If you like podcasts as much as we do, you might also be unsatisfied with the inability of the iPhone’s native iPod app to let you know about new episodes and download them automatically. Enter Podcaster, an app by Alex Sokirynsky that will check for new podcast episodes, download them automatically, and act as a full-featured podcast player.
Podcaster first hit our radar in late 2008 when Apple had rejected it from the App Store for duplicating functionality already present in iTunes. Sokirynsky then got creative and distributed the app via ad hoc distribution for a $10 fee. Shortly after the rejection of Podcaster, Sokirynsky was able to get an app with similar functionality into the App Store dubbed RSS Player in early 2009. Just last month, Podcaster debuted in the App Store specifically for iOS 4 (RSS Player is still available though it is for devices running iOS 3.x). We gave Podcaster a spin to see if it satisfies our voracious podcast appetite.
While it’s possible to check for new podcasts directly on the iPhone, it’s a manual process that redirects you to the iTunes app where you need to select the podcasts you want to download and there’s no automatic way to check for new episodes of the podcasts to which you subscribe. Also, if you’re not connected to a Wi-Fi network, you may not be able to download a new podcast at all if it’s over 20 MB in size. When it comes to iTunes on your computer, the application does download new episodes automatically each time you open it but it has an annoying habit of not downloading new episodes if it thinks you’ve stopped listening to them and you have to manually re-start the automatic downloads for each affected subscription. Podcaster eliminates these limitations by checking for new podcasts on a schedule you define (though this feature isn’t as robust as we’d like – more on that in a bit) and circumvents the file size limit when downloading episodes over a cellular data connection.
To start using Podcaster, you do need to first find all of the podcasts to which you’d like to subscribe manually since it won’t automatically identify them from what’s in the music library in the iPod app (or you can import a list using an OPML file, though we did not test this). However, searching manually doesn’t take long since it’s easy to search for them by using some handy lists built into the app, like Most Popular and Top Rated, or search for them by title or other keyword. We did have one problem during this process where the app wouldn’t find the Touch Arcade podcast even though it’s readily available with a quick search directly in iTunes and entering the link manually just resulted in an endless search loop without results.
Once you’ve subscribed to all of the podcasts you want, you can adjust the app’s settings to determine how many episodes should be downloaded and saved to your iPhone, how many unplayed episodes should be kept, whether or not auto-downloading should occur when connected to Wi-Fi, 3G, or Wi-Fi and 3G networks, and more. It’s here that you also set how frequently you want the app to check for new episodes as well. While we like the idea of this feature, Podcaster won’t check in the background for you so this schedule is a bit useless since it won’t work if the app isn’t open nor does the app offer push notifications of any kind to let you know there are new episodes to prompt you to manually open the app. The lack of push notifications is a disappointment particularly since this feature is offered in the older RSS Player app, although Sokirynsky’s blog indicates this is coming in a future update.
When it comes to listening to podcasts to which you’ve subscribed, you have a lot of options in Podcaster. You can delve right into a list of the 10 most recent episodes and download or stream them. Or, you can use the handy Playlists tab that will take you through all unplayed downloads, all downloads, or all unplayed episodes regardless of whether or not they’ve been downloaded to your iPhone. The playback screen for audio podcasts provides playback controls at the top and the episodes information below. Links in the information section are clickable so you can get to show notes if the publisher provides a link there. Watching a video podcast brings up the iPhone’s native video player.
Podcaster is iOS 4-compatible and will continue playing in the background when you leave the app and playback can be controlled using the buttons in fast-app switching tray or with the controls of a compatible headset. When you’ve finished listening to a podcast, you need to manually delete it. Unfortunately, Podcaster is missing the ability to automatically delete podcasts after they’ve been listened to that exists in the older RSS Player app.
Interface-wise, we find Podcaster to not be as polished as we’d hope for, particularly given how long the app has been around in its RSS player incarnation and before when it was first submitted to Apple in 2008. Playback controls, the podcast episode lists, and other areas, while functional, lack any sense of style and the attention to small interface details we’re used to seeing even in other 3rd-party apps. Regardless, the app works well enough to get you the latest episodes of your favorite podcasts without needing to sync your iPhone to your computer or check each one manually through the iPod and iTunes store apps. Also, it wasn’t as stable as we would have liked, crashing periodically, primarily while searching for podcasts.
Our wish list for future features in Podcaster includes push notifications to learn of new episodes even when the app is closed, which will hopefully arrive soon as promised, and the ability to continue downloading podcasts in the background even when you go to another app.
All in all, Podcaster is a competent podcast client that does much more than any app that comes installed on the iPhone to keep you up to date with your favorite podcasts. Since Podcaster does nearly everything that the older RSS Player app does, it does feel a little sleazy to see Sokirynsky set up Podcaster as a new app specifically for iOS 4 since it’s absolutely possible to simply rebrand and update an app to take advantage of the new iOS 4 features and still maintain compatibility with iOS 3.x, and we can understand if RSS Player owners are bothered by this once they upgrade to the latest iOS version. While the principle of this practice definitely rubs us the wrong way, the price is relatively low at $.99. If you haven’t used RSS Player before and want an easier way to keep up with new podcasts, Podcaster is a decent option. If you are coming from using RSS Player, we wouldn’t blame you if you pass on Podcaster given how this app “upgrade” was handled.