Overcast 2.5 review: Patron-backed podcast app gets more efficient and adds exclusive features
The original Overcast locked its best features away. It added streaming and Handoff in 2.0, and adds patron features and better battery efficiency for all in 2.5.
Overcast Radio, LLC Overcast 2.5Macworld Rating
The Overcast podcast app unlocked all its features in shifting from a freemium model in version 1.0 to a patron-backed approach with its 2.0 release. The latest major update, 2.5, brings the first features exclusive to donors, while free users retain all previous ones and get all the general improvements.
Overcast 2 added a number of much-requested features, like streaming audio, and added interesting ones, like Handoff support to allow moving among devices while retaining your current playback position. Version 2.5’s marquee additions appear mostly under the hood. Developer Marco Arment says he’s improved battery efficiency somewhat, while dramatically reducing unnecessary network file sync operations (and thus bandwidth and time). The new release also clears up a couple of rough edges I noted in the 2.0 review.
Patrons receive two unique benefits in 2.5: a dark theme for the app that uses the San Francisco font, and the ability to upload as much as 2GB of audio files that aren’t distributed through podcast feeds.
The first release of Overcast had a few key features that tried to set it apart from several mature competitors, like Castro and Pocket Casts. Some of these were on the back end, like extra-finicky monitoring and parsing of syndication feeds to provide rapid updates when new episodes of subscribed podcasts were available, as well as providing sync services for subscriptions, downloaded episodes, played/unplayed episodes, and the position within podcasts that a user had already started. (Other apps had some of these features; Overcast tried to do them all and with a higher degree of perfectionism; podcast feeds are especially diverse in how they’re misformatted.)
Many were on the interface and functional side, such as Smart Speed, which identifies and skips silence during playback, and Voice Boost, which was intended to provide real-time normalization of audio to keep voices within a narrower range, preventing a lot of volume adjustment. Both features could be enabled app-wide, but disabled or customized for individual podcasts.
Voice Boost received additional work in version 2.5. Arment says that he tuned its performance when used with an iPhone’s speakers; previously, the profile was designed only for headphones. Version 2.0 added improvements Smart Speed for quieter voices, though I don’t use the feature routinely and thus couldn’t tell the difference.
Overcast 1 limited its appeal by employing a freemium model. The basic version of the app limited the number of playlists and the number of episodes shown in them, and could only download over Wi-Fi. Purchase a $5 in-app upgrade, and that version added variable-speed pitch-adjust playback, cellular downloads, unlimited playlists and episodes, a sleep timer, and the above-mentioned Voice Boost and Smart Speed.
With version 2, everything went free, and developer Marco Arment asked those who found the app useful to engage in patronage, paying $1 a month as a non-renewing three-month, six-month, or 12-month in-app purchase. It’s not mandatory, and the two unique patron features are relevant only to a subset of users. The app notes patronage expiration, but doesn’t nag about it. (It also asks for a review in its settings, but doesn’t use pop-ups or reminders for that purpose.)
Merrily down the streaming
What I want mostly from a podcast app are three things: to download podcasts automatically or otherwise have episodes be available so I don’t have to manage the download process; to let me easily add podcasts recommended by others or mentioned (often on other podcasts); and to help me discover podcasts when I want to find something new, different, or subject-specific to which to listen. In and around that, I don’t want storage of downloaded episodes to balloon on my phone. Nor do I want to have an endless list of unplayed episodes I know I’ll never get to.
The keenest critique of the original Overcast release is that it offered no streaming support: all podcasts had to be downloaded in full to play. While it had excellent background downloading, this remained a problem if iOS’s various needs didn’t align to pull down files when it should have, and you wanted to listen while out and about without sufficient bandwidth or data transfer remaining on a cellular plan to download quickly enough.
Version 2 supports both streaming and downloads, and offers a sometimes confusing intersection of settings. In Overcast’s New Episodes settings, you can pick among Stream When Played, Download on Wi-Fi, and Download on Wi-Fi or Cellular. However, Overcast also has an entry in the Settings app, where you manage notifications, background app refresh (for downloads), and cellular data usage. And there’s yet another entry in Settings > Cellular in the apps listing. With one misaligned combination of settings, you could have everything in the app set up the way you want, and be unable to stream or download except on Wi-Fi.
In practice, given that we have a family 15GB-a-month plan (with AT&T’s one-month rollover data), I’ve made sure cellular use is enabled everywhere in Overcast. Most podcasts are in the 15MB to 60MB range, and I’m mostly on Wi-Fi networks. I doubt I use more than a few hundred megabytes a month for out-and-about podcast retrieval.
Arment says that version 2.5 has a re-architected synchronization engine that uses much less data transfer to manage the metadata—the RSS feeds that contain the list of all episodes for each podcasts. The system retrieves new episodes as they’re posted, but only updates the full list for any given podcast when a user consults the All view for a podcast. (I was unable to confirm the scale of data saved, but from many years’ work with podcast RSS files, this could be on the orders of tens to hundreds of megabytes per day; not so much individually, but it adds up over time.)
If you’re trying to ensure you’re using the least amount of cellular and Wi-Fi data (for those with broadband plans with caps or overage fees), setting New Episodes in Overcast to Stream When Played is a good choice while also disabling Cellular Data in Settings > Overcast and in Settings > Cellular. Every podcast that appears in the main All Episodes playlist as a new episode can be tapped to start a download over Wi-Fi. Or you can use the app-wide Downloads view and download them all at once. This breaks my particular want of not managing downloads, but it’s a necessary option for some people.
The streaming-by-default option also helps those with low-storage-capacity iPhones. In the previous Overcast, even with assiduous management of how many episodes I wanted to retain—which can be set per podcast and globally—I would find gigabytes of shows retained. Since I now use iCloud Photo Library and iCloud Music Library, my 64GB iPhone tends to always have ample remaining storage, even when I have nearly 4GB as I do at this moment. With an 8GB or 16GB phone or a configuration with more local music or photo storage, this can help conserve space.
New to version 2 is a Storage list—in Overcast’s settings—that shows you the sum of all episodes, and then the space occupied by each one. You can tap Delete Downloads, and they’re all removed. You can also swipe left on an individual episode to remove it (or on a podcast to unsubscribe), or in a playlist, tapping Edit at upper right and then selecting multiple episodes to remove at once. The swipe-left action is much more reliable than version 1, where I often found myself accidentally starting to play an episode instead of revealing Delete.
A very welcome version 2.5 newcomer is Add All and Delete All. In the All view for a given podcast, tapping All brings up Add X Episodes and Delete X Episodes options. This lets you clear out all of the episodes downloaded for a podcast or download the full RSS feed worth of episodes for binging—the latter useful for fictional podcasts with continuity, lecture series, and similar cases.
Adding podcasts is fairly painless and ties in with show discovery. Tap the + button at upper right in the main view, and you can browse or search Overcast’s directory, which pulls from a number of sources. When I’ve launched new podcasts, Overcast seems to add them surprisingly quickly without any requirement to submit a podcast RSS feed URL to the service. In the search results, you can select a podcast and then subscribe to it, or view episodes in its feed and pick one to download. (If you have a feed URL to add, tap Add URL and paste it in; it pre-fills with the current clipboard if that’s a URL.)
Discovery is grouped into categories and becomes more powerful if you link in a Twitter account, although that’s not required. Version 1 featured curation by the developer; version 2 is entirely driven by Overcast users’ use of the Recommend button that appears with each podcast episode. The app shows overall most recommended, most recommended by those you’re connected with on Twitter, and top shows in major categories, as well as “collections,” which are podcast networks. It’s handy. You can even tap to subscribe to all the podcasts in a set.
A maddening oversight in earlier versions occurs when you tap a show in the directory to view details and then tap to subscribe or download an episode: Overcast dropped you back into its main view. To get back to the same recommendation list and position or same search, you have to repeat your actions, which is frustrating when you want to add multiple items from the same area. This has been changed for subscriptions in 2.5, keeping you in the same position, but it remains for individual episode downloads.
Along similar lines, I find the “i” target to get information about a podcast in a list without playing it so small and precise that I constantly miss it. There’s no good “jump back” option in Overcast, so starting a podcast you didn’t intend requires navigating back to the previous one you were playing.
Play, pause, rewind
I confess I’ve never been a big playlist user in Overcast or other podcast apps, as I use my subscriptions as a playlist, and I pare down what I subscribe to rather than shift among lists. Other people I know, especially those with regular long commutes or frequent air travel, queue up different sets of what’s important to them in different places.
Overcast’s playlist support is quite robust. Tap the add playlist button (a square with a plus and a list in it) in the main view, and you can set up a list that features specific podcasts, and choose one or more of those to always sort at the top, no matter your chronological sort-by choice. You can also drop in episodes outside of the selected podcasts and exclude ones from those shows you’ve picked to truly customize. After the list is created, you can select it, tap Edit, and re-order episodes; the new positions are retained.
Version 2 added chapter markers, which let podcasters—and creators of other kinds of audio files, like books and recordings of speeches and the like—insert flags in a sound file with text labels and other information to allow a listener to see a table of contents and jump to that point. While a straightforward concept, multiple implementations for different file formats prevented widespread adoption until last year. Arment once resisted this feature and not all podcast apps support all the styles. (The single-purpose Chapters app can create MP3 chapters, while Rogue Amoeba’s Fission has long had AAC chapter support and recently added it for MP3.)
Overcast shows chapter markers at the top of an episode’s show notes when one swipes up from the logo in the individual podcast episode playback view. They’re also displayed above the main playback interface as a centered text label with separate back/forward buttons. This works, but it’s a little wonky to discover and use. A way to switch to chapters or show them by default would help.
Version 2.5 reworked the “equalizer” visualization during playback, which in version 2 showed an actual representation of the distribution of frequencies in the currently playing audio within the podcast art/show notes area. The revision minimizes the distraction and battery usage by showing it in more compact fashion within the Pause symbol.
While Overcast remains an iOS app, you can also switch back and forth between a modest web app version which uses the login for your sync account, which is free. In version 2, Handoff support was improved. With a podcast playing in iOS, choosing the Safari Handoff icon in OS X brings up the web app version, which starts playing where iOS left off while pausing the iOS player. In testing, syncing back the other way either wasn’t accurate or quick enough after pausing in Safari in OS X.
Patrons of the app can use their website account to upload audio files directly, such as for audiobooks, downloads, ripped audio, and test episodes of podcasts before they’re released. Files may be up 1GB and donors can store 2GB total. Uploaded files sync to the app or can be played from the site.
Unfortunately, the 2.5 app as released lacks a link or other information that directs users to the Web site URL, which is https://overcast.fm/uploads. And one must first be logged in. This may have to do with Apple’s App Store restrictions on external links, although that doesn’t seem applicable here. The interface for uploading and the Web site is very spare; and could be spiffed up to better mirror the app.
Overcast 2 also includes 3D Touch actions and a watchOS app.
As a long-time podcaster—and current host of the Macworld podcast—I appreciate any tool that makes it easier for people who want to listen to shows and find new ones. Overcast 2 is a significant step forward for the app in big and small ways without redesigning its approach, and 2.5 carries it a bit further.
There’s no financial penalty to try and then adopt Overcast 2 and some features may be compelling enough to encourage you to switch from an existing app—especially away from Podcasts. Users new to podcasts can get their feet wet with Overcast and, if it doesn’t fill their needs, turn to several modestly priced alternatives that take different approaches to similar tasks.
Overcast Radio, LLC Overcast 2.5Macworld Rating