review: Podcasts reconsidered

Overcast is the new podcast manager and player for iPhone by developer Marco Arment, whose previous work included Instapaper and The Magazine. Arment is also an active podcaster who, in addition to numerous guest-spots on other shows, co-hosts the Accidental Tech Podcast, and blogger who's know for, among other things, a — shall we say fastidious — approach to everything from coffee to cars to headphone and lightbulb reviews. Put all of those ingredients together, and you have the recipe for something special. You have Overcast.

There are many, many podcast apps on the iPhone already, including one made by Apple, popular radio apps that offer podcasts, and several very well made indie apps. Yet, just like with Twitter apps or weather apps, task managers or calendars, there's room for more and different podcast apps because there's room for more and different ways to handle podcasts. How I want to be able to find and subscribe to, download and listen to, manage and share the podcasts I like may be significantly different from how you want to do all those things with yours.

To work, though, Overcast has to either better match what we think we want in a podcast app, or convince us it offers a better way to think about a podcast app. Luckily for Arment, that's his strength. He's opinionated. He has strong ideas not only about how every aspect of interface and interaction should work, but about which ones should be offered at all. He's also smart enough to know the difference between an opinion and a preference, and in cases where something is the latter, a toggle in Overcast typically lets you choose your own preference.

Overcast requires an Overcast account — your email address and a password. It does this because it has a significant server-side component that handles sync, including access over the web via overcast.fm, and update coalescing. That means your device doesn't have to check each and every RSS feed, constantly, to see if new shows are available. Overcast does all that online. That saves battery life, data, and more than a little sanity.

You add podcasts to Overcast by hitting the + button. If you've given Overcast (read-only) access to your Twitter account, you'll see recommendations from the people you follow on Twitter, as well as categories that contain some popular shows (including a couple of the ones I co-host, but not all of them — thanks, Marco and dammit!). You can also search the directory for specific shows or add via link if you have it handy (Overcast will helpfully grab any link in the clipboard to try and make that easier.)

When you subscribe to a show, Overcast will pull down the most recent episode and show it to you in the Unplayed view. You can add older episodes by switching to the All view. If you want to know more about a particular episode before downloading it, you can tap the info button on the right.

Podcasts in the Unplayed view are sorted in chronological order. You can fix that by tapping the Unplayed label to reverse it so it matches the reverse chronological order humans know and love (which is how the All view is, gloriously, set by default). There's also a Settings view that lets you set subscription, notification, and unplayed episode retention on a per-show basis. (It's hidden behind a version of Overcast's icon rather than the typical gear icon that, while as unrelated as a floppy disk is to a modern save function, is still consistent enough to be far more recognizable.)

Tap on an episode to play it and you get big art and big controls. Both are a blessing if you're driving, running, walking or doing anything that requires high visibility and high tolerance. Unlike many other podcast apps, the backward and forward buttons don't restart or skip the current episode on first — often accidental %*^$#%! — touch. They move backwards or forwards at 30 second intervals. You change the interval in settings but, smartly, if you tap successively, Overcast will move you faster.

You can also touch the artwork and slide it up and to the right to reveal the info view, which gives you the show title, show notes, and the ability to "star" an episode, which will add it to the recommended shows list for any of your Twitter followers also using Overcast and looking to subscribe to something new.

Once you've started an episode, an equalizer animation superimposes itself over the album art in the player. It's in Overcast's signature orange color, of course. It's composed of mirrored bars with a gradient fill. It adds some visual fun without being distracting.

If you leave the player screen, a mini player, locked to the bottom, will follow you around in Overcast so you can quickly control playback or jump back to the play screen proper. There's also a general setting panel where you can log into or out of Overcast, into or out of Twitter, adjust your seek controls, send feedback, import podcast or OPML, delete your account, and even get Arment's recommendations for other podcast apps, should Overcast not be to your liking.

Accessibility appears well implemented. At least I tried it with VoiceOver enabled and was able to navigate and control Overcast as expected.

Overcast is free but there's a single $4.99 in-app purchase that unlocks additional features, including:

  • Cellular downloads
  • Variable playback speed
  • Smart Speed
  • Voice Boost
  • Per-podcast effects settings
  • One-by-one playback option
  • Sleep timer
  • Unlimited number of playlists
  • Unlimited episodes shown in playlists

Cellular downloads, as the name implies, lets you fetch additional shows when you aren't on Wi-Fi. It's off by default, and comes with a warning about data use, but you can toggle it on any time you like. I'd prefer an additional setting — on with warnings. That way I could just leave it on but, if I tap to listen to a show that's not downloaded, I can be reminded it's going to use cellular data but still choose to do it on a case-by-case basis.

Smart Speed is one the cleverest features in Overcast. It will do things like shorten silences during shows. Overcast will even show you how much time this feature has saved you, and it can be significant. (I can neither confirm nor deny Debug was used to test that on pregnant pauses.)

The sleep timer, something I use every night, is also smart. Instead of a list of options you have simple increments. Tap, set, slumber.

I personally only ever use one playlist — all recent, unplayed episodes in reverse chronological order. If you love your playlists, however, Overcast has a playlist creator that lets you set title. status, includes, excludes, sort order, priority, and more.

I'd gladly pay the in-app purchase up-front, but Arment, probably, sadly, wisely, knows that the days of great software at a fair price are likely behind us. Apple as a platform owner hasn't done enough to support the value of the platform, developers have raced so far to the bottom they've concussed themselves on the floor, and we, the customers, as a group, have overwhelmingly said we'd rather have free crap than great software at sustainable prices.

Arment is also generous in letting you test out the in-app purchase features. For example, you can use effects for 5 minutes at a time on the free version so you can make an informed decision about how valuable they are to you.

But let's be real. The cost of unlocking Overcast is trivial for almost everyone. It's — insert cliche — roughly the price of a fancy cup of coffee or fast food combo, both of which will be gone from your system in a few hours while Overcast will be there, serving up the podcasts you love, in a way you'll love them, for months and months to come.

So yes, Overcast is free, but if you want the additional features, or just want the simple dignity of paying for an app well-made, go for the IAP.

Overall, Overcast looks and feels like an iOS app and navigates as you'd expect. It's fun without being distracting. It's clear, it's simple, and it's focused in what it does. I've been using it since it went into beta, more than a few weeks ago, and while I produce more podcasts than I can listen to, Overcast provides everything I need to not only listen, but to enjoy.

Bottom line, Overcast is an incredibly well thought out, incredibly well built podcast app with server-side smarts, robust functionality, well considered settings, and more than enough really clever new features that anyone and everyone who listens to podcasts should absolutely check it out. It's not just podcasts well considered. It's podcasts well re-considered.