In Defense of Apple’s Podcast App

Yup. I’m defending Apple’s iOS Podcast app.

This past sunday I decided I would try using Apple’s Podcasts app instead of Instacast, my go-to client for years.1 Read the reviews. Or don’t. They aren’t favorable. All you really need to know is that Apple’s Podcasts app has been called “the worst app Apple ever made.”

I went one-by-one through subscriptions I had in Instacast and added them to Apple’s podcast app. I probably could have exported an XML file from Instacast, but I wanted to experience what a new user would go through.

I’m pleasantly surprised and very happy with Apple’s podcast app. HOW COULD THIS BE! The internet is full of bad reviews discussing poor performance. However, it’s a totally different story today. I wish those reviewers would take another look at this app, because nearly all their issues have been resolved.

Subscribing, Directories, and Discovery

If you were around during the beginning of podcasting, before Apple added it to iTunes, you might remember how much of a pain it was to find new shows to listen to. It’s been a while, but if I remember this right you’d have to find a podcast directory, look things up, hope a show was any good, and add a feed to a podcatcher which, if it was any good, added it to iTunes for you.

Isn’t it great that we don’t have to do that anymore?

Apple’s Podcast directory is the podcast directory of the internet. And why not? Apple brought podcasting to the big time. If your podcast isn’t in the iTunes store it may as well not exist.

Instacast has a great podcast directory, but it’s not for normals. It’s powered by us nerds. As of this writing, 8 of the top 10 podcasts in the Instacast directory are from 5by5, are by hosts on 5by5, or from hosts previously on 5by5. It can begin to feel as if the Instacast directory is one big commercial for 5by5.

Here’s the Instacast directory.

Instacaststop10

The iTunes directory has more diversity.

Itunespodcasts top10

For those of you who want podcasts that aren’t in iTunes, you can just paste the feed address into the Podcasts.app search bar and subscribe that way. This is a non-issue now.

Design

The skeuomorphic direction of some Apple apps has received a lot of criticism. iOS, and the latest OS X, contain leather-bound address books and calendars with teared paper. Apple’s Podcast app contains reel-to-reel tapes.

Reeltoreel

Although I usually agree with the criticism of this kind of design, I find this sort of thing cute and inviting in this setting, like I’m a guest on a talk radio show. It also serves a function by providing a clue on what the playback speed button does. As playback speed increases, so does the speed of the reels.

Also, watch those reels as your podcast progresses. Scrub through quickly and you can see the tape transfer from the left reel to the right reel.

But what about Apple’s HIG? Okay, sure, but…come on, is it really that obnoxious? The backlash against skeuomorphic designs, in my opinion, is overblown. Yeah, sometimes they feel weird. Other times they are warm and welcoming. There are two ways you can teach a user how to use your app.

  1. Train them over years to learn the standard interface elements of your OS and design around that.
  2. Make your app look a little like something in the physical world that your user is already comfortable with.

Sometimes it makes more sense to go with #2. Everyone liked it when Tape Deck did this. Why can’t Apple do it?

Skeuomorphs aren’t for you, nerd.2 They’re for most everyone else. You know what a podcast actually is – an XML file that points to audio files. Most people don’t think of them like that. Most people think “internet radio show.”

And the reel-to-reel encourages them to try it out.

From what I’ve read it appears that the iOS blogger/podcast darling is Downcast. It’s a good client. I own a copy, but it’s no beauty. Take a look.

Downcast op de iPad3

Downcast is dull and gray. It has a lot of buttons to tap. But because of skeuomorphisism, Apple’s Podcast app is fun. If you’re brand new to podcasts, like many millions of iOS users are, which would you rather use?

Syncing

Instacast released a new version that addressed syncing problems. I’m still having problems. In fact, that’s part of the reason I decided to try Apple’s podcast app again.

I’ve been using Apple’s app this entire week. Syncing is more reliable than it’s ever been in Instacast. I’m even talking about their latest update – the one powered by their own sync solution.

Downcast, however, was always pretty good about syncing.

What About Playlists, Favorites, and Bookmarks?

Both Instacast and Downcast have playlists features. In theory, these sound like wonderful additions to have, but in practice I found that I rarely used them. I don’t think I subscribe to enough podcasts to justify it.4

By the way, I subscribe to around 40-50 podcasts. That’s a lot, right?

Podcasts are often not timeless. I don’t feel the need to organize them into playlists, because once I listen to them they’re gone. I move on to the next podcast.

I don’t miss playlists. Apple’s app has the only playlist I ever need: Unplayed.

I did think I’d miss Favorites and Bookmarks. I used both in Instacast a lot. But the more I thought of this the more I realized that I got by for years without either of these things. Did I really find these features useful, or did I just use those features because they were present? I have a bunch of bookmarks in Instacast, but the only one I really care about is the one titled “We Can All Agree On Cheese.”

Also, why should I give Instacast all my favorites? I could put favorites anywhere, Pinboard, Delicious, my blog (which I often do). If an episode is particularly good, I can email a link to myself and have it outside the podcast app where I can do something about sharing it.

Because sharing from these apps is still a big bag of hurt.

Sharing

Sharing podcasts with people is weird in every podcast app I’ve tried. I haven’t seen it done well yet. I don’t mean the process: tap this button and send it off. I mean, “where is this link going to take the recipient and how will the recipient know what to do next?”

Apple’s Podcasts app isn’t good at this. It generates a link directly to the feed. What good is that going to do? Let someone subscribe to a whole podcast? What if I only want to share a single episode?

Sharinginpodcsastsapp

Instacast is better. It generates an HTML5 audio player for the recipient to listen to a show in their browser. This is actually the most user-friendly way, but it’s also a big plug for Instacast.

IMG 1687

Here’s a typical Instacast share URL: http://instaca.st/b/wr

Downcast appears to link directly to the audio source.

Sharingindowncast

I think the best thing to do here is to share a link to the podcast’s page on that specific episode. It provides attribution and branding of the podcast, and podcasters usually have embedded audio players on their pages, or at least a download link. But I have doubts about that, because I think Instacast’s method is more practical for most people.

Back To The Mac

People are looking forward to dedicated Instacast and Downcast Mac apps so that they can listen to their podcasts at their desks. This would be useful for me for those music podcasts, particularly at work where I’m most likely to listen to music podcasts and not talk-show podcasts.

I used to do this the analog way by connecting a line cable from my phone’s headphone output to my work Mac and using Rogue Amoeba’s Line-In software.

But I stopped doing this when I realized that I could plug my iPhone into a computer and listen to my podcasts directly through iTunes.

podcastsfromiphoneinitunes.png

I share John Gruber’s thoughts here:

Where I think Podcasts falls short…is in providing for a single iCloud-backed set of podcast subscriptions. If I subscribe to a podcast in iTunes on my Mac, it should show up as a subscription on Podcasts on my iPhone…I shouldn’t have to sync my devices with iTunes on my Mac just to sync podcast subscriptions. Podcasts seems like a perfect example of something where iCloud should be my digital hub — just like how iTunes Match works for music.

Until Instacast and Downcast come out with Mac apps Apple’s podcast app is the closest we have.

Accessories

This is the killer feature of Apple’s podcast app. It works with my stuff. Apple’s official apps index audio files so that accessories can use them. Car stereos, speaker docks, they can access content displayed in music.app and podcasts.app.

But third-party apps are on an island, at least as of this writing. There are some ways in which using anything other than the Apple software is like fighting the tide. This is one of them.

If you have an accessory like that, like a car with a dock connector, it’s a game changer to be able to listen to your podcasts through your in-dash player, with its fast-forward, pause, and other playback functions, without having to go through the analog hole.

I know that this is the last battle. We’re moving towards a future with Bluetooth and Airplay accessories. But if you have any of these things with dock connectors you can only play your podcasts with Apple’s podcast app.

Other thoughts

This whole experiment may be a fluke for me. I’m not even a full week into it yet. Still, I encourage you, if you wrote off Apple’s Podcasts app when it first came out, try it again. Podcasts.app is clean, uncomplicated, inviting, dare I say reliable, and works with your stuff.

Give it another shot.


  1. Ok, here’s the deal. I’m using version 1.1.2 of Apple’s Podcasts app on an iPhone 5 with iOS 6.1 and an iPad 3 with iOS 6.1. I do not sync podcasts through iTunes. 

  2. If this thing annoys you, you aren’t most people. I’ve been meaning to write about the times I volunteer at my library showing people how to use their iPads, because I’ve been learning a lot about how non-geeks, the people who are buying these millions of devices and making Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world, actually use them. When I showed this part of the podcasts app attendees were delighted. They wouldn’t have felt that way about a grid view. 

  3. Screen shot by Pierre Gorissen / used under a creative commons license 

  4. In Instacast I had the standard playlists: Unplayed, Downloaded, and Favorites. The only other playlist I could think to add was a Music playlist for music podcasts.