The first podcast I ever listened to was the MacLife podcast way back in 2009. I didn’t know then that podcasts and I would have an on-again off-again relationship for the next few years. I took some time off until I got back into the podcasting scene on Android a year or two ago. Once on the Android platform, I found my podcasting app of choice; that being Pocket Casts by ShiftyJelly. Pocket Casts has been my favorite podcast app up until very recently, when I tried out another app that has been making the rounds in the iOS community: Overcast.
Overcast is from developer Marco Arment, best known for his work with Instapaper; one of the crown jewels of the App Store in it’s early days. As of late though, Instapaper has been picked up by the company Betaworks and Marco has moved on to other things, those “other things” primarily being Overcast ever since he debuted the app in early 2014.
Digging into the app, the UI doesn’t follow the iOS 7 style guidelines to a T, but manages to look like a modern app all while pushing through some improvements on what has become considered “the norm” in podcasting UI trends.
The main screen of the app is pretty standard fare for podcast apps. You have a toolbar at the top, custom playlists, unplayed podcasts, played podcasts, and small playback controls adorning the bottom of the screen all of which is furnished with striking orange accents. Sprinkled around the screen as well are buttons for viewing currently downloading podcasts, creating a new custom playlist, or adding a new podcast to your feeds via URL, search, Twitter recommendations, or by picking from Mr. Arment’s curated categories.
One bit of the main screen that I found particularly pleasing was the settings icon that instead of being a generic ‘hamburger’ icon or settings cog displays the app’s icon in it’s signature orange color.
The custom playlists feature can be quite useful, as the app allows you to set different parameters for what podcasts will be found in any given list. This could allow you to set up different playlists for different genres of podcasts, or for different play states. I personally keep mine pretty simple. I like having a playlist for “All Unplayed” podcasts as well as another playlist for “Unfinished” podcasts, which will show me podcasts that I’ve only partially finished. I’m sure other, more hardcore, podcast listeners have far more complex ways of setting up their playlists, but for me this works just fine.
Like I mentioned earlier, you’re able to add podcasts via URL from the clipboard, searching through Overcast’s directory, from your Twitter recommendations, or from Marco’s built-in curated categories.
This leads to one of the main advantages of Overcast that I find pretty innovative, so much so that I wish I got to use it more; Twitter recommendations. Every podcast app out there has the ability to add a URL or search a directory of podcasts, but the ability to get recommendations on podcasts based on your Twitter friends is quite useful.
Now, I don’t have many friends in the offline world who listen to podcasts, but I do follow several iOS-savvy people on Twitter who do. Its actually very useful to be able to get recommendations for other podcasts I might find interesting based on their tastes. I’ve found several new shows that I’ve begun to listen to in the past couple weeks based on recommendations that I found in this section of the app, and it’s something that definitely makes Overcast stand out in my eyes.
Before I move on from this point, it’s worth noting that Overcast uses read-only tokens for your Twitter account. Meaning that it cannot post tweets from your account or change your account’s settings. This is a “feature” that I’d like to see added to far more apps that access your Twitter information. I’m sure the vast majority of developers don’t need full read/write permissions and the peace of mind knowing my account isn’t being taken advantage of is really appreciated. Thumbs up.
In a related vein, the app has you create an Overcast account when you first install the app. This is used for a couple reasons cited on the app’s Skeptic’s FAQ page, the most subtle of which is allowing Marco’s servers to check for new episodes of the shows you follow and then push them down to the app. This is opposed to the app itself refreshing in the background, using up your device’s cpu cycles and inevitably, the battery. On the front end of the account, Overcast lets you sync your shows and listening position across devices in addition to backing up your data. Not everyone will view this in the same light, but I don’t mind having another account especially if it adds to the app’s overall experience, like it does here in Overcast.
One last bit about that, if you’ve already had an Overcast account prior to installing the app, there’s a handy 1Password option that allows you to easily bring in your login information from one of your 1Password Vaults. 1Password integration has become a staple of a piece of quality software in my opinion, and the fact that Overcast has built it into the setup process of the app makes it all the easier to enjoy using the app from the second you open it for the first time.
The playback screen is the area where Overcast pushes the most boundaries in the podcast app world, and I have to say while I was a bit skeptical initially, the innovations presented here are a huge reason that Overcast is on my home screen today.
To start with, the UI isn’t your normal Music.app playback screen. Instead, Overcast puts the timestamp and scrubbing bar up at the top of the page cast again in that signature orange. In the middle of the page is the album artwork which is also scrollable to display a show’s show notes. This is a handy addition but ultimately ends up being a bit unintuitive. If you didn’t know you could swipe down to scroll on the album artwork, you’d be hard pressed to find that functionality. At the same time I like the simple aesthetics of the album art on the playback screen, so if an update ever comes which adds a little more context to that particular part of the UI, I hope Marco handles it with care.
Another part of the UI which instantly stands out whilst listening to a podcast is the waveform animations which populate the lower half of the album art. While playing, these orange lines jump up and down in response to whatever audio is playing at the time. Unlike any other implementations of this I’ve seen, Overcast’s waveforms aren’t fake, and the app actually parses them from the audio you’re listening to. This makes the app feel all the more legitimate and as someone who hates when apps pass off fake waveforms just to add to the perceived “cool factor,” I’m glad Overcast is 100% legit.
This brings us to the two most impressive and potentially influential features that Overcast has to offer: Smart Speed and Voice Boost. Smart Speed analyzes the audio file you're listening to and cuts down on the small, almost imperceptible, pauses between words and sentences. Voice Boost analyzes the audio file in a similar manner, and evens out the audio's volume so you get a consistently loud and pleasant listening experience even if the podcast you’re listening to isn’t the most professionally produced. Smart Speed sounds a bit “out there” when you first hear about it, but rather than making the podcast sound sped up or unnatural like most podcast app’s speed scaling features do, they actually make the show seem a little more professional and adds to the perceived quality of the production. That combined with the effects of Voice Boost to make everything a consistent volume and you’ve got a really comfortable listening experience that’s hard to give up once you’ve acclimated to it.
Before using Overcast I’d never tried listening to podcasts with any effects applied to them, so I wasn’t used to them initially and wasn’t sure how I felt about them. Now, I can honestly say that they’ve become a huge part of my podcast listening experience and while I’d still be able to listen to podcasts without them, I’m glad I don’t have to. These are the exact kind of subtle, quality features that I look for in the iOS apps that I love, and they’ve made sure that Overcast has garnered a spot on my homescreen.
Also smattered around the playback screen are buttons to skip 30 seconds forward and backwards in the audio stream, options whether or not to play the next podcast in a list after the current one ends, a sleep timer with options to add 5 or 30 minutes to it, options on whether or not to keep the playback effects used here for other podcasts, and a button to trigger the system share sheet. Most of these options aren’t things I use often, but they’re there if you want them and I’m sure many people find them useful. I’ve never tried the sleep timer feature out before but it sounds pleasant. Maybe I’ll try that tonight.
Overcast does have a few downsides that I’ve either come to live with or just come to ignore during my stay with the client. The main feature missing from other apps is the ability to stream podcasts, or stream them while downloading the rest of the file in the background. This limitation has something to do with how the Smart Speed and Voice Boost effects are applied, and Marco has said multiple times that he’s working on integrating streaming support, even if he has to hand-code it all himself.
I thought this would be a deal-breaker for me initially, as Pocket Casts has had this feature for awhile now. It was odd for a couple days, but I’ve come to realize that under almost all situations the podcast that I’m about to listen to will take less than 30 seconds to download, and with the addition of background downloading in iOS 7 I’m almost never in a situation where the podcast I’m wanting to listen to hasn’t already downloaded. It’s a non-issue, I’ve decided.
The only other thing that I can think of off the top of my head that made me a little hesitant to switch to Overcast for my full-time podcasting app was that the web client wasn’t anywhere near as fully-featured as Pocket Cast’s. It’s still not. Overcast’s web client (logged into with your Overcast account) consists of a list of your subscribed podcasts, and a list of all the episodes you haven’t listened to as of yet. Once you’ve selected an episode, you’re taken to a screen with the title, album art, show notes, and a basic web audio player to listen to the podcast with. Compared to Pocket Cast’s fully featured UI with the ability to sync your position between the Web and the native app, Overcast’s offering pales. I’ve put up with the change from Pocket Casts, but it’s a pain to have to manually pull up my position on my iPhone and then scrub through the episode to find it on my Mac. This is the main area of the Overcast experience that I’d like to see improved upon, and I hope that Marco has plans to upgrade the web experience and at least add the ability to pick up where you were listening on your iPhone, if not a more in-depth plan to implement a proper playback-UI.
I ought to put in a little note about the app’s pricing model here at the end. The app is actually free to use and 99% of the app’s features are available without paying so much as a penny. You’re able to listen to all your podcasts without any issues at all, and can try out the effects features like Smart Speed and Voice Boost for 5 minutes at a time to see if you like them or not. Not all of the paid features are available to try, so here they are as follows:
- Cellular downloads
- Variable playback speed
- Smart Speed
- Voice Boost
- Per-podcast effects settings
- One-by-one playback option
- Sleep timer
- Unlimited number of playlists
- Unlimited episodes shown in playlists
All of the features are unlocked with a one time $0.99 in app purchase, and while they’re not required to use the app, I think that they make up many of the little quality features that make Overcast so great. I’d definitely say they’re worth it and really, if I had to choose between my next cup of coffee and getting a handful of features that will make podcasts a lot better for me, I’d pick the latter every time.
Overcast sits in the sweet spot of iOS software for me. It’s made by a single developer who seems to care about the work he’s doing, and it’s full of little loving details and quality features that stand out if you’re looking for them.
I didn’t know initially if the new features posed by the app would be worth the switch from a more mature podcasting client like Pocket Casts, but the quality of those new features and the character that the app interjects into every screen of the UI really make it a joy to use. Not only has it earned a place on my homescreen, it recently kicked Music.app out of my dock as well.
There are a few nitpicks that I’d like to see improved upon, the biggest one being the Web UI being in an early state as it stands today, but Marco has stated that he’s working on large updates for the future, and whatever he has coming down the pipeline, I’m excited to see.
Overcast is the kind of app I’m always on the lookout for. It pushes the boundaries of traditional UI tropes, adds in some innovative, quality features, and does it all with a good deal of character and panache. It might not be the most mature in it’s ecosystem, but none of it’s weaknesses are absolute deal-breakers for me. If that’s what you’re looking for in a podcast player, or an iOS app in general for that matter, clear it a space on your homescreen and see what you think.