Overcast App is a Win for Podcasts

Apps dubbed “podcast players” and “podcatchers” are more popular among the developer community these days. I think that podcasts are a great way to digest content, and like many designers and app developers, I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts on my iPhone because it feels right. I get many hours of listening enjoyment from podcast personalities.

Another reason we see so many podcast apps coming out from third party developers is that Apple did such a uniquely horrible job with their own. The Podcasts.app by Apple stinks. Even now, it feels like its an app in its infancy—just nearing the end of its version 1.0 cycle (maybe on the cusp of turning 2.0). The fact is that Apple has been iterating improvements to their podcast app for longer than that, and the app is still a failure to podcast listeners. It’s so simple and bland that it takes some of the joy away from using the iPhone or iPad for something as extraordinary as listening to podcasts.

The best podcast apps to date

Third party podcast apps, on the other hand, have been a real treat. Some are mainstream (or as close to mainstream as a podcatcher has ever been) like Instacast. This app plays podcasts with good form: helps you discover them, subscribe to them, organize them by playlists… and runs on the Mac, iPad, and the iPhone (Mac and iOS versions respectively). For these reasons, Instacast rose to the top of the podcatcher charts early on.

Pocket Casts became popular with iOS 7. It felt right on the redesign of iOS. In fact, in some ways, Pocket Casts was ahead of the curve: enhancing the iPhone experience before most other app developers knew what to do with iOS 7. Pocket Casts sports a great design and some “power user” features that have been refined over the years. I think it is fair to say that Pocket Casts is an example of developers refining the best qualities in podcast players to their peak performance. Perhaps the only flaw I can see in Pocket Casts is that it is based on what podcast listeners wanted in the past. The app hasn’t pushed podcasts forward with new features in recent times.

Castro is another honorable podcast app. It is sleek, with an emphasis on shaking up the design of podcatchers in general (you can’t mistake Castro for another). It’s trying to be a powerful too, but not so powerful that it can’t have fun in its design. For this reason, though Castro is fun to use and its got enough features to satisfy many users—but not enough features to satisfy power users—Castro feels like the sports car among podcast apps. It’s the cool kid. It’s what you show off if you have pocket change to spend on another podcast app.

Other podcast apps worth a mention are DowncastPodWrangler, and RSSradio. They get the job done, but they feel like they belong on my dad’s iPhone. They’re apps that think differently from how I think through listens to podcasts. RSSradio was the podcatcher I turned to first when I gave up hope on Apple’s own. It, along with the others, will make many happy listeners, but I feel like these don’t warrant in-depth review because they feel as though they are not competing for “Top of the Podcast Apps” slot.

Overcast was recently released

We needed fresh meat in the podcast app category to keep the ball moving forward for developers and listeners. Overcast (App Store) (website) feels like the new kid on the block with some outstanding talents. Overcast is producing a good show of what podcatchers can do when they aim higher for greatness in feature sets. Released to the public via the App Store on July 16, it has made a splash among the faithful podcast listeners and developers that are eager to see where the medium will be taken next.

If you are still reading this, then you probably know what I’m talking about. Marco Arment is no stranger to us. He has built some very influential things for the app community at large. He is a hero to many developers.

These reasons alone don’t make Overcast worth our time though. I want to be honest with my assessment and call it how I see it. How well does Overcast perform for a long-time podcast listener, a podcast producer, and an app enthusiast, such as myself?

Podcasts are just about to take off the runway

If you think what I’m telling you here is all empty nerdery, then pay closer attention. Apps are taking over the web and technology. When older generations are gone, there will be little reason to keep old-timy radio alive. The younger crowd wants something to listen to, and they are largely attracted to podcasts because they offer audio on-demand. They meet the niches and interests of younger listeners better. And more people can afford to produce a podcast than could ever produce a radio program.…

More people are introduced to podcasts every day. Though the medium is large, it’s still growing. We don’t know how fast its growing, but podcasts are still catching on with the world’s population. Apple is going to add their podcatcher to the default app set of iOS 8, because its time for podcasts to be called up from the minors into the majors for apps.

So podcast apps and the value they give to listeners are just getting started.

Overcast is a great podcast player

Overcast is an app that features new and compelling reasons to make podcasts a part of your weekly media digest. If you’re a veteran of podcasts or new to the medium, you should find something in Overcast you like.

Overcast has two very compelling features. They are effects the app can perform on the audio playback so you can make better use of audio podcasts.

The first is called Smart Speed. This on/off option in the Overcast player shortens silences in the podcasts you listen to. This may sound trivial, but over the long-run of podcasts you digest it will save you hours of listening time.

I’ve been using podcast players for years that don’t have this feature. I started using Overcast less than a week ago to listen to the 30 podcasts I’m subscribed to. I listen to them while I drive, do chores around the house, and sometimes while I’m professionally designing what-not that doesn’t take my full concentration.

Smart Speed has saved me an extra 2 hours beyond speed adjustment alone, according to Overcast itself. So, leaving Smart Speed on its default functionality, and having it turned on all the time I’ve listened to podcasts in the last six days, it has cut out dead air in the audio playback significantly. If I wanted to go back to another podcast app, I would have to accept the fact that I would not have Smart Speed, as this is a relatively new sort of feature that doesn’t come in other apps at this time.

The other standout effect you can apply to audio playback in Overcast is Voice Boost, a vocal equalizer that enhances volume of voices of any sort. This makes it easy to hear quiet voices, and podcasters in general with muffled speech.

People’s voices tend to trail off when they are talking on the microphone for more than a few seconds at a time, as they are shorter on breath. With Voice Boost on, the people I listen to come through very clearly, as to be heard all the time. I spend very little time fiddling with the volume controls on my device with Voice Boost on.

There’s just a few times that Voice Boost doesn’t help.

  • When I’m in a room that is mostly quiet with little to no background noise, I notice that Vocal Boost is not necessary as it over-amplifies voices, to the point they make my ears ring.
  • When I’m listening to podcasts on headphones the same problem arises. If noise around me is especially quiet, then I notice that the voices seem overly enhanced to the point of grating on my nerves. They annunciate everything too clearly.

So, when the voices on a podcast sound unduly-engineered, I turn Overcast’s Voice Boost off.

Besides the two special features of Overcast, it has the other tried-and-true features that podcast listeners cannot live without, like:

  • Easy discovery of new shows to give a listen.
  • Subscribe to virtually any podcast with a feed online.
  • Playback speed adjustment, as to hear them faster than real time.
  • Playlists you can manually and somewhat automatically manipulate into presenting podcasts that meet your select criteria.
  • A clean and easy to read view of podcast show notes, as to give listeners access to links that producers add to their shows. Quickly jump to the web to view what they were discussing on the show, if it had a relevant link to a product or page online.

These are the most important details in Overcast, but there are many other little nuances you can tinker with in the app’s settings. Marco has stated that more features are on the way (like podcast streaming) and he’s also considering the development of an iPad and Mac version.

Overcast has room to grow, but how can it improve?

He hasn’t followed the mold of other podcatchers. With Overcast, he broke the mold and made something that seems familiar enough that also pushes podcast-listening into a better experience for the users. Marco gave Overcast a lot of thoughtful consideration before the 1.0 release.

It’s a bit more social than other podcast apps with Twitter integration, so you can quickly see a list of podcasts people you follow on Twitter recommend. It has the Voice Boost and Smart Speed features that address long-standing problems for users’ audio listening experience. The Overcast app for iPhone (which is all there is at this time) keeps features simple and delightful to use.

What it needs to sweeten the deal in future updates is difficult to say. I don’t think that Overcast should add features that make it more-or-less feature comparable to other podcatchers. If Overcast has the exact same features as, say, Pocket Casts, then it would lose its uniqueness. It’s not going to be all things to all podcast listeners. Overcast is going to be Marco’s podcatcher. Overcast is already a great app because it is meeting this niche in the niche. (Marco just happens to have good app tastes.)

The only feature I would like to see is a dark theme to the design interface. Overcast sports a mostly light (white) background with colored text and icon buttons (black, orange, and blue-green in color). When I’m driving at night, the iPhone’s display can appear especially bright while docked on my car’s dashboard. I would like to see a quick toggle control to make it dark-themed, like the Unread app sports?

Does Overcast blow away the competition?

No, of course not. The competition is alive and well. Pocket Casts is still a tremendous app, and I give it five stars. Most users won’t find good enough reason to try Overcast if they are happy with the podcatcher they currently use.

I wouldn’t call myself a power user of podcast apps. I listen to 30 podcasts every week, but I don’t like lots of fiddly settings. Overcast is, at the moment, streamlined. Even though I find some of the interface design unintuitive, it works speedily and I don’t experience hang-ups of any sort in Overcast.

Other podcast players will probably try to match Overcast’s Voice Boost and Smart Speed features so they can out-do Marco’s app. So what? Others have developed apps to out-do Instapaper, but I still use Instapaper because it works well for my reading time.

So, Overcast is the podcast app I will use for the foreseeable future. It’s just that great.

Joe Darnell

Joe is a UI and graphic designer with prior experience as the creative director for three media-based businesses. Joe’s passionate about web design and graphic design with about 15 years of experience in the media industry. Additionally, Joe is the host of the Top Brew and Techtonic podasts, both featured on iTunes.