Overall, Overcast

Overcast by Marco Arment is, in my opinion, the best-designed and best overall podcast client for iOS.

This is not because of its looks, its excellent features like Voice Boost or Smart Speed, or its no-nonsense playlist features. Rather, it’s the best designed because of its conceptual simplicity, and the features it does not have. Most other podcast clients, including Apple’s own, allow every podcast episode to be marked as played or unplayed, and then to be downloaded or not downloaded. Additionally, most of them allow you to stream a podcast episode, as well as download it before playing it.

Overcast dispenses with that: a podcast is either downloaded, or not downloaded. That’s it. A podcast that is downloaded is either unplayed, or in progress. The section in a podcast’s settings where downloaded podcasts are listed is just called “Unplayed.” (There is now the ability to tell the app not to delete episodes after they have been played–but there is still no explicit played/unplayed feature in the app.)

This makes managing podcasts very easy. You never run into a situation where a podcast you want to listen to is new and unplayed but not yet downloaded–as soon as the podcast is available, it automatically downloads. And if you’re done with a podcast, you simply swipe to delete it. You don’t have to worry about some distinction between marking a podcast played (but not deleting it), deleting it (but not marking it as played), or both deleting a podcast and marking it as played. (When I’m done with a podcast episode in Apple’s podcast app before it’s over, I always both mark it played and delete it.)

Overcast, left. Unplayed=Downloaded. Simple. Apple’s Podcast app, right, complete with downloaded and undownloaded unplayed episodes, downloaded and undownloaded played episodes. Not simple.

Marco has said before that he is working on adding streaming. I hope he can do that without losing the app’s simplicity. For example, just allow people to stream episodes from the “All” area, without adding a played/unplayed feature. And rename the current “Unplayed” area to “Downloaded.”

Overcast’s design simplicity comes with tradeoffs: it’s not a suitable app for particular use cases. I will list two. There are some podcasts that I subscribe to where I want to listen to every single episode. Perhaps sequentially. There are many history podcasts of this sort–for example, Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome” podcast, which ran from July 2007 through September 2013, is 179 episodes, and you really have to listen to them from the beginning. It would be unwieldy to download all of these, and they might fill up your phone. There are many “history of” podcasts of this sort. Another podcast I listen to is the USCCB’s “Daily Readings” podcast–the Catholic lectionary. This podcast updates once a month, with one episode per day of the month. But I might not want to download thirty-one episodes all at once. For podcasts like this, there are two options. One, don’t listen to those podcasts with Overcast. Use Apple’s built-in Podcast.app, instead, for instance. Or, use Overcast for those podcasts, but keep track of which ones you have listened to some other way and just manually download each episode before you want to listen to it. I just use Podcast.app. It’s not written in the sky with letters of fire that you can only use one podcast app at a time.

The fact that Overcast has a simplified approach to podcasts comes with tradeoffs is no reason to reject its simplified approach.1 A complicated approach comes with tradeoffs, too, though they can be less visible–the amount of time users spend fiddling with settings, mental overhead, and so on. I wish more apps would ditch “essential” features the way Overcast has.

  1. I note the one area where I disagree with Marco’s approach: his lack of support for chapters. It’s not that I disagree with his conclusion that it’s not worth the development time to add a feature requested by a minority of users–though I am one of those users (chapters are useful for navigating the weekly 9 hour, full-text podcast of The Economist). But rather, I don’t think that adding chapter support would necessarily add UI complexity: I would add the list of chapters to where podcast show notes are currently displayed, and, if a podcast has both notes and chapters, display the notes under them. Navigating through chapters would be solely through this interface. I wouldn’t bother with “skip chapter” buttons or automatically scrolling in the list to the currently-playing chapter. Users who don’t care about chapters would never see any of this. However, this might not be enough for some chapter-loving users, so screw them (me).