The Overcast podcast app has switched from freemium to free, added streaming, and improved some of its custom audio settings—but it looks and works mostly the same. It changes the equation in choosing a podcast app other than Apple’s owns Podcasts app, which has minimal necessary functionality—the latest release only averages three out of five stars in its App Store review.
The original 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 and set or turned off on individual podcasts. The developer, Marco Arment, says the audio features were improved in this release, but I didn’t rely on Voice Boost before, and I can’t tell any appreciable difference in Smart Speed, which he says now work better with quieter voices.
But 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.
In version 2, everything is free, and developer Marco Arment is asking those who find 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 there are no extra features so far, and potentially ever. It’s somewhere between a tip jar and shareware.
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.
The new version 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.
However, 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 your All Episodes feed 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-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 in 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.
Adding podcasts is fairly painless and ties in with show discovery. Tap the + button at upper right in the main view, and you can 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.)
Discovery is grouped into categories and becomes more powerful if you link in a Twitter, 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 most recommended, most recommended by those you’re connected with on Twitter, and then 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.
One of Overcast’s roughest areas that I’ve always found maddening in version 1 remains in version 2. Tap a show to view details and after tapping to subscribe or download an episode, Overcast drops 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.
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 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 adds a feature that Arment resisted, and which has uneven support and enthusiasm for: chapter markers. These markers let podcasters—and creators of other kinds of audio files, like books and recordings of speeches and the like—insert flags in a file with text labels and other information to allow a listener to advance to that point. A straightforward concept, there are multiple implementations for different file formats and a lot of incompatibility.
But it’s a welcome addition, even if few podcasters have adopted them, because the tags have been largely ignored. With Overcast throwing its hat in the ring, it’s possible we’ll see a virtuous adoption cycle. Overcast shows the 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.
While Overcast remains an iOS app, with a sync account active you can also switch back and forth between a modest web app version. In this release, 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.
Overcast 2 also includes 3D Touch actions and a watchOS app, designed for watchOS 1. A revised version for watchOS 2 is coming.
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.
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.
Note: I worked for Arment as an editor at *The Magazine*, a publication I ultimately purchased from him. I have no financial interest in anything he does. I am thanked in the Overcast credits for providing feedback, something I do at no cost for many products during beta testing, whether ultimately reviewing them or not.