Podcasts: Better, Faster, Stronger-ish

Last June, Apple released a standalone podcasts management app with the rather simple moniker, Podcasts. To say the app was met with little fanfare is putting it quite mildly. In my original review of Podcasts, I too found the app to be underwhelming, with a list of issues and very few features for power users.

Recently, Apple released version 1.2 of Podcasts, bringing with it an all-new Now Playing view, custom stations, and a host of supposed syncing and stability improvements. Aftering putting Podcasts through its paces, I’m ready to give each and everyone of you fine readers the inside scoop on what these updates have to offer.

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Stations & On-The-Go

Arguably the biggest update to Podcasts is the inclusion of stations, which is just a fancy name for playlists. By default, you’ll start out with three stations — On-The-Go, Most Recent and All Unplayed — with the option to create custom stations. Unlike how most playlists function, stations do not list each episode individually, but instead list each podcast, which requires you to transition to a new page that lists each episode available for said podcast (certainly an unusual method of playlist management).

My Stations is where you can manage your playlists.

My Stations is where you can manage your playlists.

New episodes will be added to your stations automatically.

If you don’t care for the way Podcasts manages stations, there’s at least one saving grace. The On-The-Go station is unique in that you may only add individual episodes, which is done within the station or an episode’s info page. With the removal of the All Unplayed option in the My Podcasts page (formally titled Podcasts), On-The-Go is the clearest method of listening to all unplayed episodes in the order that you desire — even though this method requires a great deal more effort for the end-user.

On-The-Go is your go-to station for playing individual episodes.

On-The-Go is your go-to station for playing individual episodes.

Now Playing, Now Redesigned

Over the past year there has been a major debate in the design community regarding skeuomorphism (i.e. design that is intended to look like a real world counterpart), which Podcasts included with design inspiration from a Braun tape recorder. In version 1.2, Podcasts has stripped away its skeuomorphic design in favor of a more sleek and gradient infused look (a preview of what John Ive has in store for iOS 7, perhaps?).

Skeuomorphic design has been removed from Podcasts.

Skeuomorphic design has been removed from Podcasts.

Personally, I was fond of the reel-to-reel design, but greatly appreciate the new playback UI. Controls like the progress bar, sharing button, playback speed and sleep timer are no longer hidden behind the podcast’s artwork, and the buttons (skip and play/pause) are no longer crowded as they were before, making it easier to tap the desired button.

The skip and play/pause buttons are spaced better than before.

The skip and play/pause buttons are spaced better than before.

One change that I don’t quite agree with deals with the in-episode skipping buttons. Before version 1.2, the app offered static options — 10 seconds for skipping back and 30 second for forward. Now, the buttons are both set at 15 second increments. Ultimately, I find the 15/15 set up lacking (especially when skipping forward), and wish Apple would allow users to choose their own skipping increments, which is a staple in most third-party podcast apps.

A Few More Improvements

Another desired feature lacking from Podcasts is notifications, which sadly has not been implemented (even if controls for notifications are available in the Notifications section of the Settings app). However, you now have the option to turn on a badge, which will display a count of all you’re unplayed episodes.

The badge icon will display in the app switcher, even if you turn off the feature.

The badge icon will display in the app switcher, even if you turn off the feature.

One oddity I found before in Top Charts (formally Top Stations) in my original review was that tapping a podcast’s artwork began playback of the most recent episode, while tapping an Info icon pulled up an episode list and subscribe option. This UI quirk has been reversed, which makes a great deal more sense. More importantly, though, all lagging while browsing and slow load times when transitioning from audio to video podcasts is now gone; navigating Top Charts is now as smooth as your favorite yellow dairy product (butter, perhaps).

Navigating the Top Charts page is now smooth and intuitive.

Navigating the Top Charts page is now smooth and intuitive.

Syncing Podcasts & Playback

Of the many issues that befell Podcasts before the version 1.2 update, syncing episodes and playback position was certainly one of the most discussed issues amongst users and tech bloggers. I also had plenty of issues with getting it to work previously. After spending quite a bit of time using Podcasts 1.2 on a day-to-day basis, I’ve found syncing does in fact work better — but it’s incredibly hit-or-miss.

When you delete an episode on one device, the same episode should, in theory, automatically delete on all other devices connected to the same iCloud account. This does work, but in a very odd manner. In my experiences, I would delete an episode on my iPhone, and attempt to refresh my episode list on my iPad to see if the same episode would delete. After multiple refresh attempts, still no dice. But, when I refreshed the episode list on my iPhone (after deleting the episode) and then refreshed my iPad’s episode list, the episode would in fact delete. Not very intuitive, I’m afraid.

You'll have to refresh the list on your first device before the episode deletes on your second device.

You’ll have to refresh the list on your first device before the episode deletes on your second device.

I also found that syncing an episode’s playback position was inconsistent. On numerous occasions I would stop playback on my iPhone, and was left disappointed when playback began in a different position on my iPad. However, there were also times when the feature worked flawlessly. If you don’t use multiple devices, this obviously isn’t much of an issue, but it’s frustrating to see iCloud continually hiccup in this manner.

Remaining Issues

Even more frustrating than playback position syncing problems are a number of issues I detailed in my original review that are still present in Podcasts 1.2. Podcasts over 50MB still cannot be downloaded, but can be streamed (which still doesn’t make sense), and playback for video podcasts stops when you exit the app.

You still can't download podcasts over 50MB off on cellular.

You still can’t download podcasts over 50MB off on cellular.

One of the features I enjoy the most on Pocket Casts (my preferred podcast management app), which is also available in most third-party podcasts apps, is that episodes are automatically deleted after finishing playback. Podcasts offers this option if you turn on the All Unplayed option under the Episodes to Keep menu. Much like syncing, however, it doesn’t work without a few hitches. About half of the time episodes will clear out, but when they don’t I had to refresh the podcast’s episode list or hit the refresh button on the My Podcasts page for the setting to work. Again, not intuitive.

The Bottom Line

Verison 1.2 of Podcasts provides some much needed fixes and improvements, but I still find the app to be not fully baked. Whether Apple cares enough about podcasts to continue to improve the app is debateable, but I’m hoping this is a step in that direction. Stations is a great addition, Top Charts is actually useable now, and while I miss the reel-to-reel, Now Playing’s overall control scheme is much friendlier.

With that said, there are far too many issues (syncing, automatically deleting played episodes) and missing features (notifications, downloading 50MB+ episodes over cellular) for me to transition away from Pocket Casts (especially when Shifty Jelly is set to release an all-new version!). But, for those in need of a podcast management app who don’t feel like spending $1.99 for Pocket Casts or Downcast (both much better apps), Podcasts will certainly suffice.


Summary

Discover, subscribe to and play podcasts, plus create custom stations.

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