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App of the Week: Overcast

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Screenshot of the Overcast app on an iPhoneThis week’s review is of Overcast, a free podcasting app for iOS.

Up until iOS 6, support for playing podcasts was included as standard in iOS, but a couple of years ago Apple decided to spin this functionality out as a separate app, reviewed here at the time. So for the past couple of years new iOS devices have not shipped with a built-in podcast app. Apple’s own app is popular, but not highly rated with an average of 2.5 out of 5 on the app store. I’ve personally had issues with it and seems poorly designed when compared to Apple’s other iOS apps.

Overcast has been developed by Marco Arment, who is best known for creating Instapaper and being the lead developer of Tumblr in the early days, but is also a podcaster himself. As you’d expect from Marco, it’s a nicely designed app which manages to have a unique feel whilst still fitting in with the overall iOS 7 design aesthetic.

When you first launch Overcast, you’re asked to create an account. The reasons for this are explained in the FAQ, but the main benefits to you as a user are that it will use less battery when checking for new episodes and your subscriptions and progress can be synchronised between your devices. You’ll then need to add your podcast subscriptions, as sadly these can’t be migrated from iTunes or Apple’s Podcasts app as far as I can tell. Thankfully its search feature means that you should be able to add these without resorting to copying and pasting URLs. Alternatively, if you use another app which can export your subscriptions as an OPML file, Overcast will be able to import this and vice versa.

You can combine podcast episodes together in a playlist, should you wish to listen to multiple podcast channels for an extended period of time.

What sets Overcast aside from other apps are its Smart Speed and Voice Boost features. Smart Speed can automatically edit out sections of silence from podcasts, essentially condensing the podcast down to make for a more efficient use of your time. This is great for less professionally-produced podcasts that can sometimes have several seconds of silence, which can add up to a couple of minutes over time. Voice Boost applies an equaliser to the podcast to amplify voices, making them more distinct from background noise.

You can also play back the whole podcast at a faster speed – up to twice as fast. This isn’t like fast-forwarding a cassette tape and does not make everyone sound like chipmunks, but reduces the gaps between words to make the podcast play more quickly. This wasn’t so useful on podcasts like BBC Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy Podcast, as Sandi Toksvig already talks quite quickly when she’s in full flow, but could be useful for others.

Finally, Overcast will download your podcasts in the background for you, and notify you via a push notification when new episodes are ready to be listened to.

Overcast is a free download but works on the freemium model. All users can subscribe to podcasts and make one playlist at a time, but to unlock unlimited playlists, Smart Speed, Voice Boost and the ability to download podcasts on cellular connections (rather than just wifi), a single in-app purchase of £2.99 ($4.99) is required. I think this is fair – you can try the app out and get a feel for it for free, but then a single payment unlocks all of the other features. And I feel they’re worth paying extra for.

So far my only gripes with Overcast are that you can’t listen to a podcast until it has fully downloaded, whereas others will enable streaming to listen to podcasts as they download. I also have not yet found a way of marking episodes as listened to without actually playing them, as sometimes I end up hearing that episode somewhere else first or aren’t interested in that week’s episode. You can delete podcasts without listening but then they’re not there to pick up again later, unless you download them again. Finally, there’s no iPad app at present.

Despite these issues, I’m really impressed with Overcast and it has replaced Apple’s own app as my preferred podcast app. iOS 8 is around the corner and I gather that Apple will include the Podcasts app by default in future, but unless it includes the advanced playback features of Overcast, I won’t be switching back.

Overcast is a free download for iOS, with in-app purchases.

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