Instacast has made the 3rd party podcatcher landscape more interesting because it is now the only entrant who also has a desktop client. This week they released the first beta of their desktop podcatcher. Of course, it syncs with their own cloud service.
It’s big news because it helps podcast fans bypass Apple’s seriously flawed competitors: iTunes and Podcasts.
- itunes has devolved into Apple’s answer to Microsoft Office. It’s become a bloated “all things to all people” app that tries to do everything but excels at nothing — music, podcasts, movies, books, college classes (“iTunes U”), etc. The combo of Instacast on both iOS and the Mac promises to offload the podcast portion of that workload.
- That infernal “Podcasts” app is an embarrassment to Apple. There’s no need to rehash why; all anyone needs to do is check out its ratings in the App Store. 53% of its the ratings are 1-star, 69% are 2-star or lower, and only 14% are 5-star. The public has spoken. ’nuff said.
I know of three excellent 3rd-party iOS podcatchers on the market today: Downcast, iCatcher, and Instacast 3. They are now all universal iOS apps. My choice at present is Downcast, but they’re all great alternatives to iTunes/Podcasts.
[BTW, in the App Store 85% of Downcast’s ratings are 5-star; and only 3% are 1-star.]
We’ve got Sync!
Instacast 3 introduced its own cloud service that actually works; the authors chose to ignore Apple’s iCloud and roll their own. The Instacast Cloud is “free” with purchase of Instacast 3 and, in our experience, it works great.
When we first booted up the Instacast for Mac beta, we logged into the Instacast Cloud and it immediately started populating the desktop app with our subscriptions. With this feature, you never need to bother with iTunes to manage your podcasts.
The main screen is organized in a nice three-column layout: Subscribed podcasts, episodes within the selected podcast, and show notes about the selected show. It’s a much better design than Instacast HD (a.k.a., Instcast 2 for the iPad only)
The design continues their preference for white space over added functionality. In comparison to Downcast, it continues to offer fewer controls in its Controller, relegating some of the missing controls to a preferences screen.
The Controller only offers one skip forward/back button and uses preferences to allow the user to set the skip duration. Likewise, Playback speed is relegated to being a preference rather than an option in the Controller itself. On the Mac, there’s plenty of room for a modeless Controller with a lot fewer hidden options.
In contrast, Downcast integrates these controls (and others) into their main Controller.
In Downcast, several skip surations are offered and playback speed can be adjusted by repeatedly pressing on the Playback Speed indicator. Alternatively, a long tap displays a pop-up list with more choices than everyone else.
In a 3rd party podcatcher that appeals to podcast fans, I don’t value white space when it sacrifices functionality.
Compared to Instacast HD, most of that weirdness is gone, but a few points remain.
Why does it have two Play buttons??
It does retain the confusing dual “Play” button design that drove me crazy in Instacast HD. There’s a Play button in the Controller, but there’s also one in the footer. Please take a close look at this screen shot.
Ya see it? There’s a play button in the Controller and another one in the footer (next to “stream”).
In the body, an episode of “Accidental Tech Podcast” is selected and its show notes are displayed. If I want to play this episode, what should I do?
- Hit the Play/Pause button in the Controller.
- Hit the Play/Pause button in the footer.
- Doesn’t matter. Hit either.
- Grab your iPhone.
The answer is (2). The Play button in the footer plays the podcast whose info is displayed in the body.
So, what the hell does the other Play button do?? That answer to that is that it plays the podcast indicated by the small icon in the header area. Can you see it?? Well, you can if you were looking at it full-size.
In this shot, it turns out that it is an episode of MacCast.
It is the podcast that was last playing (or was currently playing when I last used Instacast for Mac). The times in the Controller indicate that I am about the 27 minutes in and there are about 47 minutes left.
That’s the deal: The Controller pertains to the podcast that is currently playing or was last played. It may not be the podcast that is shown in the body. To initiate play of the selected podcast in the body, you need to tap the Play button in the footer.
Chapter Markers and Bookmarks
This distinction also refers to other controls in the Controller. Notably, chapters, bookmarks, and the “Up Next” feature are accessible from that icon to the right of the remaining time indicator.
Please take a close look at this shot.
MacCast is one of the few podcasts that uses the AAC enhanced format and includes embedded chapter markers. So, the cute little bubble now shows the chapter markers for that episode.
Do you notice something weird about this screen? The body continues to display information about an episode of Accidental Tech, but the detailed info that you see (chapter markers) belongs to MacCast! Somehow I was expecting more detail about the selected podcast— I was not expecting some details about one podcast and more details about another one! In other words, I cannot browse among podcasts and display their chapter markers without playing each one! This marks a change in the way Instacast works.
Here’s an Instacast HD (iPad) shot of the this episode of MacCast. Notice how the chapter markers are integrated into the body of the description.
As far as I can tell, this display is impossible for Instacast for Mac. The corresponding screen looks like this.
Ah. To paraphrase Hitchcock, “It’s only a beta.” But Instacast is getting better with each version and is aggressively adding unique and valuable features to the lineup. Instacast for Mac is big.
I am already over my word count limit, but I want to touch on just one new feature in Instacast 3: ad-hoc chapter markers. For the 98% of podcasts who do not support chapter markers via the AAC enhanced format, you can add chapter markers of your own! Unfortunately, I can’t get this to work in Instacast for Mac. Also, sync does not bring them across. That is, the podcasts that have ad-hoc chapter markers on Instacast 3 lose them when synced to Instacast for Mac.
But “It’s only a beta.”