iOS App Review - Overcast

Downcast was my default podcast player for a few years and though I had a few issues with it, I stuck with it as it seemed to be no worse than other App out there and I moreover had paid for it. So if nothing out there is better than it, I did not want to go through the laborious process of migrating my podcast library to another App. That was until Overcast, another App by one of the few notables in the Apple blogosphere, Marco Arment, was released a few months ago. Unlike Vesper, Arment was its sole developer. Having been a follower of his work and opinions and an avid listener of the famous Accidental Tech Podcast, I had to try this one to improve my otherwise mundane podcast experience. Oh by the way I tried Apple's Podcast App and it was not for me, a moderately advanced podcast listener, for various reasons. 

To begin with, Overcast has everything that you would expect from a smart modern podcast player. Though it initially looks like one apt for more advanced users, it is intuitively designed and in reality simple enough for anyone to use. Current podcasts (with unplayed episodes) and then all subscribed podcasts are shown in a table view in the first screen of the App in vivid text with a nice clipart for each podcast. But I am not a fan of the typography for some reason (I think though Arment had a designer help him with this App, the final design decisions were made by him, rather than the designer), but this is only a minor quibble. The bottom of this list of podcasts screen also shows a useful quick mini player for the current episode that is playing, where the episode can be played/paused or forwarded/rewinded. The top navigation bar has a few options like subscribing to new podcasts, the download pane, and the playlist creator. 

The subscribe to podcasts view also suggests popular podcasts listings grouped by genre, a search for podcasts, adding a podcast URL and to get recommendations from your Twitter followers. As a tech podcast listener, I have to say that the "Tech" genre podcast list in this App. had pretty much all the podcasts I listen to, so I was happy with that curation, at least. The create playlist pane is all what you would expect from other podcast Apps, with selecting different podcasts to make up a playlist with options like, select episodes to include or exclude, sort options, podcast priorities, etc. Frankly I have never used playlists, so I did not, exhaustively test this feature out. The downloads view shows all the episodes that are being downloaded and the items in this list disappear once their download is complete. There is a toggle to set download over cellular network at the bottom of this page, with a nifty warning! Though not a big deal, Arment shows us why he stands out as a developer, by including a bunch of other possible alternatives to his podcast App that we might be interested in. Somehow this one pane increases my respect for him and his App, I wonder why!  

Arment shows us why he stands out as a developer, by including a bunch of other possible alternatives to his podcast App that we might be interested in. Somehow this one pane increases my respect for him and his App, I wonder why!

But aside from the aforementioned characteristics of Overcast, what truly makes it stand out are its unique, podcast specific audio controls. The first one is called the Smart Speed and it essentially speeds up the podcast, but not by just playing the episodes faster, but by intelligently analyzing and eliminating unncessary voice breaks that occur normally with any podcast. The result is absolutely stunning. There is a good 20 - 30% decrease in podcast times, depending on who the speaker is and once you start using this effect, you don't even realize it exists unless, until you listen to it in parallel with the effect turned off. Different speakers have different pace of talking and that is what makes them unique in their own way. For example Jim (The Beard) Dalrymple on Amplified has a slow but steady pace with pauses in between sentances and Arment's Smart Speed works wonders on this podcast. But ATP's John Siracusa is a very fast speaker and Overcast's smart speed makes it a little hard to listen to that podcast as the steam becomes to fast. So bottom line is that this Smart Speed feature is truly unique to Overcast and it really works and is no gimmick.

Bottom line is that this Smart Speed feature is truly unique to Overcast and it really works and is no gimmick

The same goes to the Voice Boost feature as well. In many tech podcasts that feature more than one speaker not physically located in the same studio, I have found that the some speakers' voice is either not too clear or too low in volume compared to say, the host. Rene Ritchie's iMore Show is a nice example. Ritchie's podcast setup is gold and his voice is generally loud and clear, but his co-hosts sometimes don't enjoy the same setup quality and Voice Boost works really well to overcome such situations, where only that person's voice that is low in volume is boosted to output an uniform listening experience. Other than this there is also a manual speed of podcast playing control that works on top of these special podcast effects, quite well. 

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There are some downsides to this App as well. Some advanced features like swipe left or right to increase speed that Downcast has, are missing. But I did not miss them much at all. Then there is an obvious glaring feature that is missing, i.e. streaming podcasts. As of now you can only download episodes and listen to them. Arment has promised an update to get this working soon, though. In spite of being one of those people who actually missed and complained about the lack of this feature initially, I strangely have gotten over it already. The originally reason I liked streaming podcasts in the first place was the growing pain of my iPhone's paltry 16GB memory (don't even get me started on this topic...). But Overcast does an excellent job of deleting episodes once you are done listening to them and it also has a user setting that limits the number of unplayed episodes that it will retain, in the podcast specific setting panel. These two features together have ensured that the space optimization problem I had on my iPhone previously, was gone, eliminating my need for streaming podcasts, instead of downloading them. In fact I think I now prefer downloading the episodes, as it allows me to listen to podcasts without the trouble of spotty cellular reception that bothered me while I was streaming podcasts with Downcast (my Gym has terrible reception). 

In spite of being one of those people who actually missed and complained about the lack of this feature (streaming podcasts) initially, I strangely have gotten over it already

Overall Overcast another excellent iOS App that I highly recommend and Arment's reputation as an App developer is top notch from his older Apps like Instapaper, so you will have nothing to worry about. But even for the skeptics out there, Overcast is available to not just try, but use, un-crippled for free. Certain features like, download using cellular networks are offered as an in-App purchase for $4.99, that I highly recommend as well.