Podcasts are always flowing through my headphones, and the list of excellent tech podcasts grows everyday. I relied on the native iOS music app to deliver my podcasts, but I found that the growing list was outgrowing the capabilities of the app. Sure, the native music app “supports” podcasts, but it does little to manage them. It’s frustrating to switch back and forth between the music app and iTunes to download more episodes, and streaming can only be done within iTunes. I needed a better podcast manager to tame the pile.
Downcast, by Jamawkinaw Enterprises is a highly customizable podcast manager that trumps the native music app’s feature set. There’s considerable competition in the podcast manager category, and today we’ll look at what features, if any, set this app apart from its competitors.
Unlike most of its competitors, Downcast keeps the player controls center stage at all times. These complex controls take up the top portion of the screen. The podcast list sits to the left, and the active podcast window sits to the right. The active window displays show notes and also provides a built-in browser for exploring show note links.
Unfortunately, this window is small and can’t be expanded to fullscreen, which makes exploring show notes less than exciting. Overall, Downcast attempts to cram as much information onto the page as possible. This may suit the tastes of some, but many will find the interface to be cluttered and confusing.
Buttons run rampant in Downcast, occasionally resulting in redundancy. The podcast window displays the basic show information, but this same information also shows up in the show information popover. This popover contains a settings option that is the same as the podcast settings option in the bottom right of the screen. The developer could eliminate this popover completely without sacrifice of any the show data.
Downcast supports OPML files, so it’s easy to import a podcast list into the app. Export the OPML file from an existing podcast application and open it with Downcast. This will automatically import the podcast list and download the most recent episode.
Downloads in progress are displayed in the download manager.
Discovering and adding new podcasts is a snap; simply tap the plus button. The add feature makes it possible to search for specific podcasts, add podcasts with an OPML address, or choose from a list of the most popular podcasts, sorted by category. It would be nice to see discovery via the music app, but it’s still easy to search for podcasts without this feature.
Downcast also supports podcasts that require logins. Fill in your login credentials in the podcast settings popover.
Downcast separates podcast episodes into current and available episodes. New episodes are added to the current list and will download automatically, depending on the user’s settings. The icons next to the show description indicate whether the episode is video or audio and downloaded or streamed. Tapping on an episode begins playback, while tapping on the episode info button brings up show notes.
One of the most requested features missing from the leading competitor, Instacast, is playlist support. Downcast not only supports playlists but makes them a prominent feature within the app. Users can toggle between podcasts and playlists with a single tap. There are detailed settings for limiting podcast inclusion by everything from media type to download status.
Playlists will certainly appeal to users who manage dozens of podcasts, but they may be overkill for casual users who simply want a list of unplayed podcasts.
Downcast is about complete control, and the app will find favor among power users who wish to control individual podcast or playlist behaviors and settings. The app has global settings that apply to all podcasts, but the user can tweak individual podcast settings as well. Here are a few notable podcast settings:
- Podcast Name
- New Episode Actions
- Episodes to Keep
- Playback Speed
- Episode Sort
- Playlist Membership and Priority
It’s possible to replace podcast artwork with a photo from the camera roll by long pressing the artwork in the podcast info window.
Downcast supports several gestures that control podcast playback as well as read/unread toggle. These gestures function within the player controls window, or in the gesture area summoned by tapping the gesture button. It’s much easier to tap one of the controls in the ever-present player menu than mess with a gesture window at all. Gestures would be a wonderful addition if the developers would hide the player controls. This would provide much more space for show notes and de-clutter the app. The most useful gestures are mark as played/unplayed, but these gestures are difficult to carry out without the gesture window.
Syncing and Streaming
Downcast’s iCloud integration is top notch. The app has individual sync settings for episodes, podcasts, playlists, and settings. Episode positions are saved at all times, even if the downloaded episode is converted to streaming to save space on the device. This makes it easy to switch from iPad to iPhone without missing out on a second of podcast pleasure. The app has a media backup setting that includes the media files when backing up to iTunes or iCloud, but most probably won’t want to take up valuable iCloud space with podcast media files.
It may not be the sleekest podcast manager, but Downcast’s AirPlay streaming capabilities make up for a lack of polish. Downcast allows the user to continue to broadcast the complete video podcast while browsing show notes or other podcasts. Instacast, on the other hand, converts the video stream into an audio stream if the user attempts to exit the video player window, making it impossible to stream a video while browsing show notes within the app. With Downcast it’s possible to convert a video podcast to audio only, but it doesn’t force the user to do so. AirPlay streaming feels much more robust in Downcast than in Instacast, so any user looking for solid streaming and background video playback will most certainly want to choose Downcast.
Downcast is very stable, but several annoyances pop up within the app. The app doesn’t like sending show notes or links to Instapaper, at least in my tests. The title shows up, but the content is missing. Dismissing the keyboard while naming a playlist will reset the name of the playlist if the user scrolls through the playlist options. This is unfortunate, because it’s cumbersome to create a playlist in the tiny popover that’s restricted by the keyboard.
I’m certain that Downcast will leave minimalists screaming and those wishing to read show notes slightly disappointed. For simplicity and a better browsing experience one should look no further than Instacast, and Instacast is where I plan to stay for now.
Despite the complicated layout, there are several reasons why Downcast may be the podcast player for you. The playback customization is deep and complete, as are the organization options. AirPlay support in is excellent, iCloud sync functions well, and the overall play experience is solid. At $1.99 for the universal app, Downcast wraps its deep customization features in a price tag that makes it hard to resist.
A fresh coat of paint and a few design refinements would make it irresistible, but for now Downcast is a solid app for anyone looking for tight control over their podcast collection.