Apple's Podcasts Update - What Really Matters

Earlier this week, Apple released a major update to its Podcasts app for iOS. As a fanatical podcast listener, I've tried nearly every major client available for iPhone and iPad, and had settled on Instacast, a remarkable app that combines a strong feature set, good design sense, and a robust syncing backend. I generally like to use the default (or near-default) option when given the chance, especially in the case of Apple, as it usually features deeper integration with the hardware and the operating system - integration which often yields unique benefits to the end user. However, Apple's Podcasts app has simply not been up to snuff, thanks to some questionable design choices, performance issues, and a poorly considered interface.

Fortunately, Podcasts 1.2 addresses the majority of these issues. Much attention has been devoted to Apple's decision to back away from the more skeuomorphic elements of the app, such as the reel-to-reel tape player and tapedeck-like buttons. I think the more important development, however, is the introduction of a sensible navigation hierarchy, which was lacking in previous iterations.

Although I've never bought into the notion of Apple as an image-centric company, I do think that Podcasts as it was represented a triumph of form over function, which runs counter Apple's usually clean fusion of both. The new update rectifies this imbalance. That's what really matters, not whether or not we have a reel-to-reel tapedeck embedded in the app. I'm going to give it another shot as my primary podcast application. I recommend you do as well.

Podcast Recommendations

As I search for time to update my own podcast (probably not happening until the middle of next week - sorry, folks), I thought I'd offer up a few recommendations for those of you looking to get some good sounds echoing in your earholes.

  • Back to Work with Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann - Comic books, chicanery, and occasional productivity tips. Endlessly entertaining and always helpful. Recommended Start: "Quit!™" or "Hunter Ready to Write."
  • The Critical Path with Horace Deidu and Moises Chiullan - Thorough tech industry analysis with a focus on disruption theory. I've learned more from this podcast than I have from some business classes I've taken. Recommended Start: "Bingewatch"
  • Marek vs. Wyshynski with Jeff Marek and Greg Wyshynski - The world's greatest hockey podcast. Rambling and sometimes incoherent, but never boring and often insightful. Recommended Start: The most recent episode.
  • Roderick on the Line with John Roderick and Merlin Mann - The best podcast on the web, structured as a Socratic dialogue between an id and an ego, although who is what is never entirely clear. Recommended Start: "Supertrain" or "Cement Gravy Boat of Suffering."
  • The Thrilling Adventure Hour with the WorkJuice Players - Great old-fashioned radio drama by an all-star cast, featuring Paul F. Tompkins, Paget Brewster, John DiMaggio, James Urbaniak, and more! Recommended Start: "Beyond Belief - Wishing Hell" or "Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars - The Piano Has Been A'Thinking."

On Podcast Apps

Downcast for iOS

Downcast for iOS

Instacast for iPhone

Instacast for iPhone

Podcasts for iOS

Podcasts for iOS

I consume podcasts the way most people consume television. I'm currently subscribed to 40 different feeds, most of which are updated at least once a week, and I listen to probably 80% of them within a few days of release. I listen to podcasts at work, at home, at the gym, on the road, and during my regular trips through time and space. Although I used to rely on the tried and true subscribe-and-sync method of downloading episodes through iTunes and moving it to my iPod over USB, I've used standalone podcatchers on my iPhone for about the last year and a half. The three premier iPhone podcatchers are Downcast, Instacast, and Apple's own Podcasts, and each of them has strengths and weaknesses.

Instacast is my go-to podcatcher. It's slightly less powerful than Downcast, but there's been a great deal more thought put into the way it works. Downcast is weighed down by features that let power users micromanage their settings, but make for a less enjoyable experience. Podcasts a gorgeous  app, and there's always a temptation to stay within the Apple ecosystem to the extent that I can, but it's missing two key features that I can't give up just yet. First, there's no iCloud sync between the app on the iPhone and the iPad - a mind-blowing oversight, what with iCloud becoming increasingly central to Apple's platform strategy. Second, and this is really nit-picking, there's no "Mark All as Played" setting, and that just bugs me.

Downcast for iOS

Downcast for iOS

Instacast for iPhone

Instacast for iPhone

Podcasts for iOS

Podcasts for iOS

But while Downcast left my iPhone long ago, Podcasts remains, waiting for that crucial update that addresses these flaws. I love the aesthetic, and if screenshots of iOS 6 can be trusted, believe that it may spread to other default iPhone apps soon. It bugs me that I can't just be happy with Instacast. Instacast is a great app. But I'm restless when it comes to my devices. I'm always looking for better solutions to problems that have already been solved. I don't think this is common among iOS users. I suspect most people just find something that kind of works for them and roll with it. Maybe that's the right way to do it, and it almost certainly costs them less than my horrible app habit ("My Horrible App Habit" - there's an album title). I don't know what that says about me, but it keeps me exploring, keeps me learning. Maybe one day I'll find a setup that I love, that satisfies me. But not yet. Not today.