Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cool iOS app: Instacast

I've been a podcast listener for a pretty long time; I'd guess 3 or 4 years at least. As the podcasting world has grown and evolved, I've found myself subscribing to more and more of them. Hell, I've even joined the ranks myself (but that's a different story altogether).

I thought I'd share my thoughts on one of my favorite new iOS apps: Instacast. It costs two bucks.

Here's the nutshell review:

Instacast allows me to download podcasts directly from my phone (on both WiFi networks, or over 3G), has a much better "info display" than the iPod app, and has the ability to play in the background. My favorite feature - the ability to tweak the << and >> buttons to skip backwards and forwards in specified intervals (5, 10, 30 seconds; even up to 10 minutes!).

Now, the details.

I should preface this by stating that I get the impression that this is a relatively well-maintained app, and that the developer is one of those types that is constantly trying to improve things. In the short time that I've been using it, it's been updated twice; both times adding some nice new features.


When you first add a new podcast, the app will list all of its available episodes. The first thing I'll do after adding a new one is to mark them all as played, which can be done in a single step. Then I'll go through the listing individually, tapping on any episodes that look interesting, and then reading their descriptions. This alone is way better/easier than doing so in iTunes on my computer, as iTunes only offers the first 100 or so characters of what might be several paragraphs of text. This is also where any show notes/links might be found, should the podcast's producers include them in the subscription. You can tap on the links, and it'll take you right to them, which is nice.

Once I've found an episode I want to listen to, I'll mark it as unplayed (either by pushing the little button in the lower left corner, or swiping from left to right in the episode listing. This is a little confusing at first - left-to-right swipes toggle played/unplayed status, where right-to-left swipes toggle starred/unstarred status. I haven't really needed to star anything, but I can see how some folks might find that useful.

All unplayed episodes will appear in the master "All Episodes" list. From here, you can decide how you want to handle each new episode - you can start listening it to via streaming, you can download it, or you can mark it as read or star it. If you have a bunch of episodes in there, you can add them all to a batch download queue (the app calls this "caching"), and it'll download them in the background - even if you're not in the app. Pretty slick.

The application has a few nice little sound effects for feedback, and it will bring up notification dialogs when new episodes are available and/or finished downloading.

To really get things working the way you want them to, you'll need to spend some time in the app's settings page, which is kept in the iPhone's Settings app. Here is where you can set your preferences for how often it'll check for new episodes, whether or not you want it to auto-download them or not, whether or not it will use 3G (handy for those with bandwidth caps), and a bunch of other options as well.

Again, my favorite option is the way you can set the << and >> buttons to behave. It's not uncommon for me to have been listening to a podcast using the iPod app, and want to pause it. My headphones don't have a remote on them, so the quickest way for me to do this is to double-click the home button on my phone, which brings up the simplified iPod playback controls - << (rewind), > (play or pause), >> (forward), and the volume slider beneath them - and then hit the pause button. I can't tell you how many times I've miss-hit the pause button and wound up hitting one its neighbors instead. If you hit either of these buttons, the podcast will either jump to the next one in your list, or start over from the beginning. Super annoying. Sometimes, it'd even lose its place, and I'd have to go back into the iPod app and scrub around manually until I got myself back to the spot where I'd left off.

In Instacast, the << and >> controls function as "skip" buttons. So when I fat-finger the >> button by mistake, I'm only jumped ahead 30 seconds. And if I want to go back, I can just hit the << button, which will take me back 30 seconds. Very cool. I also use this feature for skipping some of the more heavy-handed advertising, just like one might do with a Tivo to skip commercials.

So there you have it. This app has definitely changed the way I do the podcast thing (for the better), and it might do the same for you.


Bigups to my good pal Kiran for turning me onto it in the first place.



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