Comparative Review of Instacast HD and Downcast

When I installed iOS 5 on my iPad, I was shocked to see that the iPod app was missing! Ugh! When I finally understood what they did, my first reaction was that Apple is now pimping their music store for iPod/iPhone/iPad and their video store for Apple TV. In the process, they chose to throw the podcast world under the bus. It’s their right but, since my preferences are quite different, I knew that I needed to enter the 3rd party podcast player market right away.

I looked at the market and chose Downcast, which remains my pick. Downcast is great but not perfect. On my original iPad, its slow to update and switch to the selected podcast. Also, if you request the chapter markers (e.g., MacCast), it displays them in a pop-up window, but it is sent to the back if you touch a control or anything in the main UI. And it displays the cumulative times of the start of each segment rather than their lengths. So, there is a bit of room for improvement. That’s where I’m coming from.

Since Instacast for iPhone has gotten some good notices, wanted to try their iPad product out. I’m sorry, but Instacast HD isn’t ready for prime time. But I’ve heard that Instacast for iPhone is a different product and it’s much better. I don’t have it.

POV

Steve was fond of that hockey metaphor — the bit about skating to where the puck will be. I have another hockey metaphor for Instacast HD: They shot wide of the empty net. That’s it.

The reason that I needed to get a replacement for that “Music” app right away is that Apple decided to go for “minimal” by throwing out features that I need in a podcast player all the time. This creates the “empty net” that all third-party podcast player apps can shoot for. It ought to be an easy goal.

Rather than seeking out another “minimal” app, I wanted a full-featured high-end player! I needed a player that restores all the features that were cut out of “Music” and then added new ones. Downcast is best of the bunch right now.

I think the heart of issue can be traced to this line in the Instacast HD description: “Show notes are the heart of the app.” I disagree with this priority. I believe that the heart of a podcast player app is playing podcasts. I would say that show notes are the raincoat of the great podcast player app. It’s something that you really need when conditions call for it but a lot of the time you don’t need it at all or minimally. For example, very few of the podcasts I subscribe to have chapter markers (“enhanced podcasts”), but for the few that do I love them. And Instacast HD displays them better than Downcast (Instacast also shows the lengths of each segment instead of the cumulative starting time). But...

I was amazed to see that Instacast HD doesn’t even show a controller when you play a podcast! I can start playing a podcast but I have to guess where the hell the controller is! And then I found that the the controller for volume is in a different popup from the one for the playback controls!! You can’t display both simultaneously. WTF.

The controller cannot be optional for me. I want a big honking full-featured controller for both playback and audio that is always displayed whenever I am in a Detail View and a podcast can be played. There’s room for improvement over Downcast, but they have to get in the game. Little teeny popups don’t cut it.

[Update]

Here are some screen shots that illustrate what I’m talking about. Instacast HD hides the controller by default, but it has two hidden controllers. The main play head controller is hidden underneath the selected podcast icon (!).

Player controller

...as if the controller were a property of that podcast!!! But wait, there’s more.

Notice that the volume control is not shown in this pop-up. It’s hidden under that little speaker icon on the left. If that’s what you want to adjust, you have to bring it up — this hides the controller — and then adjust the volume.

audio controller

Come on!! The controller and the volume slider are properties of the app, not the podcast, and they should be accessible no matter which podcast is playing. Here’s Downcast’s main screen:

Downcast main screen

The podcast that is playing is shown in the header to the left of the controls and both the full-featured controller and the volume slider are accessible all the time.

There’s other ways to do it, but my point is that Instacast HD has to pick somethig that doesn’t fragment the interface like this.

I’m not in love with all this swiping that you need to do in Instacast HD. Ditto for the wiggling icons in the left column. I’d go for sorted lists of podcasts and sorted lists of episodes in podcasts.

It’s also time to rethink that strange interface at the bottom of the Detail view with more hidden pop-ups for episodes.

In Instacast HD, there’s a row of little dots at the bottom of the Detail view for each podcast. If your fingers are small enough, you can browse among little descriptions of episodes in that podcast by dragging across that row of dots. Each dot corresponds to an episode description that’s inside a little bubble. See below.

Instacast podcast browser

Note that:

  • The size of the bubble is fixed. If the description doesn’t fit in the bubble, it is truncated. You just can’t read the full description without moving to its screen.
  • When you bring up a bubble and remove your finger from the screen, the bubble disappears! You can’t just bring up a description and read it. This isn’t convenient at all for me because my iPad is in a third-party case that makes it difficult to touch an interface element at an edge of the screen.

I can’t emphasize how much I prefer the Downcast interface. You can browse and scroll among the episodes at your leisure. As if it is no big deal. I think I can explain my preference: Downcast uses a modeless design, while Instacast HD features a modal one.

Modeless Interface

A modeless interface is congruent with the multitasking capabilites of the iPad and the feature set of a modern high-end podcatcher. It combines the functions of a podcatcher, player, and browser. I can illustrate the advantages of the modeless interface in a few more screen shots.

Among Downcast, iCatcher, and Instacast HD, Downcast is the only one that features a hierarchical list of podcasts (episodes nested in podcasts). The integrated controller is always on top, regardless of how the hierarchical list changes. The user can browse among podcasts and episodes while an episode is being played. He/she can also operate any of the features of the controller while browsing. If desired, the user can display notes of a selected podcast and bring up one of the show notes without hiding any other features of the main display.

All this is shown in the Downcast List view:

Downcast list

If I tap the “i” icon on the right of an episode in a podcast, the display changes to that episode’s notes. The controller remains. In the following shot, the selected podcast is playing, but now its notes are displayed.

Downcast

If I’m interested in one of the items in the list of notes, I can tap it and the interface changes to become a browser inside the episodes area of the screen. This page is the first link in the show notes shown above (“Paul Irish on github”).

Downcast links

As the podcast is playing, I can now can read this note. If desired, I can pause the podcast and concentrate on the reading the note. Simple.

Instacast HD

The same content is broken up into chunks, making it a modal experience. There’s no concept of a List view, but you can browse among episodes in a podcast by dragging your finger over that row of dots at the bottom of the screen to scan those bubbles. You can also tap the icon in the lower right corner to bring up another pop-up window with brief descriptions of the episodes:

Instacast episode list

Guess what? When this pop-up is displayed and the selected podcast is playing, you can’t also display the controller! Displaying the pop-up list puts away the controller. Tapping the podcast icon (bottom left) puts away the pop-up list and displays the controller. Ugh!

The modal interface forces me to into doing extra taps or gestures to display various aspects of the interface or content that Instacast HD “wants” to hide. For me, there’s too much overhead.

Conclusion

The irony is that I see a lot of potential here, but also a lot of misguided effort. In its present form, it is a bit schizophrenic: It does have a some valued high-end features like the cloud syncing and push notifications but there’s also a lot of this “minimal” UI design philosophy. There’s all these pop-ups that fragment the UI and hide or minimize features that are needed in a coherent high-end player.

By bottom line is that it is unusable in its current form but there’s alot of work here that suggests that it can grow into a top-rated podcast player. But I get the vibe that the developers are quite capable of stamping out the “minimal” personality of the product and go for “high-end” unambiguously.