Downcast is an excellent podcast app for iPhones; it’s much better than the Apple Podcast app.
Related: See my list of top technical podcasts I’m currently following.
When I first started listening to podcasts on my first MP3 player (a Creative Zen Touch), the software was very basic. I was tracking my podcast RSS feeds in Bloglines, so I wrote a Bloglines enclosure download script which I would run periodically on my Windows desktop, then use Windows Media Player to bulk copy everything to the Zen Touch.
For today’s iPhone users, there’s no excuse to not have a great podcast player. You’ve got the network connectivity, the audio player, and plenty of storage. Apple’s own Podcast application leaves a lot to be desired. It provides only basic functionality and doesn’t seem to ever be improved upon by Apple. Just check this Google search for Apple Podcast App – the top 5 results tell the story:
Searching for “Apple Podcast App” shows some unflattering results
Instead, I recommend buying Downcast (US $1.99). I’ve recently switched and have my dozen or so tech podcasts up and running:
Screenshot of Downcast main screen with several podcasts loaded and ready
What makes Downcast so great? This is my short list of favorite features:
- Automatic refresh & downloads. Configurable to only download over wi-fi.
- Skip forward & backward by remote control commands (the “now playing” view), or by shaking the phone.
- Adjustable playback speed (1.5X, 2X, etc.). I’ve set this to 1.5X for most podcasts and it’s very listenable without making everyone’s voices sound funny.
- Settings galore. Possibly more than an iPhone aficionado would like to see, but I like the detailed level of control. In addition to global settings, you also have settings for individual podcasts (like the playback speed).
- Export feeds to OPML. Useful for backing up your current subscription list, and if you want to follow along with an RSS reader.
I have not played with everything yet, including iCloud Sync which is supposed to help when listening over multiple devices.
Finally, I have one feature suggestion: an option to email the “show notes” from each podcast episode you’ve listened to. It could be pretty simple to add, and would really make the whole flow of listening to podcasts much better. I don’t know of any podcast or similar app that does this, so to the maker’s of Downcast, here’s your chance!
Finding and keeping up with quality podcasts is not easy. I have some ideas for a better “podcatching” client that would help with this, but in the meantime it’s a manual process to keep pruning my subscriptions to a manageable level.
Here’s my current subscription list, using the old Sears “good, better, best” lineup and indicating how many of the episodes I listen to completely:
- The Bitterest Pill – a classic with great, funny stories; sometimes runs a bit long (almost all episodes)
- Hanselminutes – one of my favorites; in-depth technology without being overly long (all episodes)
- Reel Reviews Radio – my favorite non-tech podcast, but it’s been quiet this year (all episodes)
- AP Auto Racing – a recent addition; not overdone, but a nice summary of NASCAR news twice weekly (all episodes)
- In the Trenches – has been around for a while but still entertaining; sometimes runs long but I like the guys and the topics (most episodes)
- Killer Innovation – recently started following this podcast from Phil McKinney, CTO at HP (all episodes)
- Ruby on Rails – I don’t do anything with Ruby or Rails, but I like following along with the community on this one (all episodes)
- Run As Radio – relatively new, focusing on IT with Microsoft technologies; shows are on-topic and not too long (all episodes)
- Software As She’s Developed – good stuff on AJAX, design patterns, and usability (all episodes)
- Venture Voice – unique perspective and interviews with entrepreneurs; generally good but you need your ego-deflector for some of these guys (most episodes)
- Windows Weekly – generally good and not too long; was better before Vista launched and took some wind out of their sails (most episodes)
- IT Conversations – in general very good but I pick and choose the episodes; Technometria and Jon Udell are always good, others are mixed (some episodes)
- Net at Nite – entertaining, but can run long; I’m kind of a long-time Leo Laporte fan, so I keep up with it (most episodes)
- Polymorphic Podcast – .Net and other technologies (most episodes)
- Security Now! – when I first found this one I listened to every episode religiously; now I find they can ramble a bit, but the content is generally good (some episodes)
- This Week in Tech – most topics discussions are good quality and entertaining, but at 1 hour 15 minutes or longer, I’m beginning to fade (most episodes)
Today Yahoo! unveiled support for podcasts — finding, downloading, and listening. I’m just starting to play with it, but it appears to support both Yahoo Music Engine (YME) and iTunes. (If you’re already using YME, be sure to get the podcast plugin.)
The site seems to focus on finding podcast series and individual episodes, with decent search and tagging capabilities. I thought it would keep track of podcast subscriptions for you, but instead it’s basically a searchable directory. You can listen online with a lightweight player, or download a “.pcast” file into YME or iTunes for subscribing and downloading the content directly from the source.
Today Rob Fahrni ponders whether a Palm podcasting platform makes sense:
It’s new and it’s hip. It’s the perfect time to create a new piece of hardware to support this endeavor. I myself this Palm is in the best position to make it work. Why Palm? Well for one thing you can write code to run on it! That’s absolutely critical. My question is how good is the microphone on the Treo 650? Could someone get enough recording time on the device? Why hasn’t Palm jammed a 5 GB hard drive into one yet? Is it because it would increase the size of the device too much? I think Palm is in the best position to create the ultimate Podcasting device; not Apple, not Microsoft, Palm.
I agree completely — the Palm platform has definite potential in this new podcast space. A notable example is Russell Holliman who records his podcasts on his Treo directly; they sound great. Being a programmable system opens up all sorts of application possibilities, such as a dedicated podcasting application that handles recording, posting, and listening duties.
On the receiving end, the drop in memory card prices has made PDAs usable for listening to your favorite podcasts. Dedicated MP3 players generally have a file transfer speed advantage (FireWire/USB2.0 vs HotSync speeds), so some improvement is needed there. I’m planning to look closer at this part of the problem to see what can be done with today’s devices.
With the rising popularity of podcasting, I’ve been thinking about automated information sources that might be interesting. How about the weather?
RSSWeather.com provides RSS weather feeds for different cities. FeedSpeaker is a new .Net application that uses Microsoft’s Speech API to “speak” RSS feeds, recording the results in MP3 format. This is a manual process, but one could easily create a service that did this automatically.
Imagine syncing your MP3 player in the morning and catching the day’s weather forecast. (Or you could just turn on your AM radio, but that’s old school.)
Here are some samples I created for today’s forecast for San Jose, California:
[Funny aside: because I ran this test a couple times, I must have triggered a warning from RSSWeather; instead of getting weather content, I got a “slow down!” message which was faithfully captured in MP3 format as well: http://cantoni.org/files/SlowDown.mp3 (50 KB)]
Update: Here’s a playlist linking to all three songs: http://cantoni.org/files/weather.m3u