Podcasts

Yesterday, Apple released a new app for iPhone and iPad called Podcasts. Several people whom I respect have heaped praise upon it and honestly I’m not sure why. I can see how this is a major improvement if you have been using iTunes to manage podcasts and syncing them from iTunes to your iDevice. But while this is a major improvement over that scenario, this is by no means a good app.

Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of the interface that I love. The player screen itself is really awesome.

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However, there are some problems.

Subscribing to Podcasts

It’s just a bit clunky and confusing for an Apple designed interface. I’ve seen worse, but it’s definitely clunky. That said, I was able to find a couple of the podcasts I listen to and subscribe to them.

Now one of the big features I was looking forward to:

  • Optionally sync your favorite episodes from iTunes on your Mac or PC

  • Sync your episode playback for seamless transition between devices

The wording here made me think this was all going to be happening over the air in the way that Instacast syncs over the air between iOS devices. So I waited for the podcasts I had subscribed to, to show up in iTunes. After a while I realized that wasn’t going to happen. So I told iTunes to sync my phone. Sure enough, the podcasts then showed up in iTunes. However, my playback position was not synced. What in the world? I tried everything to get playback position to sync between iTunes and iPhone. No dice. So far, Apple is having a hard time delivering on their promise here.

Well I was determined to give Apple the benefit of the doubt. I went ahead and subscribed to all my favorite podcasts in iTunes and synced them over to my iPhone.

Dichotomy

This is where I should stop and talk about the dichotomy that iTunes has always made between being subscribed to a podcast, and simply having some episodes of a podcast in your library. The dichotomy is so confusing it’s hard for me even to explain, but I’ll try. You see, if you put an episode of a podcast in your library, it will show up in the podcast area of iTunes as a podcast, but if you were not previously subscribed to that podcast, you still will not be after dropping that episode manually into iTunes. And telling whether you are or not is hard unless you are specifically looking for the signs. This means that you will not receive new episodes.

Well the same dichotomy is made when you sync podcasts that you subscribed to on the iPhone. Even though you subscribed to them there, and they synced to your iTunes library, you are not subscribed to them on your computer. This means episodes will not download in iTunes when they are available.

Okay, whatever, I can deal. It seems like a lot to ask from the average user, but I’m not an average user and I can deal.

But… this is where things get frustrating. After subscribing to several podcasts on my Mac and then syncing them over to my iPhone I made an interesting discovery. The same dichotomy is made on the iPhone that I just described for iTunes on the Mac. Those podcasts had all been synced over to the iPhone, but I was not subscribed to them on the iPhone.

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The fix is to go into each individual podcast’s settings and turn on the subscription button and enable automatic downloads. I’m subscribed to about 15 podcasts so this is quite frustrating. It’s about 6 taps per podcast.

This is perhaps the most frustrating user experience I have ever had the misfortune of seeing Apple design. They normally excel at user experience.

Playback Syncing

It’s pretty much nonexistent. I hear that it works between iOS devices so it appears that it simply does not sync playback position between OS X and iOS. This is downright silly and a major oversight on Apple’s part.

Even worse, played/unplayed status appears to only sync one way, from iTunes. This is far worse than what we previously had in this area. At least before played/unplayed, and playback position would sync between iTunes and iOS, even if only manually, via a standard iTunes sync. Now I can mark something as played, or listen all the way through, thereby marking it as played on iOS, and iTunes will not acknowledge that. Ever. Not over the air, not with a manual sync over Wi-Fi, or over sync cable.

Strange Interface Quirks

As much as I like some of the interface elements, there are some strange things going on. For instance, in tile mode you can’t access the “Unplayed” area that shows only episodes that have not been played. Sure you can switch to list view, but this seems like a major oversight. What’s more, when in tile view, which is a nice, and beautiful view, you cannot see which podcasts have new and unplayed episodes. Again, an amazing and egregious oversight. This makes tile view beautiful, and completely non-functional.

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(in this screen shot, Amplified has an unplayed episode, but I would never know in this view)

How do you refresh?

I will often see in my Twitter feed that a show that I love and am looking forward to listening to is available. When I see this, I usually immediately go to Instacast and refresh. Instacast pulls down the new episode. When this happened earlier today, I opened up the new Podcasts app and tried to find a way to refresh the feed. I couldn’t find a way to do it. Furthermore, the feed did not update on it’s own. I went over to Instacast, refreshed the feed, and sure enough, the new episode started downloading right away. Went back to the Podcasts app. Nothing. Another alarming oversight in the new app.

What I would be giving up

If I went with Apple’s “Podcasts” and switched away from Instacast I would essentially be gaining nothing. Because the reason I would have considered switching was if playback position would sync between iTunes and iOS. I spend as much time on my Mac, at my desk, as I do with my iPhone. Being able to seamlessly sync playback position between these two devices would be awesome. Since this doesn’t work as advertised, I get no features that Instacast does not now offer me.

But I would be losing several features that I love about Instacast.

Push Notifications. Instacast lets me know when new episodes are available via push, and the new app doesn’t have it.

Custom Subscriptions. Sometimes I want to subscribe to a podcast that is not in the iTunes directory, which requires me to copy and paste the feed URL. There is not a way that I could find to do this in the new app. Sure, you could wait until you were back at your computer and do it through iTunes. But this is another remarkable oversight.

UPDATE:
I received a tweet letting me know about a tip for subscribing to custom podcasts. I tested it and it does work, still clunky and unintuitive, but if you really want to use Podcasts to subscribe to a custom podcast URL, you can type or paste the URL into the search field of the library - not the catalog search - and you will be subscribed

Download Magagement. Instacast makes it amazingly simple to manage downloaded episodes. There’s a list called downloads. You go there to see what episodes are currently downloaded and you can delete them and whatnot. I could not find a way to do this in the new app. Sure, you can tell the app to auto delete older played episodes, but I actually couldn’t get this to work at all. The played episodes still stubbornly remain on the device.

Show Notes. Almost every podcast I listen to has show notes (usually a collection of links referenced throughout the show). And I often want to reference them during the show. Instacast displays them right in the app. I didn’t realize how often I used this feature. The new app does not have show notes/links.

Searching and Subscribing. I find Instacast to be far less clunky for this purpose, and it connects to the same podcast directory as the new app.

Still looking

I’m still looking for a better solution. If Instacast were available on the Mac with full syncing features that are available between iPad and iPhone Instacast, I think that would be what I need. As it is, I’m still looking. Podcasts is definitely not the app I was looking for.