Thoughts on Marco Arment’s new podcast listening app, Overcast.
Update, Oct 2016: This review is not as useful as it once was since the app is now free to download. Go try it out!
Overall, I like.
I happen to be a heavy Downcast user, somehow I found/noticed Overcast’s import buttons almost right away. It imported my subscriptions from Downcast flawlessly.
First major missing functionality I noticed (relative to Downcast) — the list of podcasts doesn’t offer any clues as to which ones have unplayed episodes. You have to click each one to see whether there are new episodes available.
[edit: evidently I wrote this too soon after my first use of the app. Once you have finished an episode of a podcast, it appears in a new section further down the main list, titled "Played Podcasts". More on this below.]
The Twitter recommendations feature could be a game-changer for lesser-known podcasts, especially if copied by other podcast apps.
Discovery is a huge problem for new productions. Within Overcast, this effectively offers a top-row spot in the directory to any podcast recommended by your Twitter people, regardless of size or longevity.
It’s unclear, at first, how to make a recommendation on Twitter.
There is an outlined “Star” ✩ icon for individual episodes. Clicking it turns it solid ★ with no indication of what just happened.
There is also a more-normal "share" button in the upper-right corner. Clicking it brings up the standard iOS share menu, which allows us to deduce that the star actually means “recommend”:
Soo…it seems I must have recommended the episode by clicking that star icon.
Usually a five-pointed star would indicate an opportunity to "fave" an episode, with no social aspect.
Calling this button “Recommend”, by contrast, makes it seem as though clicking it will make something social happen. But if something social did happen, I couldn't figure out what it was. For example, no new tweets appeared on my Twitter timeline as a result (it would have been a kind of creepy sneaky way to do it if it had though).
Perhaps “recommendations” only propagate within Overcast; i.e., maybe it builds its own internal list of people you follow on twitter and maps those to existing Overcast accounts and then looks to see what episodes have been recommended via the app by those people.
I could go on…
Suffice to say the Twitter integration with the podcast directory is awesome, but the actual mechanics of the recommendation feature remain very unclear.
Orange hasn’t been this great since Zeldman.
I’m too lazy to look up the actual RGB or hex values of Overcast vs Zeldman orange, but they look pretty close.
Font sizes in the app adjust according to the
Text Size setting in the iOS Settings app.
The app uses Matthew Butterick's font Concourse, which looks great on retina displays. However it appears a good deal smaller than Helvetica at similar point sizes so you may find yourself upping your system-wide text size a notch or two.
Overcast doesn't itself check feeds; the overcast.fm servers do that and update your app as necessary.
If apps were spaceships, Overcast is like the smart, sleek, light, battery-sipping zippy little smart bubble that relies on constant contact with the mothership which do the heavy lifting.
Downcast is like, I dunno, the Millenium Falcon: self-reliant, knobs everywhere for everything you could imagine, etc.
Other than the Twitter feature, Overcast's podcast directory appears to be hand-compiled & manually maintained by Marco from your standard A-list podcasts. So the mechanism for getting your podcast added to this particular directory is likely "get super popular (or get Marco's attention)".
From a listener's perspective, there's something to be said for curating the directory.
There's also something to be said for letting users discover podcasts that are less well-known. The Twitter/recommend feature helps with that.
But as far as the rest of Overcast's directory goes: I feel like if it's just Marco maintaining it, though, it will get stale before very long.
The Overcast.fm web interface provides any podcast, and any episode of any podcast, with its own Overcast page.
This page is publicly accessible, and supports timestamp links. So you can share, for example, a link to an episode that, when loaded, will auto-play starting at a specific time.
This is a great way to improve the shareability of podcasts. Lots of times you'd like to share part of an episode without asking your followers to sit through the entire preceding 45 minutes or whatever. Ideally all podcasts would support this functionality on their own sites, but this is sadly still pretty rare.
Overcast has functionality corresponding to "mark as read" for episodes, but it doesn't call it that. It can dispense with this terminology, for now, because it doesn't stream episodes; an episode is either downloaded or not downloaded.
[Update, Oct 2016: streaming has long since been added, see below. Streamed episodes behave almost exactly like downloaded ones: you don’t “mark as read”, you “delete”.]
You can swipe an episode to the right to reveal a "Delete" button; pressing it deletes the downloaded copy of the episode. (You can still see the episode by going to the podcast and selecting
All to see all the episodes in the feed.)
Overcast does remember which episodes you have downloaded before, and refrains from re-downloading episodes you have deleted. (you can of course manually download them again.)
There doesn't seem to be a way to keep played episodes; once you've finished listening the downloaded copy is automatically deleted.
I don't use HuffDuffer (I've never had time to hunt for stuff episode by episode). But I thought of a potential issue with Overcast's recommendation feature when used with HuffDuffer; I imagine that by default, when a HuffDuffer'ed episode is recommended within Overcast, Overcast might actually feature the episode as linked within the user's HuffDuffer feed instead of from the originating podcast's feed.
Come to think of it, I wonder whether Overcast makes any smart exceptions for HuffDuffer in general.
The "Played Podcasts" section on the app's main screen lists all podcasts where (pay attention now) you've listened to at least one episode and there are no downloaded & unplayed episodes.
As you would expect, this includes podcasts to which you've subscribed, & have listened to (or manually deleted) every episode since subscribing.
But it also includes any podcasts where you have ever manually downloaded individual episodes, even if you're not subscribed to the podcast. These artifacts of one-off podcast listens are listed with the podcast titles in a grey font.
I find this helpful, since it gives me an easy way to find podcasts I may have only listened to once or twice.
You can clean out any of these by swiping them to the left and clicking the delete button. If you're subscribed, it will unsubscribe you; if not, it will just remove it from the list of played podcasts.
Streaming has long since been added. There is an app-wide setting to download new episodes on wifi, download on wifi and cellular, or stream. You cannot configure this per-podcast.
On the list of all current downloads in progress, you can tap a button to convert them all to stream instead of download.
On an individual podcast, you can go to the list of All Episodes and tap once on an episode to fetch it manually. If Overcast is set to download new episodes, this will place the episode in the download queue. However, you can tap the episode once more and it will be switched into streaming mode and begin playing immediately.
Chapters: Overcast now supports chapters in MP3, M4A and M4B files , allowing you to skip back and forth to particular sections of the file, assuming the creator of the file put them there to begin with.
Right now the ATP podcast is the only one I listen to that puts chapter marks in their podcast episodes. I find it very handy since, if they happen to talk about a bunch of topics that don’t interest me, I can skip them pretty easily.
File Uploads and Audiobooks
When you sign up for the Premium subscription ($10/year) you get the option to use File Uploads. This is an interesting feature but there’s almost no documentation on it anywhere, even within the app or on the website.
Once you get your premium subscription, you need to log in to the Overcast.fm website, then scroll past your Active Episodes, and under the list of Podcasts, click on a new podcast you’ll see there called Uploads. (You could also go to https://overcast.fm/uploads after logging in. )
There you can upload any audio file. (The site will prevent you from uploading other types of files.)
The file upload area is treated exactly like its own podcast.
This means that audio files you place there are treated on the app like new episodes, and are downloaded or streamed accordingly. You can add the Uploads “podcast” to playlists.
Most importantly: if the Overcast app on your phone is set to Delete Played Episodes, then once you finish listening to a file it is deleted from your phone and from the file upload area on the Overcast.fm website.
The File Uploads feature is great for any audiobooks you may have that you downloaded from a service other than Audible (which has its own app) or that you created yourself from CDs that you own.
You get all the same Overcast features for audiobooks as you get with podcasts. Overcast recognizes the chapter marks, remembers your last-played location (synced across the iOS app and the website player), and you can enhance the playback with Smart Speed and Voice Boost.
Scrolling down past the cover art shows the chapter marks, as usual.