Apple revamps iOS Podcasts app

mzl.bgqndydp.320x480-75Apple has recently revamped the iOS Podcasts app to version 1.2, hastily followed by a version 1.2.1 update to address a few issues that some users were having. The new version of the app is available now as a free Universal download from the App Store.

When Apple launched its Podcasts app last year, it was not received particularly well. Some users disliked the fact that podcasts had been pulled out of the iOS music player facility and consequently could no longer be added to playlists; others disliked the fact that their audio was no longer all in one place. Others still disliked the admittedly rather unnecessary and self-indulgent reel-to-reel tape recorder animation and unintuitive interface, with some outlets such as CNET going so far as to say it was “the worst app Apple ever made.”

Podcasts version 1.2.1 is a significant enough upgrade to the previous versions to warrant a re-examination, and Apple’s promotion of the app’s new version on the App Store front page shows that it believes it has created a superior experience to past iterations.

The new Podcasts app is split into two distinct components, each of which is subdivided into other categories. Firstly, the Library section of the app houses the user’s podcast subscriptions, downloaded episodes and custom “stations,” which effectively act as podcast playlists. From the Library section, the user may also browse the podcast top charts from the iTunes store and select additional episodes or shows to add to their lineup.

Subscribing to a podcast adds it to the main library view, and by default shows just the most recent episode, with remaining episodes hidden behind a “show older episodes” button. Episodes may be downloaded by tapping on the relevant button, or streamed by tapping on their title. Tapping on the arrow to the right of the entry shows a page of additional information about the episode in question, including the full title, description and other length. This page also allows users to mark an episode as played or add it to an “On-The-Go” station/playlist.

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When playing an episode, the player interface resembles the standard Apple iOS media player. At the bottom of the screen are controls for skipping forwards and backwards either by chapter or in 15-second intervals, plus a play/pause button. There’s also an on-screen volume control, and the show information scrolls across the title bar above the artwork display. Tapping the artwork reveals a scrubber bar that allows for skipping backwards and forward through the complete episode, adjusting the playback speed anywhere between 0.5 and 2x its normal speed. There’s also a sleep timer that allows the app to automatically stop playing after anywhere between five minutes and an hour, and a “share” button that shares a direct link to the podcast’s RSS feed — not the iTunes store page — via email, SMS/iMessage, Twitter or Facebook. Quitting the app and restarting allows the user to pick up where they left off — when doing this, the app will rewind a few seconds so the listener can remember what is happening.

To add new podcasts to the app, the user may either use the Top Charts function from the Library view, or switch the app into Store mode, which more closely resembles the mobile App and iTunes Stores. The Top Charts function makes use of a radio-style frequency slider that allows for browsing through both major categories and their subdivisions. The Store function, meanwhile, functions more like the standard iOS stores, with pages for featured content, specific links to the audio and video sections of the store, and a search function. The store is simple and easy to navigate for anyone who has browsed the App or iTunes Stores on iOS before, though by adopting this approach it does run into the same issues of discoverability as its app- and media-centric counterparts: featured and brand-new content is easy to find, but other material is sometimes more difficult to locate unless you know exactly what you are looking for.

The new version of the app has been met with a somewhat mixed reception by App Store reviewers, though not all complaints are accurate. The chief complaint that is a potential issue for some, however, is the apparent removal of a past feature that allowed users to play all unplayed episodes from oldest to newest in reverse chronological order — it is possible to set up stations to play episodes in a particular order and there is a default station for all unplayed episodes, but the only chronological option for playback order puts the most recent episodes first. Some users are very upset about this; others it may not bother at all.

Apple’s Podcasts app is not the best podcast app in the App Store — third-party apps such as Instacast and DownCast are much more well-regarded and fully-featured — but it does its job well enough for many users, and is free, to boot. Those who have more specific requirements for podcast listening and management may do better to look elsewhere for premium, paid, third-party apps with more features; those who simply want to quickly and easily find something to listen to will be able to do so with minimum fuss thanks to Apple’s app.

You can follow Podcasts’ progress with AppData, our tracking service for mobile and social apps and developers.