Earlier this week, Apple released their Podcasts app for iOS. It is free to download.
While iTunes and the iOS Music app have supported podcasts for a long time, that system was limited. The main limitation was that subscription management and downloads could only be performed in iTunes and then had to be synced to the device for playable making the device dependant on a regular computer. While it was true that you could download episodes from podcasts in the iTunes store on iOS it was limited to individual episodes and not within the context of a subscription.
The success of the iOS app store (and particularly the addition of background audio processes in iOS4) spawned several very popular 3rd party podcast apps on iOS that provided complete management, download, and playback facilities on the device. Some also providing their own podcast discovery directories in addition to adding subscriptions manually using RSS. These apps include Downcast (my favourite), Instacast, Pocket Casts and many others.
Speculation about a separate Podcasts app for iOS with features like the 3rd party apps has been doing the rounds since the iOS 6 beta was found to not have podcasts in the iTunes app. And this is indeed what Apple has done.
The Podcasts app is a free universal app (iPhone & iPad) that provides podcast playback, download and subscription managment.
The app UI has a pleasing matte black finish with a very fine almost unnoticeable texture. It covers the basic areas of functionality that you expect: playback, downloads, management and discovery. The UI of both the iPad and iPhone versions are effectively identical however the iPhone version does not rotate to landscape orientation. There are no application settings either. You can adjust the behaviour of individual subscriptions but you cannot adjust the default behaviour.
The Podcasts section of the iTunes store can be accessed using the “Catalogue” button which flips the UI over to reveal the store in the same manner as the iBooks and iTunesU apps. Also URLs that use the podcast:// protocol to point to podcasts in the iTunes store now open the Podcasts app to add the subscriptions directly.
It also supports the syncing of podcast episodes and subscriptions with the iTunes desktop application. However it does not support iCloud syncing of subscriptions. Keeping this app in sync across multiple devices requires the use of the iTunes desktop app.
Downloading and subscription management within the app is basic and functional with some caveats. Firstly it defaults to streaming instead of downloading, if you want to download new podcast episodes you have to configure this on each podcast. It doesn’t provide you with notifications of new episodes, but it does show you unplayed episodes. It also doesn’t provide a UI with an overview of active downloads. This can only be seen in the episode list of each podcast.
Downloads actually go into the podcast section of the iOS media library. This is the media library that the Music app uses and it is how the podcasts get synced with iTunes on the desktop. The Music app can be used to play podcast downloaded in the Podcast app or synced using iTunes. Active podcast downloads are also visible in the iTunes iOS app too.
The Top Stations tab is a useful feature with a UI that you will either love or hate. I like the idea but I think the implementation is poor. It provides a list of popular podcasts in different categories. However the majority of the UI is taken up with the cover art of the currently selected podcast. Given that the covert art of most podcasts does provide much information (except maybe the title) then this isn’t very isn’t useful. You have to tap the info button to flip it over to view details. Tapping the cover art starts the most recent episode streaming. It’s useful to be able to browse through podcasts like this & to be able to quickly stream one to evaluate, but the UI makes it clunky because you can only see one at a time and have to inspect it future to see more details. It would have been more useful to make the “columns” in the UI have a smaller thumbnail with the title & some other information so you could scroll down the list, rather than checking one item at a time. Also you can end up only seeing placeholder cover art for some podcasts if they don’t have their own cover art or if it hasn’t downloaded yet.
The player screen has the podcast cover art front and center as you would expect with nice big custom play controls at the bottom. To the left and right of the play/pause button are “back 10 seconds” and “forward 30 seconds” buttons. The next and previous track buttons are also a slight distance apart from the others. This is a nice touch for anyone who has accidentally hit “next” or “prev” when intending to pause or start a podcast playing.
Tap or swipe up on the cover art and it slides up to reveal some advanced controls and skeumorphic eye candy. The advanced controls are just above the play controls allow scrubbing though the playing podcast, half and double-speed playback, a sleep timer, and a sharing menu (Email, Message, Twitter). The upper third of this screen is an old-school reel-to-reel tape deck. You cannot interact with it but it does react to your playback actions: the reels turn while played, the read head moves when appropriate and the tape moves from the left reel to the right as the podcast plays. In my opinion this is appropriate use of skeumorphism, it’s playful and doesn’t get in the way.
Episode show notes are also only displayed as text. Given that many podcasts include web links to the things they discuss in their show notes, this might be a big problem for you because they will not be useful.
- Integrated with the iTunes podcasts section of the iTunes store.
- Support for podcast:// iTunes store URLs.
- It does have a nice UI. There are some skeumorphic elements in the player’s advanced controls but they are not intrusive.
- Play/pause button is nicely separated from the previous & next buttons.
- Supports sync with podcasts with iTunes on the desktop.
- No sync of subscriptions or play position using iCloud. Perhaps this will be added in a future update.
- Very poor support for show notes (this is actually a deal breaker for me)
- Top Stations UI is clunky.
- Can’t add subscriptions using RSS in the app. You have to do this in iTunes on the desktop and & sync.
- No overview UI in the app for seeing what is currently downloading.
- No notifications when new episodes are available or downloaded.
- Default settings cannot be changed.
Overall Podcasts is a decent application with a good UI for the most part with the required functionality. But it has limitations and is missing features that might be considered required by advanced users. The lack of iCloud support is especially puzzling. Hopefully iCloud syncing will be added in a future update.
You should definitely check it out if you are new to podcasts or not currently using a dedicated podcast app.If you are already using a 3rd party app like Instacast or Downcast then it is worth evaluating. However if you are used to the more advanced features of those apps then you will probably find it lacking.