In the last few months Podcasts have come back into the public eye much more, thanks in a large part to This American Life’s offshoot – Serial. The truth is that podcasts have had a devoted following for years and have an entire subculture built around them. So what is a podcast? In the simplest terms it is usually an ongoing spoken word series. Run a podcast app or program and subscribe to programs or interest to you and you can have content delivered regularly. Podcasts were originally audio only but are now often available as video as well.
The first podcasts were started in the 1990s but did not grow significantly until the iPod popularised them in the mid 2000s. There are podcasts covering almost possible interest – usually factual in some way – and they are of varying degrees of professionalism and quality.
To subscribe and listen to Podcasts you need a podcast app or a ‘podcatcher’. There are several big names but one of the most notable is Pocket Casts by company Shift Jelly. This app is available cross-platform on Apples iOS as well as Android and is, unusually for a podcatcher available on the web. Create an account and your subscriptions and playback position can sync over your devices and PC.
Good to Know
Cost and Adverts
Pocket Casts is a paid app on all platforms. It costs a one time fee of £4.99 on Android and iOS and $9 for the web service although they have regular sales. The Android and iOS apps do not have trials but there is a 14 day trial for the web version.
There are no adverts, pop ups or extra fees at any point.
In iOS version 8.0 is required and Android needs version 4.1 or later. The web app will run on any modern browser – I’ve had it running on Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari with no problems.
Pocket Casts is aimed a podcast listener who already listens to podcasts, perhaps using media players or Apple’s built-in Podcast app and wants to upgrade to a better experience and have more control. Shifty Jelly targets the mobile apps primarily with the web version being available as an extra either for a bigger screen experience for video podcasts or those who spend a lot of time at their PC but cannot use their phone, perhaps in a work environment.
Features and Accessibility
When it comes to features Pocket Casts has a huge number – enough that almost any use case that you are looking for can be found.
Some of the more interesting of these include:
- Syncing and backup. If you log in on your phone and your iPad (or whichever combination) your subscriptions, unlistened and positions are synced from one device to another. This also means that if you change phones it is straightforward to bring your subscriptions along. This does not quite work automatically in real-time taking a minute or two so I’ve had instances where I was listening on the computer then picked up the phone to play as a I left and found that it was not quite synced correctly. It can also be manually triggered in settings
- Chromecast support. If you have a Chromecast you can cast your podcasts directly to the TV and play the audio or video through it.
- Variable speed. Some people find they prefer listening faster or slower and Pocket Casts lets you decrease the speed to half or increase it to three times in .1x gradients. This can be set on a per subscription or global basis but does not work on video – audio only.
- Sleep timers. Set a podcast running and let stop itself after a user definable amount of time.
Design & Visual Accessibility
Pocket Casts has a fairly simple aesthetic based on a tiled interface. This interface changes in exact layout but maintains the same overall style over all three of the systems it runs on. Menu on the left and in the centre either a choice of podcasts, a choice of episodes or the controls on your current episode.
Taken as a whole it is quite aesthetically pleasing, simple to use and stable between its sections.
There are two available themes – dark and light switchable in the settings. As you would expect they are inverses of each other with black text on a white background for the light theme and white text on a black background for the dark. Text size is the default for whichever system you are using so can be increased using the OS accessibility options.
Pocket Casts has nothing inherent in it which would bother users with photophobia, motion sickness or low vision although individual video podcasts may present an issue.
Blind users can use screen readers to navigate the app and whilst Pocket Casts is not perfectly laid out for this it does work. The android app also allows integration with Tasker which does present some interesting possibilities such a using a NFC tag to trigger a podcast – put your phone down in a specific place and have the podcast start playing.
Input and Touch
Pocket Casts has fairly standard controls. Swipe in from the left and the tray of options is presented and from that point you click or tap through to whatever you are looking for. The Android app also includes a control widget and can be controlled from notifications.
The mobile apps also support responding to external controls such as on wired or bluetooth headsets. I’ve tested this with two wired headsets and three wireless bluetooth headsets with good results.
Finally Pocket Casts can be controlled via an Android Wear watch. This is very convenient for pausing, skipping back and forward and restarting when listening. Unfortunately there is no way to initially start a podcast initially so you will need to get your phone out for that.
Ease of Use
If you have never listened to podcasts in the past Pocket Casts is relatively easy to use. The first time you run it offers you a list of featured podcasts and then offers you trending, top and top videos or lets you search for a specific title.
If you are coming from another podcatcher it is a fairly straightforward transition. Pocket Casts supports the OPML standard which allows you to import a list of subscriptions and listened/unlistened episodes or you could search for each series individually.
The more complicated and advanced settings of Pocket Casts are all set to reasonable default values and if you are not interested in them can be ignored. It is even possible to remove options from the playback screen if you are not interested in them.
If you are a frequent podcast listener you will probably find the default OS media players very restrictive for podcasts. Pocket Cast is quite simply the best interplatform podcast player available. It has every feature that you can think of being useful, is very stable, syncs and is available via the web as well as mobile platforms. If you listen to podcasts this is should be your choice.