Making the Best of the Current iOS Podcast Player Options

I listen to podcasts. A lot of podcasts. In addition to regularly listening to a bunch of different podcasts, I also subscribe to a number of others that I listen to occasionally1. As one can imagine, this means I am very demanding of my podcast applications. Unfortunately, this also means that I have not been able to find a podcast application that fits with my needs. 2

Ideal Podcast App

My ideal podcast app would do the following:3

  1. Have the ability to download or stream podcast episodes. Whether to download or stream would be something I can select on a podcast or episode level.
  2. Allow creation of playlists for podcasts, either manual or “smart.”4
  3. Refresh feeds and download new episodes quickly.
  4. Sync information about subscriptions, episodes (such as played status, including where I left off on another device), and playlists across devices.5

The Players

The two major players in the iOS podcasting space are Instacast6 (and its iPad version Instacast HD and DownCast.7 I had been a user of Instacast since its initial release, and had been generally happy with its functionality. With the release of Instacast 2.0, however, I began having problems. Mainly, there were a bunch minor bugs, such as the app crashing when I tried to restart playing a podcast after having it on pause for more than 2 or 3 minutes, that annoyed me but did not make me consider dropping the app. Most frustrating, however, was how easy it was to “Mark All Played” in the various menu options. I did it once when trying to “Delete all Played” and twice it happened via a “pocket dial”.8

Instacast allows for iCloud syncing. This, for the most part, works pretty well. Last week, however, my iCloud syncing started to throw error messages. It presented me with two options “Reset” or “Try Later.” I attempted to “Try Later” a few times. That did not put an end to the repeated error messages. I eventually selected the “Reset” option, but that too did not put an end to my error messages. I eventually resorted to manually deleting the iCloud sync file9 and starting over.

My frustration with Instacast’s iCloud syncing led to my attempt to switch to Downcast.10 I began the tedious process of moving my 102 feeds from Instacast to Downcast, making sure that I set the correct unplayed episodes and the correct timestamp on the partially played episodes. The process took about 3 days of very, very part-time work.

Downcast seemed much more reliable to Instacast, both for application stability and for iCloud syncing. Unfortunately, it had two major issues: (1) the syncing of my feeds was insanely slow11 and (2) having the application open caused rapid battery drain. The slow feed syncing prevented me from taking advantage of one of the benefits of using a podcaster app: on the go episode downloading. With Instacast, I could quickly download a new episode of Geek Friday right before leaving for dinner on a Friday night. With Downcast, I had to plan 10 minutes of update time around any feed refreshes.

Though the slow feed update was annoying, it was not the “show stopper” that Downcast’s battery drain was. I first noticed the battery drain during my morning workout. Normally, when I got back from the gym, I would have about 96-95% battery life remaining on my iPhone. When I’d get back from the gym after using Downcast during a workout, I’d have 75-72% remaining. That translates to about 25% of a full battery charge gone within 2 hours of me unplugging my iPhone from the charger. With this kind of battery performance, Downcast clearly could not be my solution going forward.

My Solution

I’ve decided that since neither Instacast nor Downcast individually can fulfill my podcasting needs, I will simply use them both. My current solution is:

  • My top rated 12 podcasts are stored in Instacast
    • This allows me to take advantage of Instacast’s superior speed. Also, since these are episodes I consume very soon after they’re released, Instacast’s iCloud syncing issues and its easily triggered “Mark all as Played” functionality are much less problematic.13
    • Secondarily, Instacast’s new “podcast parking”14 feature means that I can get push notifications from Instacast for new episodes of all my podcasts but only have to refresh my top rated feeds.
  • Everything else is stored in Downcast
    • This allows for Downcast’s much more reliable iCloud syncing to keep all my less frequently listened to podcasts in sync.
    • It also means I can use Downcast almost exclusively when I have the option to plug in my iPhone or iPad, so I do not have the issues with Downcast rapidly draining my battery. “ I fully admit that this solution is kludgy and less-than-ideal. With the options I have available currently, however, it accomplishes my podcast listening goals.

  1. I currently have 102 feeds in my podcast apps. 

  2. The proverbial elephant in the room is that the real solution to my problem is to unsubscribe from some of the podcasts I hardly, if ever, listen to. 

  3. I’m going to ignore the basics like “check for new episodes.” 

  4. Similar to Apple’s Smart Playlists in iTunes that let you select specific criteria to build a playlist from. 

  5. I do not care how this sync takes place. I’m fine if it uses iCloud, Dropbox, or magic beans. 

  6. Apple recently released its Podcast app, however, it doesn’t come anywhere near meeting my requirements for syncing or playlists. 

  7. I put the iPhone in my pocket and sometime between when I first put the iPhone in my pocket and when I pulled it out of my pocket, all my unplayed episodes had been marked played. 

  8. I have begun monitoring and manipulating my iCloud files on a fairly regular basis, so this was no big deal for me. 

  9. Recommendations from Macro Arment and Dr. Drang also helped. 

  10. Downcast sync time is measured in minutes, while Instacast is measured in seconds. 

  11. Those podcasts I want to listen to as soon as possible after their release date. 

  12. Since I’m burning through these podcasts quickly, there are less episodes to get messed up if iCloud syncing goes wonky or “Mark All as Played” gets triggered. 

  13. “Podcast Parking” means that Instacast will still check to see if there are new episodes of a podcast for push notification purposes, but it will not do anything with the feed or the episodes during the “check for new episodes” process when the app itself is open.