Podcasts: Third Time Lucky?

Apple’s Podcasts app for iOS has had a somewhat rocky history, first launching in 2012 with an app that was widely criticised for its unreliable functionality and hideous skeuomorphic-heavy interface. A second update, likely started whilst Scott Forstall was still at Apple, was released earlier this year that attempted to resolve many of the original issues and tone down the skeuomorphism, but it was still was far from perfect.

Amongst the huge number of app updates from Apple after their October 2013 event, Podcasts was updated with an all-new iOS 7 look and feel that removes every last trace of tape decks and push-buttons that made Podcasts the eye-sore it was. With some further functionality and refinements, is Podcasts finally an app Apple can be proud of?

Deforstallisation

If ever an app perfectly embodied the phrase “style over substance”, it was Apple’s Podcasts app. Too much focus on the appearance and not enough of the functionality led it to be the poster child of how skeuomorphism could be taken too far.

Podcasts has been completely revamped and done away with much of the superfluous styling.

Podcasts has been completely revamped and done away with much of the superfluous styling.

But now, every last trace of skeuomorphic elements has been removed, replaced with a much more familiar and easy to navigate. Gone, too, are the gradients and overly-sized grey buttons that took up far too much space.

What you’ll notice straight away is that Podcasts appears to have more options down in the lower toolbar. This isn’t strictly the case as Apple has reshuffled all of the elements and navigation panes to make finding and subscribing to podcasts much easier to do. Rather than waste space with just three options, Podcasts now includes direct access to Featured Podcasts, Top Charts and search functionality to find new podcasts to subscribe to.

Viewing Podcasts

Podcasts can be displayed in either grid or list view, with a grid view looking similar to previous versions of Instacast. It’s a view that really only works if you’re subscribed to just a few podcasts as the artwork displayed is far too large. You’ll get just six shows on your iPhone’s screen before you need to start scrolling, and there are no titles displayed. A search field is located at the top of the grid or list view at all times to provide easy filtering.

Podcasts can be viewed in either grid or list mode.

Podcasts can be viewed in either grid or list mode.

The List view is, thankfully, just as you’d expect and its functionality is not much different than before, just updated for iOS 7. Rather redundantly, the number of episodes is displayed as both a number and written underneath each podcast title.

Prior to this release, Podcasts always felt far too busy and had too much going on, resulting in text being truncated or the app covered in buttons, something that was even worse on iPhones prior to the iPhone 5. iOS 7 has helped clear much of this up and the app no longer has that claustrophobic feeling.

Each podcast is much easier to navigate, feeling far less cluttered.

Each podcast is much easier to navigate, feeling far less cluttered.

Now Playing

Finally, Podcast’s Now Playing screen looks exactly the same as the built-in Music app in iOS at all times. Gone is the tape deck and push buttons, and all of the interface elements are now uniformly positioned to be the same as the Music app. All of the functions of the app are now accessible without having to swipe away the artwork to reveal another set of functions, everything is laid out exactly the same as Music, making it very familiar.

The Now Playing view now mirrors the built-in Music app completely.

The Now Playing view now mirrors the built-in Music app completely.

Unfortunately, show notes support is still lacking. While you can view show notes per se, you do need to back out to the list of episodes to do this. Additionally, links are still not supported so for anyone often referring to show notes whilst listening, you will likely need to give this a miss.

Some useful features from Podcasts have remained. On-The-Go and My Stations playlists have also remained and are largely unchanged, as well as seeing skip 15-sec buttons instead of standard ones appearing on the lock screen as you’re playing a podcast.

Podcast Settings

Just like iBooks, Podcast adds a specific section to the Settings app within iOS, letting you control the frequency of podcast updates, as well as syncing and cellular functionality.

Settings for the app are found within Settings, with some additional options available on a per-show basis.

Settings for the app are found within Settings, with some additional options available on a per-show basis.

Background downloads are fully supported and iCloud syncing now, finally, appears to work properly. After testing for a few hours with an iPhone and iPad that use the same Apple ID, episode counts and play progress seemed to sync perfectly.

Each show has its own settings that you can customise, overriding the default settings from above. Being able to customise the play and sort order is useful for anyone preferring to play podcasts from oldest to newest.

Redemption

Apple’s Podcast app is far, far better than it ever has been and, for the first time, feels genuinely useable. The whole app has been revamped from the ground-up, leaving nothing left from the previous version.

While it may lack some additional functionality found in other podcast apps, such as Instacast and Pocket Casts, Apple’s own Podcasts app is a big leap in the right direction and would be perfect for anyone wanting to find out what the big deal about podcasts is, without needing to immediately invest in an app to do so.

Seasoned podcast listeners will certainly see no benefit in ditching their preferred apps, but Podcasts isn’t an app designed, or wanting, to do this. Instead, its purpose is to offer a simple app for newcomers to the medium who, otherwise, would have no idea where to start.

Podcasts can be best compared to the built-in Notes app. Many of us prefer to use Dropbox-powered, Markdown-fuelled apps and would feel that Notes is too basic, too simple to use. Yet for most iOS users who don’t know what a Dropbox or marking down means, Notes is perfect.

This isn’t a podcast app for us, this is a podcast app for everyone else.


Summary

Third time's the charm for Apple's Podcast app. A clean, new interface and much easier to use, Podcasts is finally an app Apple can be proud of.

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