A podcast is essentially an audio or video version of a magazine subscription. After subscribing to a podcast, new episodes can be downloaded to your computer or smartphone as they become available. There are thousands of podcasts available on just about every topic, including favorite radio programs such as This American Life and Fresh Air. Dozens of UCSF podcasts — both public and course-related — are also available on Podcasts@UCSF. With so many to choose from, having tools that can help discover and manage podcasts is vital. Fortunately, there are a number of podcast manager apps that can help. This post will cover iOS apps, but there are also many similar apps on Android.
When the built-in app isn’t enough …
The built-in iOS Music app is serviceable when it comes to managing podcasts. You can search the iTunes Store for podcasts and subscribe to them. You can download the latest episodes on-demand. You can listen to episodes, and you can even increase the playback speed and skip back 30 seconds. These capabilities probably meet the needs of many iOS users who listen to podcasts infrequently. But the Music app is primarily designed to manage and play music. Podcasts feel like the poor stepchild. As is often the case with an app designed to handle more than one function, some of the secondary functions might not be implemented well. It is especially troubling when Apple actually removes features, as it inexplicably did with the iPad version of the Music app when iOS5 was released in 2011. If you are like me, and you listen to a lot of podcasts — especially on more than one iOS device — you will probably find that the Music app leaves you wanting more. Fortunately, we can do a whole lot better than “serviceable” thanks to the availability of dedicated podcast manager apps.
What makes a dedicated podcast manager better than the built-in Music app? One word — features. Here is a list of the kinds of features a dedicated podcast manager includes that are not available in the Music app:
- automatically download the latest episodes (and in the background)
- automatically delete episodes when played to completion
- stream episodes without downloading
- more playback speed options
- skip back and skip ahead in more increments
- share podcasts (Twitter, Facebook, SMS, etc.)
- iCloud sync — podcast subscriptions, playlists, settings, episode info
- sync between devices
Many good podcast managers are available in the iOS App Store, including Downcast, Instacast, Pocket Casts, and Podcaster 5. And again, it almost goes without saying that there are also podcast managers available on Android.
$1.99 on the iOS App store; Universal – unique iPhone and iPad interfaces
Downcast is my current iOS podcast manager of choice. It includes all the features that a dedicated podcast manager should have. Since I listen to podcasts on both my iPhone and iPad, I really appreciate the iCloud syncing capabilities and the unique iPhone and iPad interfaces available in one universal app (all for one price). Another popular podcast manager — Instacast — also includes iCloud syncing between devices, but it has separate iPhone ($.99) and iPad apps ($4.99).
Downcast organizes subscribed podcasts under Unplayed and Played or Empty headings, so it is very easy to see which podcasts have available episodes. It also tells you if the episodes are unplayed or have been partially played.
Downcast: Subscribing to Podcasts
Searching for and subscribing to podcasts is very simple in Downcast. Podcasts can be added manually, you can search for them, or you can browse for popular podcasts by subject. To search for a podcast, simply enter the title. Once you have found a podcast, subscribing to it is very simple.
Podcasts can also be added manually by entering the feed URL. This is the method you can use to add podcasts from Podcasts@UCSF. In mobile Safari, simply locate your podcast at http://podcasts.ucsf.edu. On the podcast page, tap and hold on the “Podcast” image, then tap Copy. Launch Downcast, chose Add Podcast Manually. Notice that the Podcasts@UCSF feed URL is already there. Simply tap Subscribe to subscribe to the podcast.
Downcast: Playing Episodes
To play an episode, select it from the episode list. Many of Downcast’s features become apparent here. The skip options at the top allow you to skip forward and back. This is especially useful if an episode has advertisements that you would like to skip past. To change the playback speed options, tap the 1X icon to cycle through the options (or tap and hold to chose from a list).
iCloud syncing is one of my favorite Downcast features. Let’s say I was only able to get through half of the This American Life episode on my iPhone. Later, I can launch Downcast on my iPad, and I will be able to start where I left off in that episode. If I subscribe to a podcast on my iPad, when I next launch Downcast on my iPhone, I will find that it is now subscribed there also. Syncing between devices via iCloud is very cool indeed!!
Check out this recent Macworld review of iOS podcast managers: Finding the best iOS podcast manager in the App Store
Have you used any of these podcast managers? What do you think about these dedicated apps compared to the built-in Music app? And Android users — let us know what podcast managers you use.