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Friday
Jan142011

Podcast apps on Windows Phone 7

Windows Phone 7 has native support for audio and video podcasts, and frankly it would totally remove the need for 3rd party podcast client apps if it didn't require new episodes to be downloaded via the Zune software on a PC and synched to the phone. Microsoft know that people want to be able to access podcasts over the air (it has been mentioned on the Windows Phone podcast that they are looking at it as a possible future development), but until they do something about it, there is a market for app developers to do something to alleviate the frustrations of avid podcast consumers.

These are three such examples of podcast apps. I've used all of them for enough time to be able to share my opinions of them. One slight disclaimer: if you're reading this very long after I've written it, it's entirely likely that the applications will have been updated and the functionality changed.

 

PODCASTS!

Free
(Marketplace link)

This was the first general podcast streaming app that I found on WP7 and it's not terrible considering it's a free app, but it's not wonderful either.

It certainly looks quite nice and it has some positive features like the ability to save favourite podcasts from their directory, a recently played list and a featured podcast, helping you discover new shows. Sadly that's where the good news ends.

The included podcast directory isn't comprehensive - there were some shows that I searched for that just weren't present and there's no way to add an RSS feed for a show they don't list. I couldn't find a way to provide feedback to request additions to the directory either; searching the web didn't find me a website for the app or developer (admittedly I didn't search too hard, but I shouldn't have had to). Of the podcasts that are in the directory, some of the descriptions are out of date, and some aren't in a format that PODCASTS! supports, so can't be played. Add to that a lack of decent playback controls (no fast forward or rewind) and no bookmarking of your playback position when you have to leave the app, and really it's a good job that this is a free app.

 

Podceiver 

£1.99 / $1.99
(Marketplace link)

Although this app isn't free, it offers significant advantages over PODCASTS! which led me to pay the money and use this as a replacement.

A lot of the things that are missing from PODCASTS! are present in Podceiver. You can fast forward and rewind by swiping left or right, and when you pause it remembers your position in the podcast and even integrates with the Music & Videos hub, so you can jump right back to the same place from there (just like you can with Zune content and YouTube). The directory in Podceiver had all of the podcasts that I found missing from PODCASTS! and allows you to add an RSS feed for any that aren't in there. It also refines your directory search as you type, which is helpful. While PODCASTS! features a single podcast, Podceiver has a list of highlighted podcasts, so it's even better for discovery.

Nothing is perfect, however, and I have experienced a couple of instances when the phone became totally unresponsive during playback. I've been using the app enough to be able to say that this is very rare, and it hasn't happened enough for me to even tell if there was some kind of pattern of behaviour on my part that caused it. While the playback controls are workable, it would be nice to have fine scrubbing control. On the subject of the player aspect of the app, it doesn't have a horizontal display mode for audio content (the screen just goes black when you turn it), and when vertical it doesn't make great use of the screen real estate for audio (it could display the episode notes in the space reserved for video).

It would be great to be able to cache episodes while on wifi, but again this app just does streaming - more on that later. It would also be nice to have a recently player list in the app, since items may disappear from the History in the Music & Videos hub quickly if you're consuming media in other ways on the device. I'm really nit-picking here, but it would be nice to be able to re-order your favourites, and I know that some people will be upset that there are still ads present in the paid version (although it doesn't bother me personally).

Something that does stick in the throat a bit is that this app suffers from Microsoft's dodgy practice of making up exchange rates for pricing outside the USA. $1 does not, and should not equate to £1. That said, I think that the £1.99 I paid for Podceiver is perfectly reasonable, but if you want to try it out without paying that, there is a free trial that is only limited in the number of podcasts you can save as favourites (3). For the foreseeable future, this app is pinned to my home screen. 

 

TWiT

Free
(Marketplace link

There are a few apps that just support specific podcasts; they're all a bit too niche to bother mentioning here, with the exception of Dmitry Lyalin's app for Leo Laporte's TWiT Network. If you're into tech and podcasts then there's little chance you haven't heard of This Week In Tech or one of the other shows under the TWiT banner (Windows Weekly and Tech News Today are the other shows that I keep up with most of the time).

The TWiT app was the first app I saw (from anyone other than a big player like YouTube) that featured really nice integration into the Music & Videos hub. In fact I still think that this app does a better job of that than Podceiver because it handily overlays the episode number on the thumbnail in the recently played History. The app also has a live tile which shows the two most recently released shows on the network.

There are a couple of things that this app does in terms of playback that are better than the others too. There's a button to skip back 30 seconds, which I've found very useful. For those times when you're distracted by the phone ringing, or when you just want to check if you heard what you think you heard, this is a great feature that I think should be present on all podcast and audiobook players. Add to that the fact that the timeline doubles as a scrubbing control and I think this is as good a 3rd party media player as you'll find on WP7 today. I'd love to be able to use it for shows outside of the TWiT network (and I've already said as much to Dmitry in an email).

 

Unfortunately none of these applications have playback controls as good as the built-in Zune podcast setup, but that fails to meet all the requirements as a mobile podcast client because of this annoying need to sync with the Zune desktop software. This is a smartphone, for goodness sake - it shouldn't need to talk to a computer to be able to download a media file from a feed, and don't get me started on the lack of international access to the Zune podcast directory!

Sadly it appears that limitations placed on developers for Windows Phone 7 mean that we aren't going to get better than streaming for podcasts for now (although it's rumoured that there may be better API support as early as February which would allow applications to save content locally). [UPDATE] The Podceiver team say in the comments that they are able to implement downloading of content and it is something that they're working on - great news (& sorry for my incorrect assumption Microsoft). Ideally I'd like to see Microsoft make over-the-air support for podcasts native to the OS, but I'm not holding my breath.

The other limitation of the platform as it stands today is that you can only stream podcasts while the app is running in the foreground (with the caveat that they will continue playing behind the lock screen). Just as people cried out for 3rd party background apps on the iPhone for things like Pandora, it's also desperately needed here. At the moment you could argue that what these apps do isn't a whole lot better than opening a podcast's website in the browser and launching an episode from there (which is what I was doing with ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt Show, which wasn't in the directory in PODCASTS!, but is present in Podceiver).

For now it seems that a podcast solution as neatly integrated and truly portable as Google's Listen app on Android (which cleverly uses Google Reader as it's back end database for feeds and tracking which episodes have been played), is a long way away.

p.s. When I wrote this, there was another dedicated podcast app in the marketplace called PodCaster which I ignored based on the reviews in the Marketplace. Some feed reader apps also claim to work as podcast clients, but I think that it's sensible to keep your podcasts and other RSS feeds separate, not least because it would sometimes be nice to be able to listen and read at the same time, so you don't want to tie the app up with one or the other. I don't want to wrap this up without mentioning the NPR Listener app. It may be pretty basic, but it is a quick route to some excellent NPR audio content.

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  • Response
    Podcast apps on Windows Phone 7 - Blog - jonoble.com

Reader Comments (8)

TWit app is very cool and the developer was a good interview during a recent Windows Weekly podcast episode. Since I have been a Zune user since Gen1 I thought the podcast apps were odd. Zune does a very good job of handling podcasts needs, such as the two podcasts I know you from :-).

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJKav

The Zune setup is fine to a point, but if you live outside North America you don't even get access to the podcast directory in Zune, which is completely crazy if you ask me - I understand there are deals that have to be in place with distributors for music and video, but the same is not true for podcasts.

I'm used to downloading podcasts directly on the device on other smartphone platforms. Being tied to an instance of the desktop software in order to keep track of which episodes you've played seems crazy on a device as capable as these are. If I essentially tie myself to Zune running on a home PC, then if I don't want to wait until I get back from work to listen to a new episode released during the day, then I have to manually track it. It just seems a bit unnecessary in 2011.

January 14, 2011 | Registered Commenterjonoble

But can you add podcasts via the RSS feed? Looking at the volume of podcasts I don't know I would want to stream them. Why a Zune Pass member's collection is not available for streaming/cloud seems ridiculous but that is not strictly a Zune or device issue as little has been done by anyone on that. I have Zune running on three computers so I am not sure how much I am tied to a computer but considering I might as well charge it why not attach. I understand your point but for me I like saving my montly data allowance but using the Zune sync method. I also use my Zune 64 to listen to podcasts, so being tied to Zune actually helps as my podcast collection gets updated with read and unread, therefore making sure only current content is on my device. There does have to be a middle ground, which of course everyone will say is the cloud, but I think you get into the same digital rights issues services like Zune have when crossing into international markets. Just my two cents.

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJKav

Thanks for the detailed review of Podceiver. We're working with Microsoft on fixing the crashing issue and should have an update soon that fixes it.

You have some good ideas about how to make our podcast app better, we're already working on some of them (downloading & a better layout for the player), but please add your ideas to our ideas list and vote on the other ideas that are most important to you. We use this to prioritize the features we work on.

Thanks again for purchasing the app and for writing up the review. BTW, there is nothing stopping us from implementing downloading now, other than time, and we're burning the midnight oil to get it added :) The updates coming in Feb/March will make downloading better, but we can do some stuff now.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPodceiver

@Podceiver, thanks for taking the time to post a comment and for clearing up the situation on downloading. Once you get that sorted, you'll not only be pinned to my start screen, I'll be moving you up to the top half in place of the Music & Videos hub! I'll be sure to check out your uservoice page.

Folks (and especially other developers), take note - this is exactly how developers should be pro-actively supporting their apps. It turns users into advocates. I was already impressed with the app itself, but now I'm impressed with the people behind it too. :-)

January 18, 2011 | Registered Commenterjonoble

A couple of people pointed me towards BringCast - a podcast client which does support downloading of episodes and a few other unique features. Rather than update this post, I think I'll do a new one when the Podceiver app has been updated with downloading functionality, comparing those two apps.

January 31, 2011 | Registered Commenterjonoble

We host our own app developers podcast (We've had a few #1 apps - Ugly meter, geared, puzzling penguins) and aren't sure where to put our podcast for wp7 users. Is there a directory you can recommend we ad ourselves into?

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRAD Podcast

Unfortunately there's not a good answer to that. The Zune podcast marketplace is only available in the US and the other apps maintain their own lists. I'm hoping the situation will improve with Windows Phone 8 and the removal of the Zune brand, but we'll see.

September 5, 2012 | Registered Commenterjonoble

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