Zune Is Not Good For Podcasts

One of the main things that I have been using my Nexus One for is listening to podcasts. My commute to and from work can range from 40 minutes to over an hour and I use that time to listen to NPR news and several of the TWiT podcasts. My fear about switching to Windows Phone 7 is that it would not be good for listening to podcasts, and unfortunately my fear has proven founded. The Zune software on Windows Phone 7, like it does on the Zune HD, has a podcasts section, but I question whether the people who designed this aspect of the software have ever actually listened to podcasts on a regular basis.

Two main requirements must be met for a workable podcast player. First, it has to automate the process of downloading podcasts to the device. Second, it must provide the ability to queue up and play back episodes of multiple podcasts.

In the years that I used the iPod Touch as my primary podcast player I found it suffered from one major flaw, I had to connect it to my Mac in order to download episodes to the iPod. Of course, since iTunes on the Mac is the intermediary to that process, it must also be running in order to retrieve updated episodes. In a nutshell, I have to remember to have iTunes running on my Mac and remember to connect the iPod to the Mac. Windows Phone 7 suffers with this same flaw. Sure, Windows Phone 7 supports wireless sync, but that is flawed to the point of being useless.

Wireless sync on Windows Phone 7 only works under the following conditions. The phone must be connected to power AND the battery must have at least a medium level charge before the phone will even attempt to sync. Why, if the phone is on power, is there any requirement for battery life? It also will not try to sync if you are using the phone. Microsoft says that it can take up to 15 minutes before wireless sync may occur and there is no manual way to initiate synchronization. Why doesn’t wireless sync begin immediately and why can I not manually initiate a sync? I have yet to see my Windows Phone try a wireless sync after having it plugged in for as much as an hour.

Compare the above to Google Listen on my Nexus One. Google Listen runs continually as a service and every 30 minutes or more, depending on how I configure it, it checks for new episodes. It directly retrieves podcasts using RSS rather than using an intermediary program and it downloads episodes using any connection to the Internet, or I can configure it to only use WiFi. The point is, I never have to think about doing anything to get new podcast episodes, the Nexus One just does it for me, which is what a smartphone should do.

While a third party can develop a podcast application, often called a podcatcher, for it to be useful it will need the ability to download podcast episodes in the background, which is something I don’t think a third party app can do unless Microsoft blesses it. Most likely a Windows Phone 7 podcatcher will require manually initiating a process, which if it at least does it directly via the Internet and not through the Zune desktop software, will be an improvement. See how the lack of full muiltitasking on Windows Phone 7 is limiting?

Now regarding playback of podcast episodes. The Zune software treats podcast episdoes as if they are tracks to an album, and this would be ok if the software allowed users to create playlists of episodes from multiple podcasts, but there is no support for podcast playlists at all. The Zune software will move from one episodes of a podcast to the next but stops at the end of the available episodes, and you then have to manually select the next podcast and episode to listen to. Selecting a new epidsode of a podcast is problematic while driving when one should be keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel.

Again, compare the above to Google Listen, which queues up the episodes that it downloads into a listening queue in the order of most recently received to oldest. For example, I listen to the NPR Hourly News Update which is a 3 minute podcast updated every hour. The latest episode of the NPR podcast is usually at the top of the listening queue, which where I want it to be if I want to hear the latest news. Once it is done, Google Listen moves to the next episode of any podcast it downloaded, and if I were listening to that episode previuosly, it picks up right where it left off. Any good podcatcher needs to provide a similar listening queue, or at the very least provide a way for one to manually create a playlist. What I hate is to come to the end of a podcast episode during the middle of my commute and having to struggle to find another episode to listen to.

As I said, a developer can create a podcatcher application, but I think that Microsoft is in a better position of providing one, ideally by updating the Zune software on Windows Phone 7. In my opinion, either the Zune software should make it easy to download and play podcast episodes or it simply should not include the functionality.