While Apple has steadily rolled out updates over the past several years that eliminate the need to sync with a computer (Exchange accounts, iCloud, over-the-air updates, to name a few), I have been stuck syncing my phone over a cable with my computer every single day.
I’m an NPR podcast junky. I have a half hour commute to and from work, which means that I have five hours of time to fill each week. While I used to listen to audio books, this gets expensive fast, and there was a limit to how many non-fiction books were good enough to devote so much time to listening to someone read them out loud. Instead, I listen to podcasts. I could listen to our local radio station, WBUR, but podcasts allow me to catch up on my favorite weekend shows as I commute, and there is no need to sit through hours and hours of election year coverage. I subscribe to nearly a dozen of my favorite shows, including On the Media, This American Life, Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!, and RadioLab, as well as the Story of the Day, World Story of the Day, Marketplace Tech Report, Planet Money, and a bunch of others.
The problem is that despite 5 major revisions of the iPhone operating system, iTunes remains the only way to subscribe to a podcast. Apple made a slight improvement back in iOS 3.0, allowing you to manually download shows directly from the phone, but this is very cumbersome. You have to tap each show, check if there were any updates, and then manually choose which episodes you wanted to download. It was fine to grab the latest On The Media over the weekend (always my first stop in my week of podcast listening), but it’s too time consuming to manage subscriptions this way.
And then I discovered Instacast.
Instacast allows is a standalone podcast player application that handles subscriptions and downloading straight from the phone. You add each of your podcast subscriptions by either browsing in the podcast directory or by manually entering the url for the podcast feed. Each day, I just open up the application, and Instacast automatically checks each one of my podcasts and downloads any newly posted episodes over wifi. While Instacast does allow you to stream podcasts over the air, I save a few hundred dollars a year with AT&T’s low usage data plan, so downloading podcasts is a must for me. An option in the settings allows me to prevent streaming over 3G.
Instacast itself is a fully functional media player, and I use it so much that it has taken over the old iPod app’s spot in my home screen dock. It integrates with the the ipod controls, allowing me to use the prev/next/play/pause controls that appear when you double-press the home button. It plays in the background, and it works with Airplay. The only limitation I have seen here is that if the application has not been used recently and has been removed from background memory by the operating systemthe iPod application kicks in rather than Instacast when you hit the play button on the dock controls.
The only criticism that I have of Instacast is its playlist mechanism. For whatever reason, the author has a bias against creating a feature that allows you to create a custom playlist so that the podcasts play back in the order you specify. I always like to listen to my daily podcasts (Story of the Day, World Story of the Day, and Marketplace Tech Report) before moving on to one of my weekly shows, so I am constantly needing to adjust my playlist order.
Instead of allowing you to create a playlist, the app plays back the podcasts according to the sort order you have set for your subscription list. If you want to control the playback order, just tweak the order of your subscriptions, and it will follow that order. While this is very functional, it is not very obvious, and it took a day or two of playing around with the application to figure out how to get this to work.
That aside, Instacast has at last allowed me to live in the cloud.