We’ll Just Say It: This Is a Nearly Perfect Podcast App
Remember when you had to sync your iPod with your computer every time you downloaded new music? Podcasts once worked the same way — you had to plug in every time a new episode was available. Thankfully, things have gotten a lot easier 15 years later, and podcasts are now more popular than ever.
That popularity has led to a boom in podcasting apps. If you want to search beyond default services, like those built into iOS or Spotify, it can be a challenge to figure out which is best — especially if you’re a true podcast junkie.
Brian Lovin is a designer at GitHub and host of the Design Details podcast, part of the Spec podcast network that he co-created with two of his colleagues. So, it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about the relationship between good design and the world of podcasting. Like me, he’s a fan of Pocket Casts for its sheer number of options.
“A good podcast app understands that not all content should be treated the same,” Lovin explains. “Pocket Casts is, in my opinion, the best podcast app on the market right now because it deeply understands this point. Every show I subscribe to can have custom listening behaviors like variable playback effects, download preferences, and notifications. For example, I listen to my political talk podcasts at 1.5x playback speed, but my comedy shows are played at 1x speed so I can get the full effect of timed delivery.”
It’s this same thing that drew me to Pocket Casts years ago. The app doesn’t force me to download every single episode, which is useful for shows that publish frequently like NPR’s hourly News Now podcast. Instead, I can mark the latest installment as “unread,” so I don’t end up with a never-ending backlog. On the other hand, I’m perfectly okay with my irregular, evergreen shows like AVExcel (a podcast for home theater nerds) racking up old episodes on my device, since I’ll binge them all eventually. With Pocket Casts, you can customize whether podcasts download or stream by default, skip the first few minutes of each episode, and automatically play the next episode when the current one finishes — and customize these settings differently for every show.
“A good podcast app understands that not all content should be treated the same.”
Of course, the more options an app has, the more clunky and confusing it can sometimes feel. But Pocket Casts strikes a welcome balance between usable and customizable. If you don’t want to use those extra features, you can enjoy the app without ever noticing they’re there. The vital elements are kept front and center: Shows can be arranged in an album-art grid so you don’t have to scroll. The play and pause buttons are always easily accessible along the bottom. And it syncs your podcasts between all your devices running Pocket Casts, so you don’t have to manage multiple libraries.
This up-front simplicity, Lovin says, is crucial: “A good podcast app helps people get to any given subset of content they might need in as few taps as possible. For example, someone might be looking for a podcast they started this morning but didn’t finish. Does the app provide a way to find in-progress episodes? A person might be looking for anything new, across all of their subscriptions: Is there a time-sorted list of all my shows, but constrained only to recently released episodes I haven’t started yet?” Pocket Casts can not only do these things, but it allows you to create your own “filters” — kind of like smart playlists — of currently in-progress episodes, starred episodes, downloaded episodes, and so on, so the stuff you access most is only a tap away. You can even control Pocket Casts with your voice, which is great when you’re driving.
Previously, the biggest thing that once turned people off to Pocket Casts was its price tag — $5.99 on iOS, $3.99 on Android. (Avoiding an app for its cup-of-coffee price tag seems a bit silly to me, but that’s a rant for another article.) In some sort of weird cosmic coincidence, Pocket Casts announced while I was writing this article that its Android and iOS apps would be free going forward. The desktop and web players are now part of a subscription called Pocket Casts Plus, which costs $10 per year and will be getting some exclusive features (like the ability to upload your own audio files and add them to your library). The change has angered some longtime users who preferred the old design and pricing model — before it was collectively acquired by NPR and a few other public media companies — but as far as I’m concerned, Pocket Casts is still the best of the bunch, and after some hemming and hawing, they’ve given out lifetime Plus licenses to those who previously bought the desktop app.
All that said, a well-designed app does not equal a perfect app, and you may find that other tools better fit your needs. If you’ve tried Pocket Casts and decided it isn’t for you, there are a few popular alternatives that are worth a look.
Podcast Addict is a free Android-only podcatcher that’s insanely popular for its robust filtering. It goes much further than Pocket Casts, allowing you to create custom categories, filter episodes based on length, words in the title (like “rebroadcast”), and tons of other tiny settings. It’s not nearly as easy to navigate as Pocket Casts, in my opinion, but folks with tons of podcasts and a desire to organize them into neat little piles will probably like the cut of its jib.
iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch users should check out Downcast and Overcast, two apps that share many of Pocket Cast’s advantages: You can adjust lots of settings per-show, create playlists based on different characteristics, and search for new shows. I find Pocket Casts slightly easier to configure, though, and its library is much easier to explore when you’re looking for new stuff to listen to.
Castro, on the other hand, aims to keep things incredibly simple by putting new episodes into an “inbox,” where you can choose to add them to your queue or archive them. You can even set your favorite shows to float to the top automatically, so instead of rifling through a bunch of shows, you can just open the app and press play. It’s perfect if you feel overwhelmed by more traditional podcast apps, and it’s completely free — but like Downcast and Overcast, it’s only available for iOS.
Finally, other apps — including Stitcher, Spotify, and a newcomer called Luminary — are starting to take a more Netflix-esque approach to podcasting, attempting to draw users in with their own exclusive content. Spotify CEO Dawn Ostroff says she hopes to have “hundreds” of shows by next year for premium subscribers, and Luminary offers an $8 per month premium service that it promises will have 40-plus originals coming this year. (Though Luminary is missing a few already-popular shows in its database.)
There are more podcast apps than I could possibly mention here—seriously, do a quick Google search and you’ll be overwhelmed—but if you’re looking to move beyond the default fare from Apple, Google, and Spotify, one of the above apps is sure to suit you.