Form. Function. Aesthetics. Developer loyalties. Your budget. All of these considerations and more complicate the task of choosing, using, and ideally loving today's crop of iOS podcast players. Apple's Podcasts app, Overcast, Castro, and Pocket Casts — each of them recently updated (yes, we're counting iOS 10 Beta's Podcast app as an update) — all of them quality applications, and all are perfectly suitable for managing your podcasts, and yet each seems to be distinctly tailored (based on anecdotal observations of respective fans) to a certain type of user. This makes offering broad sweeping recommendations for one over another a fool's errand, but it does mean users are blessed with a buyer's market when it comes to really good podcast players, and I haven't even mentioned all of the compelling options.
That said, of the ones mentioned above, the one that threads the needle best seems to be the new Pocket Casts 6. Now re-written in Swift and sporting an elegantly refined interface, the new Pocket Casts looks and feels better than ever and boasts any number of improvements: MP3 chapter support, an improved "Up Next" queuing system, a dark theme, PIP and split screen support on the iPad, stats, and a lot more. Version 6 is so good, covers so many bases, and straddles the competition so nicely that I'm almost tempted to make the very broad sweeping recommendation that I just warned against moments ago — but first a closer look.
Aesthetically Pocket Casts 6 looks great. Where Overcast is utilitarian, and Castro always strikes me as sexy, Pocket Casts comes off as...let's say...pretty — with its Skittles colored iconography, newly saturated app icon, plum colored mini player and dark theme, and generous use of podcast art. It is for sure, a lovely looking app, but the pretty UI will initially come off as more convoluted than its competitors, greeting you as it does with its launch page listicle of pre-populated filters (see left screenshot in the image above) that break down your podcast episodes amongst "New," "Unplayed," "Downloaded," and "Video" categories (along with access to all of your subscribed podcasts and the app's discover section). In short order the usefulness of such filters are easy enough to recognize, and to be clear — these included options can be edited, right down to their icon, color, and function, or deleted, or added to as the user sees fit. Still, when compared to Overcast's more earnest "here's your shit" approach, the cognitive load of Pocket Casts 6's introduction feels a wee bit higher.
Tap inside one of your filters and you can of course hit an episode's play icon to get things started, but Pocket Casts 6 has also smartly tucked a lot of additional options into the UI here, all just a tap or 3D Touch away:
- Tap an episode for a look at show notes and options for favoriting, or adding the episode to "Up Next", plus share, delete, and mark as played options.
- 3D Touch an episode and Pocket Casts 6 offers choices to stream, queue the episode ("Up Next"), or "Play All From Here."
- Finally an ellipsis menu at the top of every filtered list allows you to play all, download all, mark all as played, plus the ability to edit or delete the filter.
Typed out it seems like there's a lot going on here, and there is — but thanks to some nice design work, the visual friction here is nicely minimized.
You'll have noticed a couple of mentions above to Pocket Casts' "Up Next" queueing system — think of it as Pocket Casts' approach to a running playlist, and version 6.0 tries its best to make it as easy as possible to continually add content to that queue. It also has added a nifty way of managing that content in the form of the app's mini-player anchored in the app's footer. Just swipe left on the mini-player to reveal your queue — then press and hold an episode's art icon to rearrange it to your liking. If you're inside one of your filters you'll note that swiping right on the mini-player allows you to easily add or remove episodes to your queue in addition to rearranging the episodes. Again, a lot going on here — hidden out of sight, but available with a thumb swipe when you need it.
So, smart looks, smart filters, and smart queueing, but ever since Overcast launched some two years ago, the only thing podcast listeners really seem to care about is, "can you even smart speed bro?" Smart Speed of course being Marco Arment's very useful setting in Overcast to shorten the silences between all the countless gaps and pauses that are the inevitable consequence of speaking on a microphone, gathering your thoughts, interacting with cohosts and audio technology, or just good old fashioned Skype delays. The beauty of Smart Speed is that it's free — that is, the time savings netted from using Smart Speed come minus the penalty of distortion that one would get by simply speeding up the audio, and as any Overcast user who has checked their stats in that app's settings can tell you: the savings can really add up. Long story short — yes, Pocket Casts can Smart Speed, here more matter-of-factly branded "Trim Silence." Enabled, it seems to work just as well as Smart Speed, and before you ask — yes Voice Boost is here too (or in Pocket Casts-speak "Volume Boost") as are easily changed incremental adjustments to playback speed (I am personally quite partial to 1.1x playback myself).
If it isn't clear by now, Pocket Casts 6.0 is a big update that checks off nearly every feature a person could want in a modern podcast player — so many in fact, that I haven't begun to cover all of them adequately, if at all (like sync, a web app, and that new Discover section that's quite nice — though critically lacks the ability to listen to single episodes minus a subscription). Some of the improvements are there of course to reach parity with the competition, but most seem intended to genuinely improve the user experience of an already very good podcast player.
That said ( insert record skip sound here ) there are many users, we'll call them Overcast users, who aren't going to go in for all of Pocket Casts' knobs and dials — and I totally get that. There is an obvious appeal in Overcast's straightforward approach and simple feature set: playlists and smart speed and voice boost and done. It sounds terrible to say, but if you love Overcast, there's really not much need in investigating Pocket Casts 6 — enjoy your status quo. If you're one however that suffers with restless leg syndrome, in where your legs are instead podcast player apps, or you have "feelings" about aesthetics, or you're using one of the apps not mentioned in the intro, and assuming you aren't already using Pocket Casts — try Pocket Casts 6. Version 6 is a huge update, long in the making, it should cover all your bases, it looks amazing, it's on iPhone and iPad (and Android may God bless your soul), and it lays the ground work for faster incremental updates in the future (a recent version 6.1 update for example added Car Play support). The bottom line: if I had to make a broad sweeping recommendation for a podcast player — it would, as thing stand now between the competing clients, most certainly be Pocket Casts 6 — even if in the end — it wasn't ultimately for me. More on that, soon.
Pocket Casts 6 requires iOS 9.0 or later and is compatible with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Pocket Casts is a universal app and works with Car Play, but it does not ship with an Apple Watch app at the time of this review.