Price and compatibility: Free; iOS 7.0 or later
Apple has its own Podcasts app, so I figured it would be a good place to start. It’s available for download in the iTunes store, but the app will come preloaded on iOS devices starting this fall, with the release of iOS 8.
Podcasts makes finding and adding podcasts easy enough. Using the toolbar at the bottom, you can peruse through iTunes’s Featured list and Top Charts, or you can manually search for a program by name. Under the My Stations tab, you can organize podcasts around custom themes. For example, I created one for sports and entertainment. And all your stations and subscriptions can be synced across multiple iOS devices via iCloud. The player is pretty basic, but offers features like a sleep timer, various playback speeds, and 15-second forward and rewind.
But compared to the other apps I tested, Podcasts falls short in numerous areas. For one, the interface is a bit clunky and unintuitive. For example, I found it confusing that while I could adjust some settings within the app, I then had to go to the iPhone’s general settings to adjust other preferences, like whether or not to allow cellular downloads.
There were also download errors, and syncing between my iTunes desktop client and iPhone 5 didn’t always work. Other users have had problems, too, and Podcasts currently has a measly one-and-a-half star rating (out of five) from iTunes users. Apple recently acquired Swell, a Pandora-like service for talk radio, and the company won’t comment on how it plans to fold the Swell team into the company, but one can hope its efforts will be put toward improving the Podcasts app.
Price and compatibility: $3.99; iOS 7.0 or later
Castro is built for the casual listener, and not for those who want to micro-manage their podcasts.
One of the best parts of the app is its attractive and intuitive interface. From the main page, you can access your shows in one of two ways. Castro displays a list of all the shows that you are subscribed to, and you can tap each one to access a full list of episodes and settings for that particular show. Alternatively, you tab over to Episodes to see all your various podcasts organized by publish date. With a single tap of a button, you can also access the Settings menu, where you can set your preference for things like playback speed and data usage, using simple tools.
But while the minimalistic approach to the design works well, Castro is almost a little too bare-bones in the features department. I can understand leaving out support for things like playlists, but I desperately missed having a way to discover new podcasts. Currently, the only way to add podcasts in Castro is to manually search for them or by importing them from other apps.
But Castro’s co-creator Padraig Cinnede told me that they are planning to add a discovery feature in the future, along with support for video podcasts and syncing across multiple devices.
Price and compatibility: $2.99; iOS 6 or later, Mac OS X 10.8 or later
Downcast may not be the most visually striking podcast app, but it offers a good user experience and a robust feature set. Out of all the apps I tested, it was my favorite.
Like Apple’s Podcasts, there’s a toolbar along the bottom that helps you navigate through all your various options. You can add podcasts manually, or select from a list of top shows by category. Downcast also supports playlists and iCloud sync.
I like that the player displays show notes as you listen to a podcast, and has easy, one-touch buttons to rewind or fast-forward the episode in different time intervals. The app is also designed so that it’s easy to see the status of a podcast (unplayed, partially played, downloaded or available for stream, and so forth). But one of the most impressive things about Downcast is the breadth of options for customization.
You can tweak everything from how and where new episodes should be downloaded to which episodes should be deleted. This deep level of customization won’t be for everyone, but I found it quite useful for managing my list of shows. I also appreciated that this could all be done within the app, and without having to go through too many menus.
Price and compatibility: $3.99; iOS 7.0 or later, Android 4.0 or later
Pocket Casts is another app that’s good for users who want more control over their podcasts. It offers automatic downloads, and syncing and backup across multiple devices (including Android). It even lets you customize the point at which a podcast starts playing, in case you want to skip over a show’s standard intro.
Design-wise, it’s more attractive than Downcast. The section for adding podcasts is filled with colorful artwork from the various shows. The creators of the app, Shifty Jelly, have even made it so that the color of the player controls will change to match the podcast’s artwork.
That said, I didn’t find it quite as streamlined or intuitive as Downcast. For example, the app supports playlists, but they’re called Filters. I didn’t realize this until I started playing around with the feature (although I did appreciate that you can differentiate playlists with different colors and icons). Also, the Settings icon for individual podcasts was so small that I completely missed them the first time around.
It’s still a well-performing app, but it requires more of a learning curve than Downcast.
Price: Free with limited features, $4.99 for full version; iOS 7 or later
Overcast was built by Marco Arment, the creator of the read-it-later app Instapaper. The paid version offers more advanced features like cellular downloads, variable playback speeds, unlimited playlists and more. But for my tests, I checked out the free version as an alternative to Apple’s native app.
You can search for shows by name, URL, or import them from another app. Arment also curates a small list of recommendations based on various categories, such as tech, comedy and pop culture. Plus, you can get podcast suggestions from people you follow on Twitter, though they also must be Overcast users. Admittedly, I missed having access to iTunes’s vast catalog of podcasts, but there were other times that I liked Overcast better.
There’s a beauty to the app’s simplicity. From a podcast page, I was able to access unplayed episodes, past episodes and settings, without having to dig through multiple menus. There were also no performance issues.
If you’re just getting into podcasts and want a basic player, I’d recommend giving Overcast a try (it’s free, after all). And for those who want more bells and whistles, Downcast definitely has it dialed in.