App Review: Overcast, a New Podcast Player for iOS

As a podcaster, and a podcast listener, it’s important that I have an easy-to-use app for managing, downloading and listening to podcasts. iTunes used to work for me, but with the changes that Apple made to iTunes 11, and the quirky Podcasts app for iOS, I’ve pretty much given up on using that solution. The two didn’t sync reliably, lost podcast episodes I wanted to keep, and was simply confusing. (What I’d been doing until recently was download podcast episodes to iTunes, and sync them to the Podcasts app, with no syncing of subscriptions or listening position. This is essentially the way it used to work pre-iTunes 11.)

Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, has just released a new podcast app for iOS called Overcast. This free app – with a $5 in-app purchased to unlock extra features, is an excellent choice for listening to podcasts on an iPhone or iPod touch. However, if you still want to listen on your Mac, and save episodes of podcasts, you might not want to use this. I’ve used Instacast in the past, which has the advantage of having a Mac version as well, and which syncs with the iOS app, but there are a couple of features in Overcast that have won me over. This said, I’ll still be downloading some podcasts to iTunes, and listening to them with the Podcasts app on iOS, because I do want to save episodes of some of my favorite podcasts. So Overcast works well for me as an app to listen to many of the podcasts I like, but it’s not a perfect solution.

When you start using Overcast, you have to set up an account with the app’s server. This lets you sync your podcast subscriptions, and even access them on a website, via a rudimentary player. But you don’t get podcasts directly, and you depend on that server working. This is good and bad; if the server’s down, you won’t get access to any new episodes.

2014-07-21 10.52.59.pngOvercast’s main screen presents all your podcasts, and playlists, in a scrolling window. The first section is Playlists. You can create one playlist with the free version, and multiple playlists with the upgrade. Playlists are good if you want to simply show all the episodes on your iOS device, or group specific playlists.

You cannot, however, create a new, empty playlist and add episodes to it. (Well, you can, by excluding all podcasts in the playlist’s settings, then adding individual episodes; this is an annoying hack, because each time you subscribe to a new podcast, you have to exclude it from this playlist.) I’d like to see a sort of Up Next playlist, so I can pick a few episodes I want to listen to during the day without messing around too much. You can re-order podcasts in a playlist, if you wish.

Podcasts are those podcasts with unplayed episodes, and a third section, further down, is Played Podcasts; this is a bit confusing, and the terminology could be better, but that groups podcast where there are no unplayed episodes. Note that Overcast does not support video podcasts. I don’t subscribe to any, but if you do, Overcast may not be for you.

2014-07-21 10.55.49.pngTap a podcast to view it, and you’ll see its episodes. There is Unplayed, All and Settings. In the latter tab, you choose to subscribe or not (which means that episodes download automatically), and you can choose how many episodes to save. In the All tab, you can scroll through the podcast’s episodes and tap any you want to download. An Unplayed is, as you’d expect, those episodes you haven’t yet listened to. When you finish listening to a podcast, Overcast deletes it automatically. In general, this is a good idea, but if you do want to listen to one again, you’ll have to re-download it; you can’t set the app to save any played episodes.

Downloads are only available on Wi-Fi, unless you check a setting to download over cellular data; this is a feature only available in the upgraded version. And you can’t stream episodes; Marco Arment has said he might be adding that in the future. This isn’t a big deal for me; I prefer downloading the ones I want, then being able to see a list of the episodes I have, rather than picking from a list to stream. But for many people, this could be a deal-breaker.

Some comments on the interface. I find the design a bit sketchy. It’s clean and matches a certain style, but it’s not high on the usability scale. The fonts for non-downloaded episodes are gray and hard to read, so if you want to check out an episode to see if you want to download it, this can be hard to do if you’re outdoors. There’s a lot of wasted space: the gray bars separating the sections could be slimmer, and there’s no reason to have the name of each playlist take up the same vertical space as each podcast. When you view a playlist, the episode names are truncated, making it hard to see what they are. This is particularly troublesome if you have a podcast whose episodes start with the title of the podcast itself. And the animated “audio wave” thingy that displays on the play screen is just useless. (You can see it above the play controls in the first screenshot below.)

Below, two screenshots show what you see when playing an episode. To the left, I’ve scrolled up on the podcast’s icon; it shrinks and displays show notes, with clickable links. To the right, you can see the Effects screen, which is the feature that has won me over. This lets you speed up podcasts, without the sort of Alvin and the Chipmunks sound that most podcast apps give you. The Smart Speed setting cuts out bits of silence, helping you save a bit more time when listening to podcasts, and Voice Boost equalizes the podcasts for vocal frequencies, making them clearer. Altogether, I find this the best playback of any podcast app I’ve used.

2014-07-21 10.56.08.png     2014-07-21 10.56.11.png

Overcast has become my daily podcast app, but the lack of a Mac version means that I’ll still download some podcasts in iTunes. As I said above, you can use something like Instacast, but for episodes I want to keep, I find it more practical to have them in my iTunes library. However, if Overcast could play podcasts that I’ve synced to Apple’s Podcasts app, that would solve the problem of playback. Since third-party music player apps can do this, podcast apps should be able to as well. I’d also like to see an iPad version, but I understand that one is in the works.

If you want a podcast app for your iPhone or iPod touch, check out Overcast. You can try it for free, which is great, and the $5 in-app purchase is worth it for the effects alone.