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.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

37 Comments
  • Rene, if I missed it in the article I apologize, but what is the cost for the IAP
  • I think it's $4.99 in the U.S.
  • The bigger question than the price which is $4.99 is the fact that it does not play video podcasts, not mentioned in this article which is very odd. The other odd thing is that the iPad is not supported. This was not mentioned either? Rene you are the best but is this a case being star struck or human omissions.
  • Video support is not planned, due to the mismatch between the key features of Overcast, and what features would make for a great video podcast app. Support for other devices is a possibility. (My source for this info is last night's live stream of Accidental Tech Podcast, which the Overcast developer co-hosts, and this FAQ: https://overcast.fm/skeptics_faq ).
  • Spiralganglion,
    Thanks so much for your kind information and links. It did say on the document you linked to that video is planned and maybe ipad support but probably never mac. I paid the $4.99 just to support him but he does to be at least competitive with the plethora of apps out there. I do think he is one of the good guys. And so are you for that matter being so considerate. Thanks Again
  • Registrating even before trying the app is instant uninstall. (Cr)app!
  • Rene stated you had to create an account in his review. So you should have known that before you downloaded the app. Sent from the iMore App
  • The premise of your comment is absurd. It's not like reading this article word-for-word became a prerequisite to downloading the app simply because he happened across it. Furthermore, he's right! This is exactly why Apple's developer guidelines make a strong recommendation that account creation be handled at the latest possible point.
  • Your reasons for the account set up have no baring on my comment. Right, wrong or indifferent, that doesn't take away from someone not taking the time to read and know what is going on up front after Rene had taken the time to spell it out for everyone. Now in all fairness, after reading the description in the app, nowhere is it stated that you have to set up an account before being able to use the app. So the OP should have posted a review with a 1 star rating letting others know before they download it. S/he could have taken the time that it took to post a comment to a review that already spelled it out, to actually read the review. Sent from the iMore App
  • Should have posted a 1 star? Really? I could see knocking a star off the review, but this "I don't like this minor behavior - 1 star!" BS is getting ridiculous. If he refused to go further, he shouldn't review the product at all, given that he didn't really use it, and instead sent constructive feedback to the developer.
  • Thank you. This is an insightful comment.
  • Exactly. Knowing that in advance made it easy to jump into 1Password, create a login, then copy/paste a nice long password at the signup point. Very nice app! Sent from the iMore App
  • While on the topic of account information, it is a good idea to check the privacy policy of any entity to which you submit personal information. Here is Overcasts: https://overcast.fm/privacy Sent from the iMore App
  • Yes $4.99 US. Looks good initially, but a few things I noticed... (1) I should have to enter my password twice when creating the sync account, I always get nervous that I will typo and not know what I entered when it is only required once, (2) importing from downcast only grabbed audio podcasts and when I search to add my video podcasts they are not found... am I missing something?? And when I went to "add URL" for a video podcasts (MacBreak and Windows Weekly) it returned an "not found" message, (3) recommendations are slim... looks like only 7 or 8 podcasts per topic
  • Overcast does not support video podcasts.
  • Yes, figured that out now by reading through the Overcast Twitter feed... probably needs to be stated somewhere in the description. And is this a thing now? Do people not watch video podcasts?
  • It's fairly easy to reset your password, so unless you screw up your email address and password, you should still be safe.
  • Like all the other newer podcast apps, no support for authenticated files. Love the features, but gotta stick with Downcast.
  • I just tried using Overcast, and I found that for my podcast listening habits it's not quite ready for daily use. I imported 39 subscribed podcast from Pocket Casts, and immediately I saw that Overcast was downloading the most recent episode from each show. In Pocket Casts, I can choose to limit automatic downloading of new episodes to a select few of my subscribed podcasts, with the option of manually downloading or streaming other podcasts. Overcast may be fine for very casual podcast listeners, but without per-podcast download settings (something that even Apple's Podcasts app includes), Overcast will end up eating all of your precious iOS storage.
  • There are settings for each podcast, and there is a setting for "Subscribe to All New Episodes" which might prevent automatic downloads. I'll have to play around with this (or find a guide, but who wants to do that).
  • Thanks for pointing this out. This particular setting should be mentioned in any review (ehem, iMore), and the app should have a better onboarding process where it explains features, and walks the user through those settings at the start. Like I said, if you import a bunch of feeds right away, Overcast starts downloading EVERYTHING--so the horse is out of the barn from the start.
  • Overcast doesn't "automatically download" - it only downloads if you make the app active. In other words, it won't download in the "background", you have to start the app and watch it do its downloads just as you previously described. CLUNKY!
  • Does this app not support podcasts that require an id/pswd? Some of my podcasts from Downcast didn't copy over and when I tried to add them manually it said the URL couldn't be found.
  • Were they video podcasts?
  • No, audio.
  • Password-protected feeds are not currently supported though I did see a tweet about somebody getting it to work by passing the username and password in the URL.
  • Some will work with the user/pass in the URL.. others that protect the individual files will not work.
  • There's a lot of hype surrounding this app & now it's out I feel I have to try it & support the developer with the in app purchase, this is only a version 1 but I've deleted the apple podcast app & took nearly 2 hours to input all my podcasts, several had to have the RSS as I could find them in the search. It's too easy to install & delete without trying it out, the features within the app player are unique & I'll have to test it out for at least a week to get the full feel for the app, it's nice but is it better than the Apple Podcast App? Time will tell Sent from the iMore App
  • I have been looking forward to trying this for a while, but I guess I will have to wait a while longer, as Overcast's sync servers apparently are not handling the initial load. (At least, I am getting "Service Error" every time I attempt to subscribe to any podcast.
  • I do hope there's a way to subscribe to paid podcast subscriptions. Sadly it may end up that I won't be able to add my favourite podcast even if paid subscriptions are allowed. It's 99% audio, but has short daily videos as well which I find irrelevant. Maybe Overcast can download the audio only? The features look fantastic, especially the switch from the forward/back buttons to have skip functionality. Quite thoughtful (and well implemented) to leverage server side functionality and save our battery life! Oh well, I guess I'll stick to Downcast. It's solid, except for the counterintuitive sort. Sent from the iMore App
  • Aside from the search feature, is it possible to browse the podcast directory, or only Marco's featured picks? Sent from the iMore App
  • Let's see if this can get me to switch from Pocket Casts.
    If so, then it's doing something right.
  • Podcasting has evolved quite a bit. A playlist and some "fast play" features isn't enough anymore by a long shot.
    What about files with chapter marks, chapter links, chapter images - for mp4-feeds? What about those features in mp3-feeds?
    What about podcasts that offer paged feeds, can Overcast use those to retrieve older episodes?
    Will it supports any means to support the podcasters? Like automatically giving flattr-clicks to those who embedded their flattr account data in the feed?
    All these and many more features are promoted by the podlove initiative (podlove.org) and are implemented by Instacast for example (or AntennaPod on Android). It's time to move podcasting forward and it's a shame that it seems that this release is another one for podcasting of the past.
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  • I have had (Overcast) on my iPhone for about 5 Months Unused, and will not use it again until, Marco adds Streaming.
    I would like to have the option to Download or Stream so thats why (Castro) is my Favorite right now.
  • two year-old victim was in critical condition in hospital in Edmonton. The child died on the same day of the funeral of the baby died Sunday from 8 months to phosphine poisoning as a result of the spill. Another child remains in critical condition. http://it-newtechnology.net/?q=PlayStation20And%20PlayStation...
  • I love Overcast! But, I have looked everywhere for an answer to a problem I am having; does Overcast auto-play the next podcast? I thought it used to. Not a big deal in the car but when I am out for a bike ride I cannot use the controls on my blue tooth headset.