Apple has released their own Podcasts app into the App Store. It allows you to listen or watch, stream, download, and subscribe to your favorite audio and video podcasts right from your iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Before now, you had to sync subscribed podcasts from iTunes desktop on Mac or PC, stream or download single episodes from the iTunes app and play them in the Music or Video app, or use one of the third party podcast app. We recently took a look at Instacast, Downcast, and Pocket Casts. Let's see how Podcasts stacks up against them.
Navigation and interface
Podcasts starts you off with your podcast library. Here you'll see all the podcasts you are currently subscribed. You can toggle between tile and list view with just a tap at the top. You can also tap edit and rearrange or delete subscriptions.
Along the bottom you can choose to view your podcast library or top stations. The top stations feature will allow you to tab through different categories of podcasts on a dial at the top. From there you can select podcasts, subscribe to them, or download individual episodes. To play an episode just tap on the episode title and your podcasts with being playing.
Listening to or watching podcasts and viewing show notes
Once you've started listening to or watching a podcast, you will be presented with some controls along the bottom. You can skip through different episodes, pause, rewind in 10 second increments, fast forward in 30 second increments, or adjust volume. If you want to scrub through the podcast you can do so on the timed slider. Other playback features include setting a sleep time or sharing that particular episode via e-mail, twitter, or text message.
When it comes to show notes, you'll only be able to view them from your podcasts library which is disappointing. Several other podcatcher apps allow you to view show notes directly from your now playing screen so you can follow along when show notes are provided. I've also found this to be a nice feature for skipping through sections of a podcast you aren't interested in. The Podcasts app doesn't make this an easy task.
The most infuriating thing I've found about the Podcasts app is that it marks episodes as played immediately. If you play an episode for even a few seconds the app will frequently mark the episode as completely played. This does not make much sense to me. Even the Videos app for iOS will mark episodes as partially played. I would think this is even more important for podcasts. Some episodes seem to show a partially played icon while others will not. It's just not a very consistent experience.
Streaming and downloading
You can listen to podcasts by either streaming them or downloading them directly to your iPhone or iPad. If you plan on being somewhere that has no service, you can tap the download button on any episode to physically download it to your device. If you are on Wi-Fi or have a high data plan you can save space by just streaming episodes.
When you initially subscribe to a podcast it won't actually download anything for you. All the episodes will show up in your library but if you tap on them to play them you'll be given the streaming version. So be careful about that if you've got a capped data plan. You can tap the gear on any podcast subscription to have the app download any newly added content automatically.
There's also no notification support, so you won't know when new episodes are available until you open the Podcasts app. And because Apple put Podcasts in the App Store instead of building it into iOS, it doesn't get any special background privileges, so new episodes won't download until you go to the app either.
That makes it fair for other podcast app developers, but it's not as convenient for users. Having a way for content apps to "wake up" and download fresh material, like Newsstand apps, would be a great feature for iOS 6 or future versions of iOS...
The most disappointing part of the Podcasts app to me is that there is very little iCloud sync. Apple says it will sync your play state between iOS devices, but I couldn't get it to work. Also, leaving out Apple TV and iTunes desktop makes it less useful anyway.
It's also less than ideal that I can't sync subscriptions between devices. It means I have to subscribe (or unsubscribe over time) to each show, on each device, over and over again. For a lot of podcasts on a lot of devices, that's not user friendly.
Considering iCloud is Apple's own in-house cloud syncing solution, I am baffled at the fact that the Podcasts app doesn't better integrate with it. Hopefully that's near the top of the coming features list.
Whether you are a casual podcast listener or a hardcore subscriber that needs all the other bells and whistles, there are much better options than Apple's own Podcasts app.
If you want a good podcatcher app, Instacast is a much better solution that will actually sync all your subscriptions between your iPhone and iPad. Instacast will even send you push notifications when new episodes are available. While independent apps may not be able to compete with the free price tag, they definitely offer better functionality and are a lot more customizable than Podcasts.
Unless and until Apple updates and rounds out the feature set, when it comes to podcast apps, you really will get what you pay for.
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