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Hands on with Apple's Podcasts for iOS

Good news, podcast fans! No longer will you have to dig through your iPhone or iPad’s unaptly-named Music app in order to sate your listening appetite. On Tuesday, Apple released a new free app—titled, much more appropriately, Podcasts—which now serves as the one-stop shop for all of your iOS podcast needs.

Podcasts’s closest relative is probably iBooks, in that it not only organizes your podcasts into a library and lets you listen to them, but it also provides a front end for downloading them as well. Of course, since podcasts are free, Apple’s opted to call this last feature a Catalog instead of a Store (though it looks pretty much the same as the iTunes Store).

When you install Podcasts, it’ll move any existing audio podcasts out of Music and video podcasts out of the Videos app, and instead store them in Podcast’s library.

Much like in iBooks, the first screen you’ll see in Podcasts is your own library. You can organize this either by thumbnail or as a list. In the former case, you can tap on any of the thumbnails to view information about the show, including a list of episodes. Tap any of the episodes to play them back. In list mode, you’ll see a number indicating how many unplayed episodes you have for each podcast. There’s a search field (for the iPhone or iPod touch, you’ll have to swipe downward to reveal it) and an Edit button, which lets you delete podcasts.

Podcasts also lets you manage subscriptions. Tap on any podcast in your library and then tap on either the podcast’s name (on an iPhone or iPod touch) or the gear icon (on an iPad). From there you can turn on or off a subscription for that podcast, decide whether you want episodes sorted by newest first or oldest first, or mark all episodes as played or unplayed. Once you’ve turned on subscriptions, you also have the option to activate the auto-download feature; turn that on, and you’ll be prompted to specify how many episodes you want to keep. While Apple says auto-download requires a cellular data or Wi-Fi connection, there doesn’t appear to be any way at present to limit it if, for example, you only want to download while you’re on Wi-Fi.

Apple’s also spent some time beefing up the podcast discovery process. A new feature called Top Stations lets you quickly flip through genres via a radio-style tuning dial. Swipe the dial to flip through top-level topics like Comedy, News, Games & Hobbies, Technology, and more. Some categories include sub-genres: Under Education, for example, you’ll find Educational Technology, Higher Education, K-12, Language Courses, and Training.

Under each header (or sub-header), Apple features five podcasts. Swipe up and down to scroll through them—tap on any to start streaming the latest episode automatically (tap again to pause). An info button next to the thumbnail brings up an episode listing, just as if you were in the Catalog. You can stream or download an episode or subscribe to a podcast right from the Top Stations interface. At the top of the screen is a toggle that lets you choose whether you’re browsing through audio podcasts or video podcasts.

The Catalog looks more or less like the iTunes Store, including featured podcasts, top charts, a search function, and more. You can also browse by audio or video podcasts. In a thoughtful move, the Podcasts app builds in a little known feature from the App Store: You can actually stream any podcast episode right from the podcast Catalog by simply tapping on its name. Or, if you prefer, you can download the episode to your iOS device so you can play it back even when you’re not online.

Apple’s built robust playback tools into the Podcasts app. By default, playing any podcast looks much like the Music app: a big thumbnail in the center, below which you find forward and back buttons for skipping to the next or previous episodes, play/pause controls, and a volume slider (along with an AirPlay control). In addition, though, Podcasts has buttons that lets you jump back 10 seconds or skip forward 30 seconds, handy for those “what did they say?” moments, or for skipping commericals.

If you need even more fine-grained controls, swipe upwards (or just tap) on the thumbnail in the middle and you’ll get more options, including a full timeline that you can scrub through. There’s also a control for adjusting the speed of playback, both faster and slower. Plus, for those who like to listen to podcasts as they’re falling asleep, there’s now an integrated sleep timer. And an AutoPlay feature continues playing the next unplayed episode of the same podcast after the current one is finished, with no need for user intervention.

Apple didn’t forget to leave out the fun, either: As the podcasts plays, a classic reel-to-reel style tape recorder spins along in the background. Skip rapidly through the episode and the playhead disengages, the left-hand reel despools and the tape mounts up on the right-hand reel. It’s an attractive little piece of detail, even despite the somewhat outmoded metaphor.

Sharing receives a much bigger push in Podcasts as well. You’ll find a Share button on each podcast and episode in your library, as well as for podcasts on the store, inviting you to tweet, iMessage, or email your friends about your newest podcast obsession.

Of course, many of us listen to podcasts on multiple devices. Fortunately, Apple has taken that into account somewhat, allowing you to sync your episodes back to iTunes on your Mac and PC. And, if you’re logged into the same Apple ID on multiple devices, Podcasts will sync up your listening position, so you can pick up on your iPhone where you left off on your iPad.

It’s nice to see podcasts get the same kind of attention as ebooks, though Apple does have a tougher row to hoe here, thanks to full-featured competitors like Downcast and Instacast. Still, a standalone Podcasts app goes a long way towards decluttering iOS’s media playback capabilities, a trend which has already seen Apple split the iPhone’s iPod app into Videos and Music. Now if only the company would turn that critical eye on iTunes on the desktop.


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