I am an avid podcast listener, using podcasts as the main source of entertainment on my commute, when I go to gym, go shopping, cook at home, et cetera. In the past, I have used a long line of iPod nano devices to serve my listening needs (see my review of the 7th and final generation iPod Nano), downloading podcasts to a Windows PC and then syncing them over to the device. This worked well enough, and I kind of liked separating out the battery used for listening from the battery my phone used for calls and data traffic. But nothing lasts, and now that Apple killed off the iPods I had to find a replacement solution before my last iPod broke.
I did run out and panic-buy an iPod Nano before the stores ran out of them, but that last iPod I will ever buy is still unopened in its box… and it will likely stay that way. Instead of finding a new separate device, I gave up and joined the majority that puts everything into the phone.
The question was just which program to use to listen to podcasts on the phone. I had expected Google to provide something for Android by default, but that does not seem to be the case. Some sources online apparently seem to claim that Google has it, but they are nowhere to be found in the app on my phone. I guess this is another case of random geographical restriction of features that make no sense (like the fact that even 18 months after I bought a car that supported Android Auto, it is still not available in Sweden…).
So, the hunt was on. And I am happy to have found a really nice specialized app to do the work: Pocket Casts. Once I started using it, I realized just how feature-poor the player on the iPod was. Plus, getting podcasts delivered directly to the device with no sync-with-PC step needed is really great. I get new episodes faster this way compared to how things worked before, and I also get notified as soon as a new episode is available. In particular, I have noticed that I now get Security Now downloaded before the links to the show notes pages are up – but the links from Steve Gibsons twitter account thankfully arrive before the podcast.
I really like the interface of the application and the many smart details that show that the creators are really trying to build an excellent tool to help people listen effectively to podcasts. There are lots of shortcuts and making the same feature available in many ways, that really show a dedication to thinking through workflows with no attempt at “minimalism” in terms of interaction. It is still easy to get started with the application, and it grows on you over time. Excellent.
The price for the application is totally reasonable at less than 10 USD, and I do not mind paying the developers at all. Tremendous value of money!
The main player interface when controlling playback has three screens. The default screen shows the current podcast, position, and offers the option to jump back or forth a short amount. Unlike my iPod, the skip forward or back is configurable, and I decided to increase the back jump from the default of 10s to 20s as that fits my habits better.
Swiping left you get access to the show description for the currently playing episode, and in case it contains links to webpages they can be clicked on to open them in Chrome. Very convenient, and better than what iTunes offers on the desktop. Swiping right you get to the Up Next list. This is the queue of episodes you have setup, and it can be rearranged by dragging episodes up and down. If you double-tap on a podcast, it jumps to the top and starts playing – a nice little shortcut for the case that you want a quick change of topic.
Playback control is also available by pulling down from the top of the screen, as well as from the lock screen. The pull-down controls also work inside the app itself, making it a simple way to control playback as I am going through my downloaded and available podcasts.
The playback speed for a podcast can be varies to compensate for slow or fast speakers. The speeds available are freely selectable, unlike the iPod settings of 0.5x, 1.0x, and 2.0x. Here, I get a slider, plus the option to set the same speed for all podcasts or just the current one – and it does remember it across episodes.
The app syncs the set of downloaded episodes and subscribed podcasts across devices and the Pocket Casts web player. When I tried to sync between two Android devices it did not quite work, but that might just have been a glitch. I did buy the web version as well in order to test it. The web player shows the same set of episodes as my phone, and thus it seems that sync is working.
Discoverability – The Weakest Part
The one thing that does not work very well on Pocket Casts is the “Discover” part of the app that you use to find new podcasts to listen to. It is usually not a problem finding the podcasts I want by searching for them by name, once I have heard about podcast using some other channel (in particular, hearing one podcast mentioning another podcasts works well for me).
However, the “Discover” function itself just does not help much with discovering new podcasts. For example, the “Networks” page is very minimal – especially compared to iTunes. Pocket Casts list the standard well-known US networks, plus the BBC and the Guardian… but it is totally missing every single public radio network in Europe outside of the UK.
Nothing from Germany or the Nordic countries are listed as “Networks”, even when podcats from Sveriges Radio are readily available by searching for their names. The categories do not reach into languages, making it impossible to search for things by that criterion. I am not sure how the aggregation works for Pocket Casts. Potentially there could be a need for behind-the-scenes manual work to create “networks”… but it should not be all that hard.
For example, in the web interface snapshot shown below, why can’t I click on “Sveriges Radio” and see all other podcasts from the same source?
A related issue is that you can’t review or rate podcasts in the app, which might make it harder for me to help other people find the podcasts that I like. But given how rarely I actually do that, I do not think it matters all that much.