App review: Downcast for iPad

Just as the fifth Star Trek movie was called The Final Frontier, iOS 5 was supposed to be the final frontier for Apple’s mobile devices. Finally independence from iTunes! That hasn’t been the case though, due to country restrictions on some crucial features and missed release deadlines on others. Perhaps the biggest missing piece in the PC less part of iOS 5 hasn’t been addressed by Apple at all though: podcasts.

Podcasts are audio and video programs that are much like radio and TV shows, just available online and normally for free. iTunes has been one of the best podcast downloaders for years, and I should know as I’ve tried pretty much all of them over the years in the search for a non-Apple alternative. On iOS the podcast feature is quite horrible though. You can go to the on-device iTunes and download single episodes as well as sync them from iTunes on a computer, but there’s no support for subscriptions – which is how you’d normally get episodes, and how you do it on iTunes proper.

Luckily, third party developers step in where Apple falls flat on its ass. Downcast is a podcatcher app, meaning it’s an app designed to provide you with the full podcast experience, from subscribing and keeping track of releases and downloads to playback or both video and audio. Read on for the review.

Layout/controls

Downcast is one of those apps that kick the legs out from under anyone who still claims the iPad is a giant iPod touch. Everything is right there at your fingertips without ever leaving the main screen. That’s a good thing, as you really don’t need a 9.7-inch playback screen, 9.7-inch playlist editor or 9.7-inch…anything. It’s a lot more “grown up” than many iPad apps, and takes much better advantage of the screen real estate than many.

The very top is a control bar that has some playback features, but very few of them will look familiar to music player users. There’s the repeat button that you’ll recognize, and that’s pretty much it ; the rest is optimized for podcasts. First off, there’s a button for playback speed. Multiple 0.5 and 0.25 increments from 0.5x to 3x playback speed has you covered no matter if you want to slow it down to pay better attention or speed it up to get through it quicker. Next is a sleep timer, which lets you turn off playback on a timer – useful for falling asleep to a podcast. A share button lets you access the files in all sorts of services, from Twitter to Google Reader. Podcasts are already online and free after all, so no one will hunt you down for spreading the joy.

The middle part of the top bar has buttons for skipping forwards and backwards in a file. either 15 or 30 seconds backwards, or 30 seconds or two minutes forwards, This is highly useful for when you miss something and want to go back to listen again, without using the seek bar. Next up is an update button that simple refreshes the podcast feeds, and a plus sign button that lets you add new podcasts. Adding podcasts can be done manually (with a URL), by searching their database or by browsing categories. At one point in time I subscribes to a couple of dozen different podcasts, but now I’m down to only a few video ones, and all of those were in the database ready for click-to-add. Finally you have the button to pop up the download window and the main settings button.

That’s just the top bar though – below it is the normal seek bar and the main playback controls. Play/pause, volume, skip files, a button to bring up info embedded in the file (podcasters often put show notes in the files), some information and album art displays and a button to bring up a gesture area. This gesture area button basically turns part of the screen into a surface that lets you control the player by drawing gestures. Easier than hitting the main controls if you’re blind, using the iPad in a car, or any other situation where hitting small buttons can be an issue.

Even further down you have the main browsing windows. On the left you have your list of podcasts, and on the right you get information about each podcast that you highlight to the left. In other words, you pick the show on the left and the episode on the right. The left view will sort between played and unplayed/empty shows, and also serve as the playlist editor. The playlist editor is basically the way that Downcast gives you to queue up multiple episodes, but this isn’t a normal “add one file at t a time” editor either. It can automatically generate playlists based on criteria such as played/unplayed, audio/video, downloaded/streaming etc. You can even tell it to make a playlist of all your partially played episodes. If it wasn’t clear, the app will naturally remember where you left off. It will also let you choose to play only the audio of a video podcast, which is great for finishing off video podcasts in places you don’t want to watch video – such as in the car.

More features

Podcatching is easy on the surface – not so easy when you dig into it. Avid podcast users will demand all sorts of features out of their podcatcher, and Downcast delivers. For instance, selecting a playlist or show will show the total duration of all files, which is awesome for making sure your playlist doesn’t run dry when you’re in the middle of 1m deep snow with 3 layers of clothes between you and any controls. Yeah that happens, trust me (though probably not with a device as large as the iPad as source).

The settings also have a lot of goodies. A LOT! There is even a dedicated settings menu for each podcast/playlist. there you can change settings for what to do with new episodes, what episodes to keep, default playback speed for that show, how to sort episodes, what playlists to automatically be part or, what priority to have in that playlist (with 10 levels), what volume setting to use, and last but not least you can enter login details if the podcast requires that (there are a few paid podcasts out there). All of this basically means that you can do such things as have a podcast that you really like but where the people talk very slow and very loud to be automatically added to your car playlist, always play at double speed and at only 25% volume. As I said before, I’ve been at a point where I’ve been subscribed to dozens of podcasts, and having features like this really helps.

There are also global settings that podcasts default to, as well as settings that affect the app itself not individual stuff. You can set how often to refresh (look for new podcasts), which episodes to download, whether or not to allow playing while downloading, when to automatically download (always/never/WiFi only), continuous play, force landscape mode, enable gestures, shake-to-skip, default forwards and backwards skip interval, remote control behavior (skip episode or internal skip when a remote control’s next/prev buttons are used), default volume, how to sort episodes, sound effects on/off, home screen badge behavior (none/show active downloads/show unplayed episodes as a number on the home screen icon), what region to search for podcasts from an auto screen locks. Pretty sure I violated a few dozen rules for excessive comma use in that list, but the amount of settings you can tweak in this app is insane. It blows anything else I’ve seen out the window, and that includes computer programs.

Conclusion

Making a good podcatcher is all about having been an active podcast user. So many companies integrate podcasts into their software thinking that you really only need to pull files from RSS and that’s it – maybe with a resume feature thrown in for good measure. Downcast on the other hand is the real deal. It is the complete solution to all your podcasting needs, and then some. With this app onboard, you’ll never need to sync podcasts with iTunes ever again. The best part? The app is only $2, and universal to boot, meaning you can buy it once and use on both your iPad and smaller iOS devices. All I can do is take my hat off to these guys, as this is truly one of the most impressive apps I’ve seen in ages.

 

PS: If you do get Downcast, make sure to add our podcast to the list! Just searching for “CrowdGadgets” in the app will make it magically appear.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.