I love podcasts. When I’m stuck on a train, cooking in the kitchen or running around my local park, they offer a wonderful escape and explore many of my favorite hobbies, interests and pastimes. There are an overwhelming number of podcasts to choose from – it’s never been easier to produce a show and share it with the world – so keeping up with them all can feel like a full-time job.
If you want to manage them all through your iPhone or iPad, there are a number of podcast apps to consider. We tackled the problem back in 2011, but a lot has changed in the last three years – so here’s our updated shortlist.
“This event was off the charts”
Gary Vaynerchuk was so impressed with TNW Conference 2016 he paused mid-talk to applaud us.
If you’re delving into podcasts for the first time, Apple’s own offering is a decent place to start. The Podcasts app is a free download on the App Store, but it usually come pre-installed on every new iPhone or iPad anyway.
The design is in keeping with Apple’s flat iOS 7 aesthetic, opting for a sparse, white background with the odd splash of purple for buttons, toggles and menu tabs. You can search the Podcasts Store for a specific show or hit the Top Charts and Featured sections if you’re looking for something new.
You can subscribe to as many as you like and individually set whether you want new episodes to be downloaded automatically, how many episodes should be stored offline, and the ordering of episodes both for browsing and playback. It’s all fairly straightforward and the audio player also supports different playback speeds and a sleep timer. Did I mention that it’s free?
Instacast 4 ($3.99/£2.49)
Instacast 4 feels like a spiritual successor to Apple’s Podcasts app, or a premium version that was designed with long-time podcast listeners in mind. The app follows the iOS 7 philosophy with a minimalist look, but it also offers some fresh design ideas and advanced features that surpass Apple’s creation.
You can swipe in from the edge of the screen to access a slick sidebar with shortcuts for a number of different menus and listening modes. This includes Unplayed – a list of episodes that you haven’t listened to just yet – anything you’ve imported and a play queue for episodes that you want to listen to next. That last feature is particularly useful as it means that if you’re out running or have your hands full, you can set Instacast 4 to play new episodes from your subscriptions automatically.
The app lets you add custom bookmarks so you can easily return to specific points in an episode, and offers granular control over when new episodes are downloaded, deleted and other general playback settings. These can be configured for individual subscriptions too, so if you find one podcast difficult to follow, you can slow down the default playback speed or configure longer skip intervals without affecting your other shows.
If that sounds a little overwhelming, Downcast is a lightweight alternative. The general interface and horizontal menu bar is similar in design to Apple’s Podcasts app, but you’ll quickly notice that the tabs and general user experience is pretty different. For starters, all of the app’s discovery options are covered under the ‘Add’ option, including search, manual imports and top charts.
Episodes are then accessed from the Podcasts tab (no surprises there) but what’s unique is that Downcast uses sub-headers to show whether each of them have any new or unplayed episodes to listen to. The app also gives prominence to your download queue, which is valuable when you’re wondering how long it’ll take before you can dig into another episode.
Downcast uses a dark theme for its audio player, prioritzing show notes over the creator’s artwork. It’s not the most beautiful design, but it means I always read the show notes – an area of podcast apps I usually never engage with. It’s also worth highlighting the four skip buttons at the top of the player, which let you move 15 or 30 seconds back and 30 seconds or 2 minutes forwards.
Pocket Casts ($3.99/£2.49)
If you gazed at Pocket Casts from afar, you would be forgiven for thinking this is a glossy news reader app similar to Flipboard. That’s because this sublime piece of software cares about podcast artwork, offering up a vibrant mosaic both in the directory and your personal library. It’s striking and sharp, making it one of my favorite podcast apps to explore.
The top menu is similar to the sidebar in Instacast 4, giving you quick access to your subscriptions, unplayed episodes and download queue. It’s a simple, intuitive interface that makes it easy to bounce between menus at breakneck speed. For each subscription you can note whether you want new episodes to be downloaded automatically and also whether you want to start them partway through – a joyous feature if you hate a particular podcast intro.
A small knock against Pocket Casts is the audio player. While you can customize the length of time for skipping forwards and backwards in the app’s settings, these are mapped to the standard fast-forward and rewind buttons. A quick tap triggers a skip – which makes sense – but when I’m running or in a busy environment it’s easy to select it by mistake. Finally, be sure to check out the Episode Filter option, which gives you the ability to create automated playlists (with customizable designs) based on pre-defined parameters.
Castro is an exercise in minimalism. When you first launch the app on your iPhone or iPad, you’ll appreciate the sparse design almost immediately. A single button presents itself for adding new podcasts and you’ll be given just two further options – search, or add a supported URL from your clipboard. The lack of categories and top charts is disappointing, but the gorgeous aesthetics and smooth animations give Castro a slick feel.
The main interface is split into just two tabs – podcasts and episodes – with notifications for new subscriptions and finished downloads dropping down from the top of the screen. Castro is restrained in its approach, offering only a few options for configuring playback speed and automatic downloads for each show. Nevertheless, this is a promising app for podcast addicts that are truly passionate about design.
Next: Pod Wrangler, iCatcher! and more…
iCatcher! doesn’t have the most memorable design or user interface, but the app makes up for it with a swathe of advanced features and customization options. This includes setting the length of time between each refresh, as well as approved WiFi networks for downloading new episodes and whether artwork is displayed on the lock screen. The sheer volume of tweaks and toggles is astounding, so if you enjoy messing with preferences and personalizing your app experience iCatcher! is worth checking out.
The app also supports a number of multi-touch gestures that makes it easier to control the current episode and what’s next in your play queue. A horizontal two-finger swipe triggers a quick rewind or fast-forward – again, customizable from the settings – while performing the same action vertically starts the next or previous podcast in your playlist. iCatcher! boasts what it calls ‘The Leo Jump’ too, which lets you jump ahead by two minutes after drawing a quick ‘L’.
Power users will appreciate the custom playlists, which again offer a dizzying number of rules and parameters, as well as the option to manually sort the order of their download queue. It’s one of the most advanced apps on our list, but its uninspired aesthetics hold it back.
Pod Wrangler (Free, with optional upgrade)
Pod Wrangler is the work of David Smith, who also created the RSS syncing platform Feed Wrangler. The design is simple, with just a few different options on the home screen – downloaded, unheard and all episodes – that are listed with monochrome type and logos.
You can tap the Add button in the top-right corner to search for and discover new podcasts. While the vertical list isn’t revolutionary, I’ve found it to be a clear, straight-forward design that lets me quickly find exactly what I want. Popular shows what other people are listening to, while categories shows a number of podcasts related to a particular topic or hobby. If you’re interested in a specific producer, such as NPR, the BBC or 5by5, it’s easy to find these too under the Providers menu option.
Once you start accruing some subscriptions, they’ll be listed under the three original choices on the home page. It’s reliable and an absolute pleasure to use, but here’s the catch – if you want to subscribe to more than five shows, remove the occasional advert and switch on push notifications, you’ll need a Feed Wrangler account or one-time upgrade for £1.49/$2.00. Given the cost of our other shortlisted apps though, that’s a price worth paying.
SoundCloud is a difficult service to define. Similar to what YouTube has done for video, SoundCloud spans many different audio formats, including music, documentaries and audiobooks. The platform also facilitates podcasts though, which makes the company’s iOS app a unique candidate for our shortlist.
First, the bad news. If you’re using the iOS app exclusively, it’s almost impossible to find a new podcast unless you already know its name. The search tab is functional, but the Tracks, Playlists and People tabs are ill-suited to this particular audio format. Instead, you’re better off heading to the SoundCloud site and using the categories under the Explore tab (Science, Sports, Technology, etc). Once you’re following a few different shows, new episodes will appear in your feed automatically.
SoundCloud’s differentiating features are well documented, but the one that always stands out for me is the commenting system. You can tag your feedback to a specific time stamp, so that other listeners (and the podcast creator) knows exactly what you’re referring to. It’s a fantastic feature when you want to weigh-in on a particular debate, or point out some technical issues.
Stitcher Radio (Free)
Stitcher Radio is a little different. For one, it refers to all of your podcasts as ‘stations’, which I presume is a nostalgic nod to its radio origins. Stations are then bundled into playlists, which you’ll need to use in some capacity if you want to access any of subscriptions. By default, podcasts that you’ve already signed up for will land in the ‘Favorites’ playlist, although you can set up a new one whenever you like.
Stitcher Radio also recommends its Smart Station, which offers a selection of shows based on what you’ve been listening to, sharing and giving that all important ‘thumbs up’. It’s a key differentiator for the app, which should appeal to anyone that’s grown tired of finding new shows simply by trial and error. Similar to Pocket and Instapaper, the Listen Later option is also a nice touch for bookmarking episodes that you want to check out at a later date.
Offline listening is supported, although switching this mode on means Stitcher Radio will automatically download the latest episode from each station – there isn’t much in the way of preferences here, aside from simply enabling it for specific playlists. Live radio also plays a key part in the app, although most of the stations appear to be sourced from the United States.
Although this app isn’t available just yet, it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled for what we expect to be an imminent arrival in the App Store. Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper and a co-founder for Tumblr, is currently working on a new podcast app for the iPhone called Overcast.
While we’re yet to see any screenshots, this blog post from September 2013 will give you a good idea of the direction he’s headed in. Watch this space.
If you’re still itching for a new app to handle all of your podcast subscriptions, we’ve highlighted a few extras below. They didn’t make my top nine, but they’re worth looking at if you’re curious.
Image Credit: Shutterstock