Castr…oh!

From the Supertop blog:

We have some news to share. Tiny has purchased a majority stake in Castro. We are still shareholders and will continue working on the app full time.

I would have loved to see Castro and Supertop thrive as an independent gig. On paper, this is good news because it means that the app will be more sustainable thanks to the financial support offered by the new majority stakeholder.

Castro has reached a size where the demands of running the business have been pulling us in too many different directions. We haven’t been able to focus as much on the core work of designing and building a product. Selling to Tiny gets Castro access to more resources, contacts and expertise. By growing the team we can specialize our roles to be more focused individually and get more done collectively. We can get back to what we’re good at and what we love doing.

On the bright side, this might get us the long anticipated iPad version. Who knows, maybe Castro 4 (that is also discussed in the article) will be released as a universal app. I certainly wouldn't mind.

Pocket Casts 7 vs. Castro 3

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?

Triaging

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 queue1. 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.

Skipping Chapters

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.

Sync

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.

Queue

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.

Sound

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.

Back Catalog

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.

Conclusion

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.


  1. Auto-adding is not too important for me. I have only four podcasts out of more than 25 subscriptions that go straight to my queue. 

From Newton to Edison

As I already mentioned, the e-mail client Newton will be discontinued in just a couple of days. I had switched to it from Spark out of frustration about bugs and the opinionated design approach.

There is no perfect e-mail client on iOS. All available options are defined by their own individual composition of pros and cons. Newton is (or was) no exception to this rule.

Newton came out as my preferred choice based on the existence of unique features such as the ability to collapse single messages in a thread. It’s a small feature, but i loved it. No other app that I have come across has anything similar.

After the news about the discontinuation of Newton broke, I very hesitatingly started looking around for other options. As I thought I had a pretty good overview about the available options I wasn’t very optimistic to find a suitable replacement.

To my surprise, I discovered one app that had not yet appeared on my radar.

Enter Edison.

Edison was apparently created out of the ashes of another client that I have had a look at a while ago but wasn’t deeply impressed with. It was called E-Mail by EasilyDo at the time.

In many ways, Edison is the perfect successor to Newton. It supports a large portion of the features I used in Newton. The two apps implement a different design language1 but that’s fine for me.

In my experience, both apps are very stable and hardly ever show any bugs or unexpected behavior. That’s a big deal for me and sets both Newton and Edison apart for other e-mail apps that I have used before2.

Edison‘s sidebar is significantly wider than Newton‘s. To balance this, Edison comes with the ability to hide the sidebar and go full-screen. Newton does not have a similar option and also lacks Edison‘s ability to configure the different e-mail views and filters offered in the sidebar3.

On the other hand, Newton comes with some options to share a message, either to a collection of “connected services” or via the native iOS share sheet. If sharing is a must then Edison will not become your friend.

Literally, the only option for sharing is to invoke the iOS share sheet on selected text. I don’t understand why Edison is so limited with respect to sharing. It would be nice if this drawback could be removed in the future.

Newton has a bunch of special features branded as “superchargers”. But frankly, I do not care much for any of them, with the possible exception of the “snoozing” (which is meanwhile supported by almost any e-mail client except Apple’s).

Speaking of features, here is a short and subjective list of features that sets Edison apart from other e-mail clients I have used over the years:

  • In addition to the ability to mark an e-mail as read by means of a swipe it is also possible to simply drag the blue dot that identifies unread messages away from the message.
  • There is an “Assistant” section in the settings where active newsletter subscriptions can be managed. Also, this section offers a “Security” view that checks whether one of the configured e-mail addresses can be found in a list of known security breaches.
  • Notifications of incoming messages: I have seen other apps that would start to miss one or the other notification over time and eventually stop notifying of incoming messages at all. Edison is not one of those.

Edison is free to download and use. According to the support page money is made out of analyzing “commercial messages”:

To keep our services free for you to use, we collect and store information from commercial messages such as promotions and receipts. We remove any information that identifies you personally (emails, names, addresses), and aggregate it into research about ecommerce trends for businesses that purchase our Trends product.

It is possible to opt out of this analysis.

You control what data Edison can collect and store, with options to delete your data or to opt-out of our Trends product.

However, there’s obviously no guarantee that the switch to opt out really has any consequences. Naturally, I’m not very much in favor of such a “business model” and would much prefer to pay good money for Edison. But unfortunately, they wouldn’t take it.

Of all the existing alternatives, Edison seems to be the most viable for my personal requirements from the technical point of view. Whether I can live with the business model remains to be seen.


  1. Newton has a general grey tine that makes it appear calm and almost muted whereas Edison comes with a white background, blue accents, and bold typography that seems more at home in modern versions of iOS. 
  2. Airmail, I’m looking at you. 
  3. The options for configuring the sidebar are absolutely comparable to e.g. Spark or Airmail