Windows Phone 7 has native support for audio and video podcasts, and frankly it would totally remove the need for 3rd party podcast client apps if it didn’t require new episodes to be downloaded via the Zune software on a PC and synched to the phone. Microsoft know that people want to be able to access podcasts over the air (it has been mentioned on the Windows Phone podcast that they are looking at it as a possible future development), but until they do something about it, there is a market for app developers to do something to alleviate the frustrations of avid podcast consumers.
These are three such examples of podcast apps. I’ve used all of them for enough time to be able to share my opinions of them. One slight disclaimer: if you’re reading this very long after I’ve written it, it’s entirely likely that the applications will have been updated and the functionality changed.
This was the first general podcast streaming app that I found on WP7 and it’s not terrible considering it’s a free app, but it’s not wonderful either.
It certainly looks quite nice and it has some positive features like the ability to save favourite podcasts from their directory, a recently played list and a featured podcast, helping you discover new shows. Sadly that’s where the good news ends.
The included podcast directory isn’t comprehensive – there were some shows that I searched for that just weren’t present and there’s no way to add an RSS feed for a show they don’t list. I couldn’t find a way to provide feedback to request additions to the directory either; searching the web didn’t find me a website for the app or developer (admittedly I didn’t search too hard, but I shouldn’t have had to). Of the podcasts that are in the directory, some of the descriptions are out of date, and some aren’t in a format that PODCASTS! supports, so can’t be played. Add to that a lack of decent playback controls (no fast forward or rewind) and no bookmarking of your playback position when you have to leave the app, and really it’s a good job that this is a free app.
£1.99 / $1.99
Although this app isn’t free, it offers significant advantages over PODCASTS! which led me to pay the money and use this as a replacement.
A lot of the things that are missing from PODCASTS! are present in Podceiver. You can fast forward and rewind by swiping left or right, and when you pause it remembers your position in the podcast and even integrates with the Music & Videos hub, so you can jump right back to the same place from there (just like you can with Zune content and YouTube). The directory in Podceiver had all of the podcasts that I found missing from PODCASTS! and allows you to add an RSS feed for any that aren’t in there. It also refines your directory search as you type, which is helpful. While PODCASTS! features a single podcast, Podceiver has a list of highlighted podcasts, so it’s even better for discovery.
Nothing is perfect, however, and I have experienced a couple of instances when the phone became totally unresponsive during playback. I’ve been using the app enough to be able to say that this is very rare, and it hasn’t happened enough for me to even tell if there was some kind of pattern of behaviour on my part that caused it. While the playback controls are workable, it would be nice to have fine scrubbing control. On the subject of the player aspect of the app, it doesn’t have a horizontal display mode for audio content (the screen just goes black when you turn it), and when vertical it doesn’t make great use of the screen real estate for audio (it could display the episode notes in the space reserved for video).
It would be great to be able to cache episodes while on wifi, but again this app just does streaming – more on that later. It would also be nice to have a recently player list in the app, since items may disappear from the History in the Music & Videos hub quickly if you’re consuming media in other ways on the device. I’m really nit-picking here, but it would be nice to be able to re-order your favourites, and I know that some people will be upset that there are still ads present in the paid version (although it doesn’t bother me personally).
Something that does stick in the throat a bit is that this app suffers from Microsoft’s dodgy practice of making up exchange rates for pricing outside the USA. $1 does not, and should not equate to £1. That said, I think that the £1.99 I paid for Podceiver is perfectly reasonable, but if you want to try it out without paying that, there is a free trial that is only limited in the number of podcasts you can save as favourites (3). For the foreseeable future, this app is pinned to my home screen.
There are a few apps that just support specific podcasts; they’re all a bit too niche to bother mentioning here, with the exception of Dmitry Lyalin’s app for Leo Laporte’s TWiT Network. If you’re into tech and podcasts then there’s little chance you haven’t heard of This Week In Tech or one of the other shows under the TWiT banner (Windows Weekly and Tech News Today are the other shows that I keep up with most of the time).
The TWiT app was the first app I saw (from anyone other than a big player like YouTube) that featured really nice integration into the Music & Videos hub. In fact I still think that this app does a better job of that than Podceiver because it handily overlays the episode number on the thumbnail in the recently played History. The app also has a live tile which shows the two most recently released shows on the network.
There are a couple of things that this app does in terms of playback that are better than the others too. There’s a button to skip back 30 seconds, which I’ve found very useful. For those times when you’re distracted by the phone ringing, or when you just want to check if you heard what you think you heard, this is a great feature that I think should be present on all podcast and audiobook players. Add to that the fact that the timeline doubles as a scrubbing control and I think this is as good a 3rd party media player as you’ll find on WP7 today. I’d love to be able to use it for shows outside of the TWiT network (and I’ve already said as much to Dmitry in an email).
Unfortunately none of these applications have playback controls as good as the built-in Zune podcast setup, but that fails to meet all the requirements as a mobile podcast client because of this annoying need to sync with the Zune desktop software. This is a smartphone, for goodness sake – it shouldn’t need to talk to a computer to be able to download a media file from a feed, and don’t get me started on the lack of international access to the Zune podcast directory!
Sadly it appears that limitations placed on developers for Windows Phone 7 mean that we aren’t going to get better than streaming for podcasts for now (although it’s rumoured that there may be better API support as early as February which would allow applications to save content locally). Ideally I’d like to see Microsoft make over-the-air support for podcasts native to the OS, but I’m not holding my breath.
The other limitation of the platform as it stands today is that you can only stream podcasts while the app is running in the foreground (with the caveat that they will continue playing behind the lock screen). Just as people cried out for 3rd party background apps on the iPhone for things like Pandora, it’s also desperately needed here. At the moment you could argue that what these apps do isn’t a whole lot better than opening a podcast’s website in the browser and launching an episode from there (which is what I was doing with ESPN Radio’s Scott Van Pelt Show, which wasn’t in the directory in PODCASTS!, but is present in Podceiver).
For now it seems that a podcast solution as neatly integrated and truly portable as Google’s Listen app on Android (which cleverly uses Google Reader as it’s back end database for feeds and tracking which episodes have been played), is a long way away.
p.s. When I wrote this, there was another dedicated podcast app in the marketplace called PodCaster which I ignored based on the reviews in the Marketplace. Some feed reader apps also claim to work as podcast clients, but I think that it’s sensible to keep your podcasts and other RSS feeds separate, not least because it would sometimes be nice to be able to listen and read at the same time, so you don’t want to tie the app up with one or the other. I don’t want to wrap this up without mentioning the NPR Listener app. It may be pretty basic, but it is a quick route to some excellent NPR audio content.