Note: Many of these apps have had substantial updates since this article was written, and I intend to revisit them in the near future.
Once upon a time, new podcasts were delivered only when I plugged my iPod into my Mac. One by one, all the new episodes that had come out since the last time I connected would sync over. However, since the release of the iPhone, the cord has been cut, and wireless syncing is now the norm. There are numerous apps available for managing your podcast subscriptions on the App Store. Here are some of the top contenders, and how they stack up against one another, including Apple’s own offering.
Universal – Free
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Apple really took podcasting mainstream back in 2005 when they added it to iTunes. Almost overnight, everyone who owned an iPod (and that was a lot of people) could simply plug into their computer and take hours of free content on the go. So we all had high hopes for their official Podcasts app. Unfortunately, the result has been less than stellar.
I would say that the Podcasts app is perfectly fine if you wish to keep syncing directly with your computer. The legacy of the iPod runs strong here, and it ends up being the Achilles heel of this app. Subscribing to podcasts and downloading directly is not a smooth process. You can add feeds that are not hosted on iTunes, but it’s not an obvious process. Worse, syncing between devices is extremely limited. While a recent update added the ability to sync your subscriptions via iCloud, this has not yet proved to be reliable. If you attempt to sync to your Mac too, things get even worse.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this app is the 50MB download limit over cellular. This really kills the app’s usefulness on-the-go, as a lot of shows I listen to are multi-hour in length and easily extend beyond this limit.
The app looks good, but the reel-to-reel tape deck motif feels a little over-designed, and the app often feels clunky to navigate.
It’s hard to argue with free, but this app feels half-baked, and I’m certainly not the only user to feel this way (the App Store currently shows an average rating of just one star). My advice – unless you wish to use your device the exact same way you did in 2005 (i.e., download to computer, plug in, sync, repeat) – is to avoid this app.
(One note: If you wish to control your podcast playback using Siri, this is your only option, since Siri cannot currently be used with third-party apps.)
This is really the app that started it all. Back before Apple added the ability to download podcasts directly to your mobile device, this app was already providing real podcast management. Podcaster allows you to subscribe directly within the app, either by searching or manually entering the web address of the podcast feed. It was also among the first non-Apple apps to be able to play in the background after Apple added the functionality in iOS 4.
Unfortunately Podcaster hasn’t kept up well, and it’s been surpassed in usability by other apps. While an iPad app is available, there’s no easy way to keep it in sync with your iPhone or iPod touch. Recent updates have also had stability problems.
Podcaster blazed a trail – but has unfortunately fallen behind.
Universal – $1.99
iCatcher! was the first app I tried that supports both iPhone and iPad. In fact, the developer was kind enough to make this app universal, meaning purchasing it once gives you both versions of the app. iCatcher! is pretty straightforward in terms of usability. I encountered no stability issues, although iCloud sync was a bit hit-or-miss for me. Ultimately, while it’s a very good app that may well appeal to a lot of users, I decided not to use it regularly due to a somewhat clunky interface. I also found it a tad slow at times.
Universal – $1.99
Downcast is one of the heavyweights in this category. Consistently ranked among the top apps in the App Store, Downcast is also a universal app. It’s extremely powerful, as evidenced by its many (possibly too many) settings and configuration options.
Downcast may well be the best example of how to integrate iCloud sync. Not only does it keep your subscriptions in sync without error, but it also maintains your playlists, episode status, and even app settings across devices. It’s a huge relief to be able to have my iPad automatically configure itself from my iPhone (or vice versa), rather than having to do it twice.
Downcast is also one of the few apps that can update itself in the background, even when you’re not using it. It does so using location services – when you enter or leave a predetermined area, the app automatically triggers an update. With so many apps, I often only realize after I’m already on the subway that I forgot to update some of them, so this is a very welcome feature.
I have only two complaints about Downcast. First, playlist creation could be easier. It took a few tries to get my playlists just right, and there aren’t any examples to learn from out of the gate. Second, Push Notifications of new episodes would make for a nice feature addition. If I had to nitpick, I would say the interface can feel a bit busy and cluttered at times.
Still, if you’re podcast fanatic, this is definitely one to have in your arsenal.
Instacast is the most expensive proposition in this list (if you want both iPhone and iPad editions at least) – but, as is so often the case, you get what you pay for. Instacast has just about every feature you could want (Push Notifications, playlists, iCloud sync), and has perhaps the nicest looking interface of the bunch.
My one issue with Instacast at this point is that iCloud sync can be unreliable. Recent updates have made things better, but I still need to go in and reset my sync data more often than I would like.
But beyond that, everything works pretty flawlessly. Managing subscriptions and episodes is very easy, and the app supports most of the common gestures of iOS, so it feels very much at home on my devices.
Personally I use Instacast on a day-to-day basis, although Downcast is a very strong contender. I’m a bit torn as to which one I prefer. I love the Push Notifications and cleaner interface of Instacast, but Downcast’s location updating and superior syncing capabilities score it serious points. For now, both apps will have a place on my iPhone. Both are excellent, and I highly recommend you check them out before settling for what comes built-in on your device. You may just find that you listen to a lot more podcasts than you used to once you’ve got the right app.