Why Downcast

At some point in the 53 hours of podcasts Merlin Mann was on over the past week or so, he mentioned Downcast, the iOS podcast player/manager, and likened it to Emacs—powerful, but probably not appropriate for most people because of all its options. It’d be a shame if people pass up Downcast because of Merlin’s comment. Of the four podcast players I’ve tried out, Downcast was by far the simplest and easiest to use.

The dedicated podcast player is a phenomenon of iOS 5 and iCloud syncing. It’s not that there weren’t such apps before—I’ve been hearing Stitcher ads on podcasts for years—but the category exploded when we no longer had to connect our iOS devices to a computer and sync via iTunes. For many of us, podcast episodes were the only part of our iOS audio lineup that changed regularly; they were the last link with iTunes. Podcast players came in to break that last link. They allow you to download and play new episodes without being anywhere near the computer you sync with.

I confess I had a warm spot in my heart for Downcast even before I tried it. For several years, Laurie Taylor, host of Thinking Allowed, has been telling listeners they can “downcast our podload,” a bit of wordplay I never tire of. But I’ve given three others a fair hearing and genuinely believe Downcast is the best.

Instacast

For a while, Instacast seemed to be everyone’s favorite, and many people still swear by it. I used it for a while but never liked it. I was continually baffled by its response to swiping, which was inconsistent. Swiping (in either direction) on a podcast would bring up the Unsubscribe button, as expected,

Instacast unsubscribing

but swiping on an individual episode wouldn’t bring up a Delete button. Instead, it toggled either the played/unplayed status if you swiped one way or the starred/unstarred status if you swiped the other. This was not only inconsistent, but maddening. If I accidentally swiped on an episode, my instinctive response was to swipe in the other direction to undo. Not only would that not undo my accidental action, it would cause another action, leaving me with two things to undo.

Another thing I didn’t like about Instacast was that tapping on an episode in the episode list wouldn’t take you to the playing screen, but to an intermediate screen that described the episode and included a Play or Stream button in the upper right.

Instacast intermediate screen

It’s only after tapping that button that you start playing. I suppose there’s some logic to showing you what the episode is about before playing it, but in practice I always just want to start listening.

Finally, there’s the playing screen, which has no volume control and puts the position control where the Music app has the volume slider. Yes, I’ve fast-forwarded when all I wanted to do was make it a bit louder.

Instacast playing screen

Instacast allows you to set bookmarks within a podcast, which is probably a nice feature, but I never used it. It can also export your subscriptions, either directly to another podcast app or as an OPML file. You can import an OPML file generated elsewhere (via iTunes on your computer, say) by emailing it to yourself and telling Mail to open the attachment in Instacast.

Update 6/29/12
Unsurprisingly, Instacast fans in the comments have pointed out some features that I missed. In particular, if you tap and hold on an episode, a menu comes up that allows you to start playing the episode without going to the intermediate screen first. That’s still more actions to start playing than it ought to be, but it’s not quite as slow as I thought.

iCatcher!

After dumping Instacast, I used iCatcher! for a few weeks. It’s main screen is a little cluttered but easily navigable.

iCatcher main screen

The same can be said for the podcast screen

iCatcher podcast screen

and the playing screen.

iCatcher player screen

Note that iCatcher (I’m dumping the ! for the duration) has both volume and position sliders in their standard places.

iCatcher has more options than I care to discuss, but its defaults make sense; I could use it immediately without feeling the need to dig into the settings to fix things. Swiping on an episode brings up a set of four buttons, including the expected Delete.1

iCatcher episode swipe

In addition to using the 30-second jump buttons on the playing screen, you can also swipe left or right to jump back or forward a user-settable amount of time. I like having the left swipe jump back 10 seconds so I can relisten to something I didn’t catch the first time.

iCatcher exports OPML files and can import an OPML email attachment the same way Instacast does. As best I can tell, it doesn’t have a bookmarking feature.

I liked iCatcher much more than Instacast and would probably still be using it if I hadn’t tried Downcast.

Podcasts

Apple’s podcast-playing app is an abomination of which we really shouldn’t speak. I didn’t even like the idea of reinstalling it on my iPhone to get screenshots.

Let’s start with the controls on the player screen.

Podcasts player screen

Where’s the position slider? I’m not sure how I discovered this, but to find it, you have to swipe up to “raise” the artwork up out of the way. Does this make the app easier to use? No, it just adds a level of complexity and user frustration with no payoff.

“Behind” the artwork are other controls (including the position slider) and a tape deck animation. The reels of the tape deck rotate during playback.

Podcasts player underscreen

Let’s put aside the question of whether a tape deck is an appropriate analogy for podcast playback—even if it is inspired by Dieter Rams—and focus on the controls themselves. The position slider is fairly smooth when you’re making fine adjustments but terribly jumpy when you’re making a big move. And the thin red line doesn’t feel right as a control. At first, the rotating speed control seemed impossible to use; I could almost never grab and turn it. Then I learned through experimentation that sliding my finger through an arc—which is what the design of the control suggests—is unnecessary and counterproductive. Just sliding left and right moves the control perfectly.2

As I’ve said before, I’m not against skeuomorphism on principle, but when the digital control doesn’t work like the physical control it’s aping, the design should be scrapped.

Navigation among the various screens is a little weird, even after you recognize that Catalog means “Apple’s list of available podcasts” and Library means “What’s on your device.” The search and discovery features for subscribing to new podcasts seem fine, but there’s no obvious way to enter a podcast’s feed URL directly. Fortunately, Don McAlister found a way:

Ah! You can subscribe to a non listed podcast by pasting the URL into the search field in your podcast list. Doesn’t support protected feeds
  — Don McAllister (@donmcallister) Tue Jun 26 2012

Be careful here. Don is talking about the search field at the top of the podcast list in the Library, not the search field in the Catalog.

Entering a podcast URL

Basic functionality like this shouldn’t be treated like an Easter egg. I’d love to hear how Don found this out.

Finally, what I dislike the most about Podcasts is the inability to delete old, undownloaded episodes from a podcast’s episode list. As in iTunes on your computer, when you first subscribe to a podcast, the name and other metadata of every episode gets downloaded to your device and displayed in the podcast’s episode list.

Podcast episode list

This happens in Instacast and iCatcher, too, but the difference is that those apps let you delete the undownloaded episodes from the list. Podcasts apparently doesn’t. I’ve tried every gesture and setting I could think of and I’ve asked on Twitter—it seems like these episodes you don’t want are there forever. I’ll bet these episodes don’t even show up if you transfer your subscription list to Podcasts by syncing with iTunes, but since the whole point of the app is to avoid syncing with iTunes, there ought to be a way to delete them directly. Maybe if I’d played with Podcasts longer I would’ve discovered the secret, but I just couldn’t.

What makes this app so disappointing is not its lack of features—Apple’s applications, especially in their first iteration, often are light on features. But the features they have usually work well. Not so with Podcasts.

And the poor quality of the Podcasts app is even more disappointing when you consider Apple’s history in this area. When Apple added podcast subscriptions to iTunes in 2005 it blew every other podcasting program out of the water and mainstreamed the very idea of podcasting. Although Apple didn’t include every last bell and whistle in its iTunes offering, it included enough essentials and customizations to get new users going and to entice almost all the old hands away from the applications they had been using. It was an almost perfect blend of features and ease of use. The Podcasts app is a stain on Apple’s “design is how it works” ethic.

Downcast

Downcast is what Podcasts should have been. It’s interface is simple and obvious, its defaults are well-chosen, and it offers the kinds of customizations you see in iTunes.

The first thing I liked about Downcast was how it handled episode lists of new subscriptions. By default, it downloads the most recent episode (which is what the others do, too) and hides the list of older episodes.

Downcast podcast screen

This is exactly right. Show what’s most likely to be of interest, and make the rest available through obvious means.

Adding new subscriptions is just as clear. When you’re looking at your list of podcasts, which puts them in alphabetical order after separating them into played and unplayed, the toolbar at the bottom has a nice Add Podcasts button.

Downcast main screen

Tapping it takes to you a screen with a set of buttons. There’s not a lot of pizzazz here, but there’s no question what each button does.

Downcast adding podcasts

The player screen has no surprises, either. Everything you want where you expect it to be.

Downcast player screen

In addition to the jumps available through the buttons at the top of the screen, you can also set up gestures to have swipes jump forward and backward. My left-to-right swipe jump 30 seconds ahead, and my right-to-left swipe jumps 10 seconds backward.

I guess the complexity Merlin was talking about has to do with the settings for when to delete podcasts, how many to keep, and so on. There’s a general setting for these options, to which you can make per-podcast adjustments. I don’t see this as especially geeky because these are, as I said above, the same sorts of options you have in iTunes. There are lots of adjectives that could be applied to iTunes, but “geeky” isn’t one of them.

Like Instacast and iCatcher, Downcast imports and exports OPML files. It doesn’t have Instacast’s bookmarking, which is fine with me.

Summary

Apple’s Podcasts app is abysmal. I can’t imagine anyone liking it.

Instacast might be OK for you if you don’t get annoyed by the things that annoy me.

iCatcher is quite usable, but its user interface is a bit cluttered and frantic.

Downcast is what Podcasts should have been. It doesn’t have the whizbang UI that a developer like Tapbots would give it, but everything is straightforward and operates smoothly.


  1. The animation as the buttons appear is a sort of flip-around like when you tap the “i” button in the Weather app, but it’s disconcertingly fast. I don’t understand why iCatcher’s programmers didn’t just match the animation speed of Weather. 

  2. Or better yet, don’t even bother. There are only three speeds, and the differences between them are so great you’ll never want to listen at anything other than the center, normal position. 


27 Responses to “Why Downcast”

  1. Clark says:

    I have Instacast but I’m continually baffled by when a podcast actually downloads. How do I tell it to download now? It’s just not that intuitive.

    Honestly I don’t mind the iTunes way. Plus it has the benefit of actually syncing what I listen to on iTunes with what I listen to on my phone or iPad.

  2. Nick says:

    @clark baffled me too, now use Downcast and have it set to only download over wifi, the app checks over cellular and tells you there’s a new episode, and starts downloading when you get in wifi range.

  3. Jason Berberich says:

    Great post.

    I’ll admit that I haven’t tried Downcast yet, but I’ve been an Instacast user for about a year and a half. Instacast Pro 2.1 is pretty much my ideal podcast client, though it still has a few things that bug me. The biggest by far is the swipe inconsistency that you mentioned. I think I’ve starred one podcast, ever.

    However, since Instacast 2, you can long-press on a podcast episode to bring up a menu with the following actions:

    • Play/Continue playing (thus avoiding that intermediate screen)
    • Mark as played
    • Mark as favorite
    • Delete Download
    • Delete Episode

    This satisfies my desire to take quick action on an individual episode.

    The yet to be released version 2.2 of Instacast will have a few more features that I’m looking forward to, including automatically deleting the download when an episode is marked as played, and the ability to “park” subscriptions.

  4. Jason Berberich says:

    @nick and @clark: Yes, that is confusing. In the Pro version, you can use the per-subscription settings to tell it to download new episodes automatically:

    Subscription Settings (long-press the subscription) > Download > toggle Audio (and/or video) to On.

    The next time it refreshes and finds a new episode, it will start downloading right away.

  5. Marco Arment says:

    Great post. And I take full credit for getting Merlin to try Downcast.

    I found the same issues with Instacast: the intermediate screen between the list and playback, in particular, drove me nuts.

    You may also want to look at Pocket Casts since it offers some unique features (server-side feed parsing and new-episode push notifications are big ones). I didn’t care for its style, but its features are quite good.

    Downcast is definitely my podcast client of choice. It could use a few design touch-ups, but overall, it’s solid.

  6. Michael Batz says:

    Hear hear! I finally bought Instacast just before 2.0, then went ahead and paid for the “controversial” upgrade. I didn’t mind, but I soon realized that once the joy of cutting the iTunes cord wore off, a lot of UI stuff drove me nuts: the inconsistent swiping, the extra taps, the need to pull up to get volume, the bookmark stuff I never understood.

    What finally sold me on Downcast, and why I love it now, is the straightforward and powerful approach to global vs. podcast-specific settings for if/when to download and delete. With Instacast, you have similar (though less comprehensive) control, but no “obey global” switch. So if you want to go from generally keeping 3 episodes to 1 episode due to space (not a hypothetical), you have to go through each podcast one by one. Trust me, do that for 20+ podcasts once and you’ll never want to use Instacast again.

  7. Gilbert Irias says:

    Your review is spot on. A Downcast feature that I’m thankful for is the ability to listen to video podcasts outside of the app or with the screen turned off. (I’m fairly certain that I didn’t have this capability when I used InstaCast.)

  8. Gabriel Pinto says:

    You didn’t even mention the fact that Downcast is the only app that has Playlists— a feature that many users can simply no longer live without! Even with the release of a built-in Podcast app, it’s clear that Downcast will continue to battle on with loyal customers like us- there are plenty of other examples in the industry, Instapaper anyone?

  9. Conlan says:

    For what it’s worth, in Instacast you can begin playing a podcast episode with one tap by tapping the “album artwork” in the episodes list (I think that’s what the white “play” icon overlay means).

  10. Alan says:

    @Gabriel Instacast 2 has playlists too, for what it’s worth.

    I think Instacast’s biggest problem is that so many of its most powerful features are hard to discover.

  11. Ceri Morgan says:

    I’ve been using the iPod app for podcasts forever. I tried Instacast about a year ago, and the new Podcasts app this week, but didn’t really like either of them.

    My biggest dislike with other apps is that they don’t seem to reliably start playing when I double tap the home button on the lock screen and hit play (or plug in headphones and click the mic button. This is how I initiate the playing of podcasts 95% of the time and I found that it would work sometimes, but frequently the iPod app would start playing instead.

    I’m guessing this is an iOS problem rather than an Instacast or Podcast app problem, but have you seen this with Downcast?

  12. Arek says:

    I loved Downcast ‘till my library got rather big. Around 100+ episodes, the app became so unresponsive I had to stop using it. Tapping on an episode and waiting 10-20 seconds before it opens is unacceptable.

    Preparing.. Preparing.. Preparing..

    Right now I’m checking few different apps but none (so far) comes close to features Downcast offers.

  13. Tobias says:

    Did anybody find a way to get from Apple Podcasts to the notes for a particular episode, or even the homepage of the feed?

    Unfortunately Downcast is unusably slow on my original iPad. The playback controls are also very cramped, usually takes five attempts to enable AirPlay.

  14. Guthrie says:

    It would really bother me if by accessing the lock screen controls my iPhone played iTunes instead of the current podcast. I’ve never had that happen with Downcast.

    Why is Instacast so wildly popular with Apple oriented bloggers and podcasters? At first I thought it was an anomaly but the praise just kept mounting when I read my newsfeeds. I’ve found it unstable and for lack of a perfect term, “flabby” in it’s design.

  15. Janne says:

    For streaming-only solutions, how about TuneIn Radio? I use it for online radio-stations, but it also supports podcasts. Since its manly geared for radio, it doesnt support (as far as I can see) downloading episodes. But the pro version does support recording live radio.

  16. Dan Wearsch says:

    I was halfway through writing my own post about how disappointing Podcasts is when I read this. I agree with you completely. Downcast isn’t perfect, but it gets it most right out of all those I’ve tried. I’m really baffled that Apple didn’t include iCloud sync in their own app—it’s my favorite part of Downcast.

  17. Jerry Goldbaum says:

    I have used all the podcast apps mentioned above (including a few not worth mentioning). My choice is Instacast for the cleanest UI and implementation I find the swiping to mark a podcast as “listened” a great time saver. Plus, the auto downloading of episodes is a big plus over PocketCasts which I enjoyed using but found it very unstable over time. I also think the podcast refresh is extremely quicker than most of the other apps. My main complaint about Downcast was its overall look, the playback screen is extremely busy and marking an episode as played was a bit of a pain (this might have been corrected in an update).

    As for Apple’s Podcast app, that is a bloody mess. Within an hour of using it, I found several bugs and things that just make it overall unusable. Duplicate downloads, “blank podcasts in the playlist”, podcast album art, older episodes downloading even when you mark “All as played”, and NO d/l of episodes > 50mb on 3g were some of the killer things. Also, I found that some of the UI design choices to be suspect like small touch points on the podcast list for downloading and episode information. Finally, I thought the omission of iCloud sync of episodes and subscriptions to other iDevices a major omission.

    Sticking with Instacast (for now).

  18. Floris says:

    Since the day I heard about Downcast I’ve been using it daily. The iPad version is amazing, and beats the competition easily. In my personal opinion. Their support over Twitter is equally impressive. They update, innovate, and develop frequently. Something I really like. Great article. Completely support it. If not only for the Merlin mention. :)

  19. Marco says:

    Re: Instacast episode playing: just tap the episode artwork/icon and it starts playing right away.

    I’m going back and forth between Instacast and Downcast. I like tha latter for its simplicity, the former for its nice auto download and local push notification. Podcasts is a big pile of dung, it takes down my iPhone 4S and seems to randomly download old episodes..

  20. Chris Gonzales says:

    I already mentioned this to you on Twitter, but you don’t have to deal with the intermediary episode screen, NOR do you have to “tap and hold” an episode. While you’re looking at the list of episodes, did you notice that the artwork next to each item has a play button? Just tap that artwork button and the episode plays right away.

    This isn’t an “easter egg” and in fact is quite easy to see. I figured it out the first time I used the app.

  21. jhn says:

    I just switched to Podcasts from Instacast. I like it better than Instacast—I haven’t missed any features from Instacast that I actually use, and Instacast is always pretty buggy—and I like the idea of sticking with first-party solutions, even when they’re less fully featured.

    “Protected” podcasts might not be supported but paid ones are—many Economist podcasts are subscriber-only and they work fine

  22. Jerry Goldbaum says:

    Instacast buggy? I have been using Instacast as my primary podcasting app for months now and I rarely (if ever) have a problem with it. As for the Apple podcasting app, I found several bugs just using it for a couple of hours.

  23. Richard Barg says:

    There’s a lot of things not to like about the new Apple Podcasts app, but one thing it does better than any of the other apps is that it is lightening fast in serving up new podcasts. Of the non-Apple podcast apps, I agree that Downcast is the best one. However, I often have to wait for mintues before the latest episode of a Podcast I like is available. With the Apple “Podcasts” app, the new apps are there instantaneously. Despite the wierd nomenclature, seaching and subscribing to podcasts on the Podcasts app is also incrediby easy and fast, much faster than Downcast. Obviously the Podcasts app is simpler to use because its more Spartan, but I also like the large buttons. Moving 30 seconds forward in Downcast is sometimes not an easy task due to location of the buttons. What I don’t like about Podcasts:

    -The reel to reel tape drive is annoying to look at and distracting. I’d like to be able to turn it off. Even when you pull down the album art, you can still see it turning. -How the company that invented iCloud can’t seamlessly sync Podcasts between IOS devices and maintain the place last listened to is beyond me. Shades of MobileMe. -A general lack of options -Bugs - in videos, the play/ff buttons stay on the screen even when the screen is clicked on

    Nonetheless, for its core functions, serving up podcasts quickly and instantaneously and for its lightening fast searches, this program has supplanted the snail like Downcast. No more waiting for Podcasts to refresh.

  24. Andre says:

    I just discovered Downcast last week after Merlin’s comment on MPU. I didn’t see it mentioned here, but my favorite feature of Downcast is its display of show note links right in the Now Playing screen. When the host mentions putting a link in the show notes, you don’t have to remind yourself to look the notes up later. You can click on the link as soon as it’s mentioned.

  25. Darren says:

    @Chris Gonzales -

    The feature you are talking about only shows up in the ‘Playlist’ view, and not in the ‘Subscriptions’ view. If you use the subscriptions view exclusively, you won’t ever see the artwork/play button.

    I have bought and used (and re-used, and switched back and forth etc) Instacast, Downcast, PocketCasts, Podcaster, RSS Radio, and Podcasts. After recently trying Instacast again for a few weeks I’m back to Downcast for many of the reasons mentioned here plus one other big one: Downcast always remembers what’s ‘Now Playing’ so no matter what I do between listening to ‘casts I can come right back to where I was, whereas Instacast forgets this far too easily…

  26. QuarterSwede says:

    @Darren, that’s a bug in the Instacast 2.0 rewrite. It always remembered in v1.

    I personally like Instacast better than the rest, including DownCast. Every time I hear a feature somebody mentions that Downcast has over Instacast they’re wrong (ex. Instacast has a slew of global settings in Settings (gear icon) > General). I will admit that the 2.0 rewrite is odd but it greatly helps if you’ve used Instacast version 1.

    Oh, and to the writer of the article. The volume slider is under the player in the same spot. Just slide up like you would the camera from the lock screen.

  27. Dr. Drang says:

    The volume slider is under the player in the same spot.

    I rest my case.