Review: Overcast is a winning podcast app
At a Glance
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Marco Arment returns to iOS development with a carefully designed and extremely functional podcast player highlighted by excellent and flexible playlists.
On Wednesday, Marco Arment released the podcast-playing app Overcast, his anticipated major return to the iOS App Store after selling his popular Instapaper read-it-later app last year. The app was teased last September, its development has been detailed on Arment’s popular podcast, and now it’s out there for everyone to try. For the last few months I’ve been using a prerelease version, and I’ve come away impressed.
These days, there are countless good podcast-playing apps out there—it’s a UI playground, like Twitter apps were back in the day. From Downcast to Pocket Casts to Instacast to Castro to Apple’s own Podcasts app (not to mention podcast-aggregation apps like Stitcher and Swell), each app takes a somewhat different approach. That makes sense, because different people listen to podcasts in different ways—and all those apps rightly have their fans. (If you use your iPad for podcasts, Overcast isn’t for you yet—it currently runs only on the iPad in iPhone emulation mode, though Arment says a Universal version that also runs natively on the iPad interface is planned.)
Let’s start with the basics: Overcast is free, though feature-limited. “I want to offer a better alternative for the mass market, so it must be free,” Arment says in a statement on the Overcast website. For a $5 in-app purchase, however, users can unlock numerous additional features, including: support for downloads over cellular, features that modify or improve sound output (more on those below), and unlimited playlists and episodes in playlists (there’s only one playlist, containing 5 episodes, by default).
The Overcast interface is simple, functional, and clearly the result of careful design. (It doesn’t match the visual flair of the prettiest podcast app, Castro, but Castro pays for that flair by being harder to use.) The main screen features a simple list, split in two: playlists at the top and podcasts at the bottom. As you might expect, you can tap on a podcast, then tap on an episode to start playing it. When an episode is playing, that information is displayed (along with a small set of playback controls) at the very bottom of the window.
I listen to a lot of different podcasts and always want another episode to begin playing once the last one concludes—especially when I’m driving and can’t select another episode manually—so for me, playlists are the most important feature of any podcast app.
Overcast’s approach to playlists is smart: Not only can you choose specific podcasts to add to a playlist (or the inverse, choosing specific podcasts to ban), but there’s a Priority Podcasts feature that lets you specify which podcasts float to the top of the play order.
This two-tier approach is a pretty close match to how I listen to podcasts: I have a few go-to podcasts that I want to listen to as soon as they arrive, and then there are podcasts I listen to when the top names are all played.
But with all this automation, there’s also flexibility: You can edit playlists to list episodes in any order and add and delete episodes freely. In Overcast I still find myself doing playlist maintenance based on my own whims, but in general the episodes I want to listen to are at the top and the other stuff is at the bottom, which is how I like it.
One of my favorite features of Overcast is its ability to modify and improve audio. Just about every podcast app lets you change the speed of podcast playback, so you can (for example) polish off an hour-long podcast in 45 minutes. I’ve never been a fan of those features, because they generally add artifacts to the sound (it sounds like a series of clicks to me) that drive me nuts. Overcast does the best job of speed-alteration I’ve heard, and now I listen to many podcasts on slightly higher than 1x speed.
Separately, Overcast offers a Smart Speed feature that intelligently removes silence from podcasts, shortening episodes even if you don’t choose to listen at a higher speed. (You can also use the two features simultaneously for even more time saving).
The app’s Voice Boost feature is a single button that alters a podcast’s audio, compressing and equalizing it to bring it to a more consistent volume. I’ve found that Voice Boost makes some quiet and poorly recorded podcasts I listen to more listenable, but decreases the quality of others. Fortunately, Overcast lets you set Speed, Smart Speed, and Voice Boost settings on a per-podcast basis—so you can speed up slow talkers, boost quiet talkers, and even slow down speed talkers.
Given Arment’s background building web services (he helped build Tumblr, and Instapaper was very much an app-and-web-service combo), it’s not surprising that Overcast is supported by several web-based features. In fact, the app requires that users create an account because the Overcast server is constantly checking for new episodes and then pinging the app when a new one appears. There’s also always a backup of your Overcast data stored on the server, in case you lose your phone. The overcast.fm website contains a basic web player, and Arment has suggested that other web-based features—such as the ability to subscribe to podcasts or add episodes to playlists directly from your desktop web browser—may be in the offing sometime down the road.
The app’s podcast directory is also powered by social media, optionally using your Twitter account to discover episodes that people you know are recommending. It’s an interesting idea, though it remains to be seen how useful those recommendations are for most people. There are also numerous lists of recommended podcasts divided by genre, and you can search for any podcast under the sun. (Disclosure: During the app’s beta-testing process, I suggested a couple of categories for the podcast directory, and those categories are currently listed in Overcast, though the lists are updated dynamically and will undoubtedly change over time.)
My biggest complaint about Overcast is that its approach to downloading is a bit too simplified. There is, wisely, a switch that keeps the app from downloading podcasts via cellular connections, so it doesn’t chew up your data allowance. But there’s no way to force a single episode to download, nor is there any concept of streaming an episode. If you’re out and about and want to listen to a new episode of your favorite podcast, you must: pause all the other queued downloads, flip on cellular downloads, watch the episode download, flip the cellular-download option back off, and then press play.
It’s also worth noting that Arment has said on his podcast that he intends to make Overcast limited to iOS 8 only once Apple’s operating system update ships this fall. If you’re using a device that won’t be supported on iOS 8, or you’re planning on giving that update a pass, you will not be getting future Overcast updates and may want to steer clear.
I’ve used just about every iPhone podcast app out there, most of them for fairly large amounts of time. Overcast is the one I’m going to stick with—for now, anyway. The podcast-app space keeps changing and is quite competitive, but Overcast best fits the way I listen to podcasts today. Your mileage may vary, which is why it’s great that Overcast is available for free rather than being a $5 purchase right off the bat.
The app’s settings screen even links to five other podcast apps, in case Overcast is “not for you.” That’s a great gesture toward independent app developers. It’s always worth keeping an eye on the tremendous innovation happening in all of these apps, which are developing almost as quickly as the medium of podcasting itself. But for now, Overcast’s cute orange icon is the one sitting in my iPhone’s dock.