Apple’s Podcasts App Delivers a Solid Listening Experience

When I’ve got a car trip or other prolonged activity coming up, I always make sure the latest episodes of The Pen Addict and MacBreak Weekly, my two favorite podcasts, are downloaded and ready for listening. I’ll even do some exploring on occasion in a desperate attempt to find something different than music to listen to (I overplay my whole library and listen to music in general far too often). With iOS 5 and prior, all of this used to be easy, but now things have changed.

In iOS 6, Apple decided it was time to remove the podcasts function of the Music app and replace it with a standalone app, available for free in the App Store. Properly titled Podcasts, this app released in June of this year, but has been under much criticism for its half-baked design, lag and lack of functionality. Since then, there have been three updates to the app, the last of which arriving the day of iOS 6’s release. All the same, is this app even worth the trouble Apple has gone to thus far?

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Listening is Stable, Playlists are Absent

The first thing most people are going to do with this app is listen to their collection of podcasts. If the files are already on the device from a previous version of iOS, all of them will appear in the main library screen. You can tap the artwork of one to find an episode that you’d like to listen to, then start playing it.

I know, the artwork is terribly fuzzy.

I know, the artwork is terribly fuzzy.

The listening screen is a beautiful composition of skeumorphism. Every bit of it, down to the screws, makes this the most unique podcasts app I’ve ever seen. If you tap the artwork, a beautiful tape deck will appear. The reels even turn, transferring the tape from one side to another as you’re listening. That, surprisingly, doesn’t slow down the app. You’d expect it to add some lag, but there’s no change in performance.

Other fun things in the listening screen include sharing options, a sleep timer, scrubbing slider, playback speed changer, a button to rewind ten seconds and a button to fast-forward thirty seconds. Those last two buttons are even available on the lock screen and when you double tap the home button and swipe left. That’s right: there’s no way to skip to the next episode when you’re outside the app, which is unfortunate.

Another viewing option.

Another viewing option.

Now where are those playlists? Gone. They were in the Music app, and still are for the audio content available there, but it seems that Apple didn’t see the value in them for listeners of podcasts. Shame too, because that’s one of the main complaints on the App Store nowadays. It looks like you’ll actually have to tap a few times to play what you want. I know, that’s a big surprise. Playlists are more valuable for iPhone users who are on a run or driving competitively.

Top Stations Let You Listen Without Downloading

Again, not some of the more beautiful artwork alongside the UI.

Again, not some of the more beautiful artwork alongside the UI.

My most favorite of Podcasts’ features is its Top Stations tab. There’s a lot of fun stuff to be found behind that sound icon door. Top Stations is Apple’s way of helping you discover new podcasts. Obviously they’re not tailored to just you though; as the name implies, every popular podcast from every category is in here. Browsing them can be more fun than going to the store, too. You can drag your finger left and right at the top to scroll through the items quickly, or just go through them one by one swiping left to right over the artwork. Once you’ve found something to your liking, tap it to start listening.

Browsing the Catalog

Mercifully, Apple has brought along its redesigned content stores with iOS 6, so that means the user interface isn’t nearly as bad as it was a few months ago. Before now, everything in Podcasts looked great, but downloading new episodes and shows would annoy users because the design changed drastically in the app’s integrated store. iOS 6’s new designs balance things nicely and you will no longer be surprised to see something so different when searching for something new to add to your collection.

Its design is not unlike other iOS 6 content stores.

Its design is not unlike other iOS 6 content stores.

There are four basic tabs in the iTunes podcasts store: Featured, Audio, Video and Charts. When you open the store up by tapping Catalog in the bottom left corner, you’ll be granted access to all these things and more. Finally, the user interface is dark just like the app itself, so no clashing occurs. On the Featured screen, there’s also a nice cover flow of the most interesting podcasts, along with whatever else is trending below. Everything else in the store is as you’d expect with no significant changes.

iCloud Sync Could Be Better

Apple wants you to keep all your podcast subscriptions up-to-date using its cloud system, iCloud. Unfortunately, that’s all it does. You can sync your subscriptions and such, but there’s no playback sync. I’ve been wanting this for months now and Apple still doesn’t understand how important it can be to the end user. iCloud could be used to sync playback of your favorite podcast, film or TV show on all your devices, including your computer. So far, there’s no advance on this front.

The Problems That Don’t Exist

Many users have taken to the App Store to slate Apple’s Podcasts app for its lack of multitasking, stopping every ten to twenty seconds, being hard to seek, etc., all of which I have not experienced. To say that I haven’t tried to find these features would be completely incorrect. I’ve searched extensively, testing every practical environment that one would use this app in, and have not found one of these issues to ring true. Now that could be related to the device as I’ve used a new iPad and iPhone 4S for my testing, but I still see no reason why playback should stop in an iPhone 4 or even 3GS.

Apple's standards should be higher.

Apple’s standards should be higher.

While I’m on the topic of issues, however, I’d like to mention one thing I have noticed about Podcasts that’s not mentioned in any user reviews. Most people just listen to a podcast and pay no mind to the artwork, but I think it’s there for a reason. In this app, all the artwork looks terrible on a Retina display, specifically that of a new iPad. There are some podcasts that have higher resolution images than others, but most of the time it’s all rubbish. Pixelation is all around, along with distortion, which comes with JPEG compression.

It's a quality tape deck, but it's unnecessary.

It’s a quality tape deck, but it’s unnecessary.

This isn’t a problem with the app itself, but rather with Apple’s system. Podcasters are not required to submit a certain size of image, so they just upload whatever they happen to have. Sadly, nothing they have is good enough, it seems. Apple needs to start requiring higher resolution images for all artwork, not just podcasts. This has been a problem ever since the release of the new iPad earlier this year and sadly, Apple has still done nothing about it.

Other than that, general performance has been fine. Rotating the device causes no lag anywhere in the app and even the spinning wheels don’t slow things down. Many on the App Store mentioned performance issues, but I was unable to find anything of the sort, even in version 1.1 of the app. (Version 1.1.1 released while I was in the middle of writing this review.)

Separating Podcasts From Music was Unwise, But This App is Solid

I don’t understand why Apple thought it was best to remove the podcasts function from the Music app in iOS 6. People never complained about it and a standalone app was not something users asked for, so why break up the happy couple? Worst of all, Podcasts is an optional download, meaning that setting off on your road trip without first installing it would be a mistake. Apple didn’t simplify anything by forcing listeners to resort to an optional app.

As for Podcasts itself, there’s nothing wrong with it and I’ve found the experience to be superb. The only complaint I could think of was iCloud sync for playback since I don’t use playlists all that often. Other than that, I see no reason why people should denounce this app as they have. It may have had problems in the initial release — and quite a few at that — but right now there’s nothing better for the job. If users take issue with the current release, I’m sure Apple will be sure to fix whatever bugs exist. It’s a growing product, just like Maps.

How do you like Podcasts? Is it worthy of replacing the function within Music or do you disapprove?


Summary

With the exception of playlists missing from the recipe and iCloud sync lacking a pinch of playback, Podcasts is a tasty way to listen to or watch your favorite show, whether it be using your iPad or iPhone.

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