Podcasts: Apple’s Take On Podcast Management

Well, wouldn’t you know it. Just a few days before my podcast management app roundup went up, in which I stated that “the system of downloading podcasts in iTunes and then jumping over to the Music app to listen to them isn’t very simple or intuitive,” Apple released their own dedicated podcast management app for iOS. Boy, don’t I look foolish.

However, even with the release of Podcasts, Apple hasn’t necessarily guaranteed users an podcast management app that rivals the experience found in third-party apps (e.g. Instacast, Downcast and Pocket Casts). Hit the jump and find out if Podcasts has what it takes to unseat the competition from your iOS device.

Catalog & Top Stations

When you open up Podcasts for the first time, you’ll more than likely need to add content or subscribe to podcasts, unless you previously downloaded podcasts from iTunes. If you subscribe to podcasts via iTunes on your computer and sync them to your iPhone, I have some unfortunate news; your subscriptions will not transfer over to Podcasts, which means you’ll have to resubscribe to each one (one of many annoyances found in this app).

You can browse, subscribe and download podcasts in one of two areas — Catalog or Top Stations. If you’ve used iTunes or iBooks on your iPhone, you’ll be very familiar with navigating Catalog. This area of the app is divided into three sections, including Featured, Top Charts and Search (users can also search by category by tapping the Categories button in the header). When you tap on a podcast, you’re are given the option to subscribe, view ratings and reviews, and download an episode (an episode can also streamed by tapping on it).

Catalog provides the most familiar method of finding podcasts.

Catalog provides the most familiar method of finding podcasts.

Top Stations provides a visually appealing (if not laggy) method of finding content, which is done in a three-step process. First, you’ll need to decide to browse by audio or video podcasts by toggling a switch in the header. Second, you’ll need to select a category (e.g. Arts, Comedy, Technology) by flicking the top dial (subcategories are located under most categories, which can be changed by flicking anywhere below the top dial). To view information about a podcast, tap the information icon to the right of the artwork (tapping the artwork itself begins playback of the most recent episode, oddly enough).

While a visual treat, Top Stations can be really annoying to use due to lagging and slow load times when transitioning between audio and video categories.

While a visual treat, Top Stations can be really annoying to use due to lagging and slow load times when transitioning between audio and video categories.

Managing Podcasts

By default, the Library will display your podcasts in a beautiful grid view, similar to Pocket Casts (which isn’t the only visual similarity between the apps). If grids aren’t your thing, you can also view your content in a list view by tapping the List icon (this view also provides a section for all your unplayed episodes and a number count of downloaded episodes for each podcast). Tapping the edit button in either view gives you the option to rearrange or delete podcasts.

You can view your content in a grid or list view.

You can view your content in a grid or list view.

Tapping on a podcast transitions you into a new page that displays a list of episodes you’ve downloaded and other available episodes (provided you’ve subscribed to the podcast). You can download an episode or view show notes by tapping the download button or information icon located on the right side of the screen; downloaded episodes are marked with a blue icon next to the episode title.

The Episodes page.

The Episodes page.

While I wouldn’t call Podcasts a very powerful podcast management app, it does allow for a few nice management features, which are accessed by tapping on the podcast’s icon/name header. Your first option is turning on/off your subscription (turning off your subscription will leave only downloaded episodes available to play and won’t update the podcast with new content); if you’re subscribed you can set an option to automatically download new episodes. You can also sort episodes (newest first or oldest first), and mark all episodes as played or unplayed.

Podcasts doesn't provide a universal settings option, so you're required to change the settings to each podcast you subscribe to.

Podcasts doesn't provide a universal settings option, so you're required to change the settings to each podcast you subscribe to.

Now Playing

The Now Playing section offers a variety of playback options. The main controls, located on the bottom, provide the option to skip episodes, skip 10 seconds backward or 30 seconds forward within the episode (times aren’t customizable), pause/play the episode, and adjust the volume; you can also access AirPlay devices, if they’re in range. Tapping on or flicking the artwork will reveal some additional controls, including a progress bar, sharing options, playback speed controls (only provides slow, regular and fast options) and a sleep timer.

Watching the reels spin during playback is quite enjoyable.

Watching the reels spin during playback is quite enjoyable.

One of Apple’s big visual characteristics is skeuomorphic design, or design that is intended to look like real world objects. Sure enough, Apple took the skeuomorphic route when designing Podcasts’ Now Playing section, which is designed after a Braun tape recorder. Compared to other skeuomorphic designed apps by Apple, Podcasts certainly offers a generous amount of eye candy.

Issues

Podcasts does a few things right, such as a familiar method of finding and adding podcasts to your library, a nice set of management features (i.e. auto-downloading and sorting options) and a beautiful design, but for all those good things Podcasts does a lot of things very, very wrong. First, Podcasts’ App Store description states that it can “sync your episode playback for seamless transition between devices.” This a clever use of words, as it doesn’t state that Podcast syncs downloads — because it doesn’t. If you want to sync the playback position on multiple devices, you need to manually download the same episode on both devices; however, after multiple attempts between my iPhone 4 and iPad 2, I was unsuccessful (I know it has worked intermittently for others).

Apple won't allow you to download episodes over 50MB, even if they are about Jorge Garcia.

Apple won't allow you to download episodes over 50MB, even if they are about Jorge Garcia.

Another big issue with Podcasts is the inability to download episodes larger than 50MB over 3G (similar to apps over 50MB in the App Store). This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, but some users won’t be very keen on this restriction since it’s not present in other third-party apps. Luckily, you can still stream an episode that’s over 50MB, though I’m not entirely sure why it’s okay to stream 50MB of data but not download 50MB of data. Speaking of things that don’t make sense, if you’re playing a video podcast and exit the app, the video will stop; other podcast management apps will continue to play in the background while you’re multitasking on your iPhone.

Final Thoughts

When I first heard that Apple released their own dedicated podcast management app, I was really excited. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely enjoy my experience with Pocket Casts, but I’m always interested to see what Apple brings to the table. Needless to say, I’m a tad underwhelmed. Podcasts can be a useful tool for managing podcasts, just not for power users (or non-power users that frequently listen to podcasts), especially given that it lacks push notifications and playlists (amongst other power options found in third-party podcast management apps).

Like most Apple products, Podcasts is designed for the average user, or users that are new to podcasts. Honestly, I don’t fault Apple for going this route. Podcasts doesn’t seem to be made for people that already love podcasts, because they’re probably using a third-party app to manage podcasts already. Instead, Podcasts seems like a tool that will aid iPhone owners in discovering podcasts, ushering in a whole new audience for podcast creators. At the very least, Podcasts provides users that manually sync podcasts to their iPhone from iTunes with a better management platform, even if you do have to resubscribe to everything again.


Summary

Discover, subscribe to, manage and play podcasts on your iPhone.

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