Review: Apple’s Podcasts app catches up with the competition

Apple(s AAPL) may have left out a lot of useful features when its iOS Podcasts app first showed up in the App Store last year, but the latest revision shows the company has not given up on improving it just yet. When Apple last updated the app, I found it was missing some key features that would prevent serious podcast listeners from using the app on a day-to-day basis. Most of the gaps, like not having the ability to create playlists, have been closed, and Apple now has a solid contender in the genre of serious podcasting apps.
To demonstrate those improvements, here’s a comparison between the update to Podcasts (Free, Universal) and my current favorite podcasting app, RSSRadio Premium ($2.99, Universal).

Episodes to keep on the device

Episodes to Keep

Episodes to keep

To start, managing downloaded episodes and choosing which episodes you want to keep on your device is important when you have limited storage space. As an example, one way to configure news podcast settings is to set your app to download only the most recent episodes, and to keep only the most recent episode.  This helps keep your list of episodes up to date, without taking up too much space on the device.  These setting would be configured differently for an episodic podcast where you want to listen to each and every episode produced.  Apple’s Podcasts offers just as good of control over your downloaded episodes as any other podcast app out there.

Download and notification settings

Download Settings

Download settings

This is an area where podcasts apps struggle: scheduling the downloading of new episodes. It’s not clear if Apple is breaking its own rules of when an app can be running and implement a scheduling mechanism that seamlessly downloads new episodes as soon as they are available. Other apps tend to struggle with this: they have to invent timed schedules or implement a notification system in order to wake up the app and fetch new episodes to automatically download. Apple’s download scheduler is about the best there is right now.  When a new episode is available, it just shows up.
Notification Settings

Notification settings

When it comes to notification settings, Apple allows you to control just how and when you are notified of a new episodes availability. Many of the top podcasting apps out there offer exactly the same level of control.

Show and episode Information

Show Information

Show information

“Show information” is information about a collection of episodes. You really just want to see the status of the entire list of episodes that are available, and manage how each episode is to be downloaded. Apple’s interface for managing shows is on par with what you need to get the job done.
Episode Information

Episode information

The same is true when it comes to each individual episode’s information: what you are looking for are things like the show notes. Apple’s Podcasts app has them right where you would expect them to be.

Now Playing user interface

Now Playing

Now Playing

While Apple may have updated the look of the now playing user interface to exclude the reel-to-reel tape deck, what is has implemented in its place is right on par with the rest of the podcasting app pack. You can increase the playback speed, set a timer for when to stop playback, share the currently playing episode with friends, and control where the episode is played via AirPlay. Forward, reverse, play and pause are easy to access as well. Really a nice clean implementation.

Podcast playlist

Podcast Playlist

Podcast playlist

Playlists let you have control over the content you want to listen to. You may download and manage 20 different podcasts, but that does not mean you want to listen to all of them all of the time. Apple calls this new feature “My Stations,” but it really is just a playlist. The one thing that Apple did that I really like here is it added the ability to manually set the order of your playlist.  That way you can listen to your podcasts the way you want. Most podcasting apps only allow for the list to be sorted by earliest or latest.
Overall, Apple has done a really great job with the Podcasts app this time around. Rather then try to reinvent the genre, it picked the best features already out there and caught up with the pack.  There really are no gaping holes in the implementation as there were previously. In fact, Apple’s app will likely become my new go-to podcasting app. With a solid implementation for downloading new episodes, a clean Now Playing interface, and the ability to control the sort order of my playlists, there really is not much left to ask for.