The other day, a thought crossed my mind about whether I have an app on my iPhone where I have zero complaints about. After some consideration, I came to the conclusion that the app that comes closest to this ideal is the podcast player Castro.
Fast forward a couple of days, a new version of the rivaling app Pocket Casts was released and I just can’t ignore the release of a new (version of a) podcast player, even if I try.
I’ve been a user of Pocket Casts for some time and switched away for Overcast, and then for Castro 3. Would the new version of Pocket Casts be able to win me over again?
Castro is the still unchallenged king of triaging. In my personal experience, Pocket Casts doesn’t even come close, even after giving Pocket Casts a fair amount of time to get used to.
In Castro, new episodes are added either to the inbox or – depending on your preferences – directly to the queue. You’d tap an episode in the inbox and then one of the icons (add to the front of the queue, add to the back of the queue, archive) that become visible below. Tap again. Done.
This is a very efficient process because it is possible to keep tapping, instead of a mix of tapping and swiping – which is one possible approach to triaging in Pocket Casts.
Swiping left on an episode yields two buttons to place the episode either to the front or the back of the queue.
Alternatively, it is also possible to tap the episode, upon which a detail view opens. This view has a button to place the episode in the queue. Pressing this button makes two further buttons appear below the details view to decide about placing the episode to either the front or the back of the queue.
That’s three taps, and you’ll realize that you may have moved around your finger over the entire iPhone display to complete the insertion into the queue. This creates an unnecessary friction in comparison to the tap and then tap one row down in Castro.
It is possible to auto-add new episodes to the “up next” list in Pocket Casts as well.
Pocket Casts supports the skipping of an entire chapter of a podcast episode (if it has chapters) via the remote skip button on my headphones.
On the other hand, Castro not only implements skipping to the next chapter via remote and lock-screen, it also supports this really sweet feature where you can plan ahead and uncheck single chapters in the chapter list where, by default, all chapters are checked initially. Unchecked chapters are skipped, simple and easy.
However, this is only possible for currently playing episodes and you have to remind yourself to actively switch to the chapter list and make your choice. But this ability makes a world of difference for me. This is a true “killer-feature” that came out of nowhere, and boy was it appreciated.
Castro is effectively a one-device app and does not synchronize to any cloud service at all. Pocket Casts, on the other hand, supports multiple devices on multiple platforms and thus implements a sync mechanism.
While, on paper, this ability may become a game changer for people on the fence between using one of the two apps, Pocket Casts simply does not deliver.
In my test of Pocket Casts, I was listening to a longer episode of a podcast on my iPhone. After finishing, I spent some time on the iPad (where I did not use Pocket Casts in this seesion), then returned to the iPhone to continue listening.
But instead of starting to play the next episode, Pocket Casts started playing the already played episode again, roughly at the point where I started the session before last.
I can only assume that the iPhone synched with the iPad while I was using the iPad, and Pocket Casts on the iPad managed to convince Pocket Casts on the iPhone that time stamp on the iPad was more current and thus the iPhone started playing the already played episode again.
Actually, my preference for queue-based podcast-players was created as a byproduct of using Pocket Casts for a couple of months some years ago. At some point, it clicked and I never looked back.
The new Pocket Casts puts the “up next” list (in terms of Pocket Casts‘ terminology) below the now-playing view, which is … weird. I don’t like it at all because this makes accessing the queue unnecessarily cumbersome.
The concept of a queue is front and center in Castro and the app focuses on removing friction from putting into and reordering episodes in the queue.
Switching from inbox to queue and back is just a tap in Castro. In Pocket Casts, you have to tap the “now playing” screen and then scroll down to reach the list of upcoming episodes. It makes some kind of sense, if you think about it, but it again creates friction.
From the list of upcoming episodes, going back to the list of new episodes requires just a single tap, to be fair.
Episode Downloading Behavior
It is possible to configure both apps such that episodes get downloaded only if they are added to the queue resp. the “up next” list.
At least that’s what I understand from configuring Pocket Casts‘ settings. In reality, it does not seem as if episodes are downloaded ever, at least according to Pocket Casts‘ own reports.
This behavior is a bit frustrating because I prefer to download episodes I add to the queue. This gives me control over when and where I make the decision and I can safely assume that episodes in the queue are downloaded and would not stop playing when I lose connection to the Internet while playing the episode.
As a basis for side-by-side testing the sound, I took a radio broadcast that is also distributed as a podcast. This way, there’s at least some probability that the audio has been produced with a professional background.
I activated all voice enhancements and silence skipping features offered by both apps because that’s how I use to listen to podcasts.
To my surprise, when switching between Castro and Pocket Casts back and forth on the same iPhone with the same headphones, I got the impression that artifacts became audible in Pocket Casts‘ output. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that Pocket Casts may have a clipping problem. Castro delivered the same sequence flawlessly.
The back catalog is another aspect where Castro shines. It is possible to subscribe to podcasts and still decide that new episodes do not even appear in the inbox and go straight to the archive. This way the episodes are easily accessible as part of the back catalog
Tapping on a podcast in the archive reveals the list of episodes. Played episodes are clearly marked as such and this makes a joy of going back into the back catalog and picking only unplayed episodes to listen to without ever accidentally picking an episode that was already played.
In Pocket Casts, there is also the concept of an archive. If I’m not mistaken, you have to unarchive an episode from the back catalog before being able to add it to the “up next” list with at least two additional taps. Friction, all the way down.
I tried to give Pocket Casts a fair chance of convincing me to switch. I try many apps, always on the lookout for improvements. And in many cases, I have left behind trusted workflows for something that just feels better and/or gives me an extended range of features over existing solutions.
But the verdict has never been clearer than in the case of Castro vs. Pocket Casts. Even though I see the lack of an iPad/Mac/web version of Castro as a real downer, I have absolutely no doubts that Castro remains the better alternative for my preferences for the time being.