MacVoices Briefing - Downcast, The Podcatcher for Mac and iOS

This is a MacVoices Briefing on Downcast, the podcast application for Mac, iPhone and iPad.

Downcast is my preferred podcast application, period. I’ve tried others, used others for an extended period of time, but with each release of Downcast, there are more features that I really use and that are important to me. There is also two particular decisions the Downcast developers made that are deal-breakers for me for so many other podcast applications, notably, Marco Arment’s highly regarded Overcast.

First, Downcast supports both audio and video podcasts, and second, has versions available for the Mac, iPad and iPhone. I recognize the challenges of trying to support video for many of the features, and the challenges of doing multiple versions can be a burden, but I really don’t want to make my podcast management all the more complex by having one app for audio, one for video, one which runs only on iOS, and another that runs on the Mac. For me, it just isn’t worth the hassle, especially since I go from device to device for podcast consumption.

So why not use iTunes? Unfortunately, for some time now, the podcast support in iTunes has been a bit lacking for anyone who listens to podcasts on more than a casual basis. Lost subscriptions, spotty syncing between Mac and iOS devices and more sent me looking for something better a long time ago.

Like all pod catchers, the cool name for applications that let you subscribe and listen to or watch podcasts, Downcast does just that. It is separate from iTunes, so you’ll either need to re-subscribe to your preferred podcasts within the app itself, or export the subscriptions from that other pod catcher you’ve been using. Most of the pod catchers make it pretty easy - just find the export setting and you’ll end up with an OPML file that you can then import into Downcast and all your subscriptions will be intact, though if you had shows you hadn’t listened to yet, you may have to go back and re-download them individually. By default, Downcast only grabs the latest episode.

A note to iTunes users, especially iTunes 12 users: If you’re using an earlier version of iTunes, you *may* be able to Control-Click on Podcasts in your sidebar and export your subscriptions. If you’re up to iTunes 12, however, I’ve been unable to find a way to do this, so you’ll have to go the manual route. The downside is that it is a little time-intensive. The upside is that it is a good opportunity to prune your podcast list down to what you really listen to, and get rid of the subscriptions that may be chewing up space on your device. The end result is well worth the effort, since you’ll have so many more features and options going forward.

So those are some of the basics to get you up and running. Let’s get to what’s great about Downcast:

Syncing:
Downcast uses iCloud to sync podcasts subscriptions, and I’ve found it to be very reliable. The only hiccup I had was when I had my iOS devices upgraded to iOS 8, but hadn’t upgraded my Mac to Yosemite yet. Once I turned on iCloud drive and did the Yosemite upgrade, everything smoothed back out and my subscriptions and episodes played synced like they are supposed to.

Interface:
One brilliant move on the developers’ part was making a consistent, if different, interface for the Mac, iPad and iPhone. The benefits and limitations of each device’s screen size are addressed effectively, making for a consistent, if slightly different, view on your podcasts. For example, with their larger screens, the Mac  and iPad interface share the same two-pane view of your subscriptions: podcasts on the left, individual episodes for the selected podcast on the right. The iPhone, even the iPhone 6 plus, shows just the list of podcasts, then moves right to show individual episodes, and right again to play individual episodes. But, because they are both touch interfaces, the iPhone and iPad versions share may gesture commands, like a pull-down on the list of podcasts to refresh, where the Mac version has a dedicated icon for that function. It all makes sense.

While some pod catchers pride themselves in their super-clean interfaces, especially for playing, I prefer having the most-used controls available to me…and not just play, pause and stop. The inclusion of Continuous Play, two different Skip Forward and Skip Backward buttons that are configurable in duration, playback speed, time played and time remaining indicators makes playing the podcast the way I want to simple.

The number of those controls is, once again, dependent on which device you’re using. but I’ve always found that the appropriate ones are always right where I want them when I want them.

Playback Speed
As a podcast producer, I’m not necessarily thrilled about double or triple speed playback options, because every single word of every single show is sacred and golden. As a podcast consumer, however, I treasure variable playback options, and Downcast has plenty. I keep up with over sixty different shows that range from tech to business to entertainment, and the only way that’s possible is listening to some at 1.5x or 2x speed. Downcast recently updated those options to include new speeds for 2.25x, 2.5x 2.75x. This makes it easier to train yourself to listen at faster speeds because you can work your way up slowly. The jump from 1x to 1.5x is pretty easy to make. To get to 2X is a bit tougher. Above that, and you definitely need a little practice, and Downcast gives you that option.

As a side note: don’t expect to be able to standardize on listening at a given speed, no matter how much you train. So all depends on the sound of the voices involved, the quality of the recording, and the speed at which some people speak. And, of course, your own desire to savor or absorb the information being delivered. There are some shows I listen to at 2.5x. Others at only 1X. Find the speed that works for you for each of your podcasts and enjoy.

And a word about video playback at high speeds: Downcast can handle playing back video podcasts at up to 2x speed and will keep the video in sync, so that it ends up looking something like an old-time movie of some kind. Go above 2x and Downcast will skip frames, giving you a more slideshow - stop-motion like experience. The audio will play back at the requested speed just fine; the video just won’t speed up accordingly.

Settings and Options
Downcast provides all sorts of options to control podcast playback and management. Settings can be assigned globally and then overridden for individual podcasts. Feed refreshes can be done based on WiFi or cellular, on a schedule, or by location. The number of episodes per podcast to download or keep can be set. There are options for continuous play, streaming playback, and even gestures. In short, pretty much any control or setting you want or need is probably there and with granular control…or you can just use the defaults and tweak only what you need.

One last feature that is really handy is that, when playing a podcast, the entire iPhone screen becomes a toggle to pause and play. If you’re trying to manipulate your phone in the car without looking at the screen, it is much easier to tap anywhere on the screen for control rather than trying to hit a small play or pause control.

There is a lot to like about Downcast, and I’d encourage you to give it a try if you are a serious podcast listener, or are frustrated with iTunes as a pod catcher. You can find the iOS versions that runs on both the iPhone and iPad on the app store for $2.99, and the Mac version is on the Mac App Store for $9.99. So, for a total of about $13, you can have a powerful set of applications that crosses all your Apple devices, keeps your podcasts in sync, and gives you pretty much any option you could want.

That’s the MacVoices Briefing on Downcast, my podcast application of choice. If you give it a try, let me know how you like it. I’m on twitter as @chuckjoiner, or drop me an email at chuck@macvoices.com.