Posted on Sun 22 March 2015

Choosing a podcast app

Radios

I listen to a lot of podcasts.

In fact, the app that's using the most storage on my phone right now is a podcast player.

I listen when I go for a run, I listen when I walk to the supermarket, when I'm on the train, or when I'm out shopping. I even listen when I'm doing housework. Once you start listening to podcasts often, you realise how many activities there are that stop you from reading or watching videos but leave your ears free to consume information.

Although I'm a big podcast fan, I have very specific tastes. I like shows that have 1-3 hosts who are the same for every show, and who discuss topics related to the same area of interest in each episode. I don't like interview shows at all, and I find self-contained stories (such as 99% Invisible and This American Life) to be hit-and-miss.

I favour long shows when I can so I don't have to worry about an episode running out when I'm in the middle of a run or a train ride. 30-60 minutes is just right for me. It's also a huge bonus for me if a show has a big archive of episodes when I find it, as I tend to load up a queue of episodes from the same show to listen to in one hit (this is how I deal with short shows of 10-20 minutes, in particular).

With that in mind, here are my favourite shows at the moment:

  • Developing Perspective: David Smith is an indie developer of iOS and web apps like Feed Wrangler and Pedometer++. His podcast is just 15 minutes long and usually focuses on one particular aspect of the life of an indie developer. Sometimes it's iOS or Apple specific, sometimes it's about the business of being an indie dev, and sometimes it's about dissecting news in the developer community.
  • Build and Launch: Justin Jackson runs a podcast called Product People that I tried but didn't stick with, since it's an interview show. With Build and Launch, he's trying something totally different. Each season of this show runs for a month, with three episodes a week. Each week Justin talks about his experience of trying to build and launch a small project. If you're interested in building and selling products of any kind, this is a great place to find inspiration, tips, and motivation to get off your butt and start building.
  • Serial: My favourite episode ever of This American Life was a lead-in for Serial. It was a one-hour murder mystery story reported on by Sarah Koenig, the host of Serial. At the end of the episode was an announcement of the upcoming podcast Serial which I knew immediately I would love. I hung out for the Serial episodes every week and looked forward to exercising on a Thursday because it meant a new episode to catch up with. Although this is a narrative podcast à la This American Life, the narrative continues over a whole season, rather than being one self-contained story per episode, which suits my listening style much better.
  • StartUp: Another ongoing narrative show, I look forward to all new episodes of StartUp and wish there were more. This show follows Alex Blumberg as he builds a podcasting company from scratch, raises money, names his company, finds a co-founder, and navigates life as a new business owner. It's honest and transparent, and makes me think about my own company in new ways.
  • Release Notes: One of the few iOS development podcasts I've tried and stuck with is Release Notes. Being a new developer, a lot of the more technical podcasts go over my head so I tune out. A podcast's job in my life is to keep me engaged from start to finish, so any show I'm tuning out from regularly gets deleted from my app. Release Notes focuses on "everything but the code" that iOS developers deal with. It covers fascinating discussions between the hosts about pricing, customer support, finding sustainable income as an indie developer, and lots more. I always look forward to new episodes of this show, as they're focused, clear, and the hosts don't waffle on too long or run off on tangents.

If you do like self-contained story episodes, here are some of the podcasts I use as backups when I'm up-to-date on all my favourites:

So how do I listen to all these podcasts? Recently my appetite for podcasts has gone crazy and I've spent a lot of time honing my listening processes and testing apps to find the best one for me.

I haven't found one yet that has every feature I want and a design I love, but I'll go through each of the apps I spent a lot of time with and explain what I liked and didn't like about each one.

Note: I tested all these apps on my iPhone 5S.

Castro

Castro

For a long time Castro was my podcast app of choice and I didn't consider switching. Castro has a design I love and some great features. It wasn't until my listening habits changed that I went looking for another option.

Castro's design is focused on simplicity and clarity. It's also heavily gesture-based, which is a big plus for me. I'm all about gestures.

In Castro I can swipe to download an episode, swipe to mark it as played, and swipe back or down to move between screens.

Castro has a feature I haven't seen in any other podcast apps (though I may have missed it): continuous play. Each episode you download in Castro goes into a timeline view, and you can use continuous play to work through all the episodes you have available, rather than stopping at the end of each one so you can pick something new to listen to.

Although I loved the idea of this feature, I tend to download episodes of the "backup" shows I mentioned earlier that I only want to listen to if I've run out of all my favourites. So what I really wanted was a feature that let me create my own queue, from just the episodes or the shows I chose.

The developers of Castro have said it's aimed at casual listeners, which I'm not. But that explains why the simple timeline of all episodes you've downloaded and the continual play feature make sense in this app.

Castro list view

Castro lets you download single episodes of a podcast without subscribing to it. This is a must-have feature for me, as I like to pick and choose the episodes I download from my backup shows, and only subscribe to those few podcasts I count as favourites.

Most of the podcast apps I tried came with some form of discovery to help users find new shows to listen to. Castro is one of the few that has no discovery at all. You can paste in a link or search for a podcast, but that's it. Although I like discovering new shows, I can get by without those features, so this wasn't a deal-breaker for me.

The reason I didn't stick with Castro was really the lack of playlists or user-created queues. Apart from that, I love Castro's gesture-based design and simple UI.

The good news is, the team behind Castro is working on a version 2.0 to provide more features for users who listen to podcasts often like I do—and I'm hoping something to solve my queue problem will be included.

Pocket Casts

Pocket Casts list views

I'm not a huge fan of the design of Pocket Casts. I find it difficult and confusing to get to what I want even after using the app for weeks. For instance, when I look at my list of unplayed episodes, I often find myself wanting to tap through on an episode to see the rest of the episodes for that podcast, but instead I have to tap "back", then tap through to the Podcasts screen, find the show I'm looking for and tap on its cover art.

Pocket Casts subscribe to new show

Another bug bear for me is that Pocket Casts forces me to subscribe to every podcast. There's no downloading one episode to try out a show here—you subscribe, and you see every new episode in your list. And there's very little information to go on before subscribing to a new podcast. You can turn off auto-downloads per show, so the ones I use as backups don't automatically download, but I do have to clear out my list regularly of new episodes I'm not interested in.

Pocket Casts queue

The thing I love most about Pocket Casts is the "up next" queue. For each episode, I can add it to my queue, creating an on-the-fly playlist of hand-picked episodes. Then I can rearrange this queue to my liking, so if a new episode of a favourite show comes out before I get through my queue, I can add it and drag it to the top.

Pocket Casts also has filters that I use to set up playlists of single shows. I'm surprised no app has a feature that lets you listen to every episode you have downloaded of a particular show, but I guess nobody else listens to podcasts the way I do. So if I want to catch up on one show, or I just want to stick with one show while I go for a run, rather than bouncing around, I fire up a playlist that has a couple of episodes in it.

One last thing I love about Pocket Casts: there's a feature that lets you move the start point forward for a particular show. So if there's a podcast you listen to that has the exact same intro every episode (great for newcomers who could be listening for the first time at any point, but grating for a regular listener), you can push the start time forward by 15 seconds, or however long the intro takes. Whenever I switch to another app from Pocket Casts I really miss this feature.

Oh, and finally, this app is made by Australian developers who I enjoy supporting. Pocket Casts also has a web player. I haven't bought this yet, as I would mostly use it just to find and add new shows I want to try, rather than listening to them, but if I stick with Pocket Casts long-term I'll probably pony up the small fee just to support these hard-working devs.

Overcast

Overcast

Overcast has zoomed into popularity since Marco Arment released it last year. The app has a nice design and some fancy audio features for people who care (I don't).

Overcast has some similar features to Pocket Casts: I can make playlists, and I can discover new podcasts to subscribe to. It also has a web player, though you can't find or add new shows on the web so I don't have much use for it.

However, Overcast does let me download single episodes rather than forcing me to subscribe to every show. It also gives me more information about a podcast than Pocket Casts does before I decide to download an episode or subscribe.

Overcast directory

There are a couple of small issues that bug me about Overcast, though. One is the tiny tap targets. When trying to turn off the option for automatically downloading new episodes of a show in the past, I've found it really difficult to tap on the toggle directly. For a long time I thought the toggle was actually broken, as I would often see the show notes popping up. It was actually just a small tap target. This seems to be fixed in the latest version, but the pause buttons on the downloads page have the same issue. I often have to tap two or three times to get just the right spot so a download will pause—which reminds me, no "pause all downloads" options bugs me to no end, as well.

Secondly, Overcast doesn't warn me when my phone isn't connected to WiFi, but I have a setting enabled that stops it from downloading any episodes when it's not on WiFi. This means I sometimes find an episode fails to download over and over with no explanation—until I finally realise my phone's disconnected itself from my WiFi. In Pocket Casts, I can turn on a setting that warns me when my phone isn't connected to WiFi, so if downloads are failing I can work out why.

Overcast is definitely a solid app, but when put up against Pocket Casts it doesn't make sense for me to choose it as my full-time podcast catcher. It doesn't have an "up next" queue, and those little annoyances it does have are blissfully absent in Pocket Casts. Although I like its design better, it doesn't suit the way I listen as well as Pocket Casts does.

Others

There are plenty of other apps to choose from for podcast listening. There's even one that comes with every iPhone. I've tried (very briefly) the default Apple podcasts app, but I wasn't surprised that it didn't stick. I'm not a big fan of default Apple software and try to avoid it whenever I can.

I've also tried Downcast and Instacast. Both are solid apps with great features, but to be honest the designs threw me off. It might seem like a superficial reason not to choose an app—after all, if it gets the job done, what does it matter what it looks like?—but I want an app to feel awesome when I use it, and if I don't like the design, I'm going to be reluctant in using that app.

So I narrowed my choices to the apps whose design I liked (or could deal with, at least) and then focused on features.

I'm really looking forward to seeing Castro 2.0, which I expect while become my favourite podcast app again with a few more features to control the queue, but for now Pocket Casts is doing the job nicely.


P.S. I make some stuff you might like: Exist, a personal analytics app to help you understand your life, and Larder, a bookmarking app for developers.

Image credit: Ryan McGuire

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