I Hate Pod Catchers

[Updated: 29/7/2011]

One of the reasons to get a new mobile internet device, is to get a better pod catcher to use in order to feed my podcast listening habit :-). Its not that Escarpod for Symbian was bad – it was a very good application and any new podcatcher I’ll get will be measured against it – but my P1i was kind of dying and regardless all new development in Escarpod was happening in the S60 version and not for UIQ that the P1i was running.

Once I had an android device, the next order of business was to find the best podcatcher (for me). I’ve downloaded and tried all the podcatchers I could get my hand on, so here’s the summary of my trials and tribulations. If I missed any podcatcher that you know of (and want me to compare against those listed below), then drop me a note about it.

Beyondpod:

One of the best podcatchers for Android, possibly the best. Costs $7 to “unlock the free version”. They use the annoying (but effective) full-featured-trial + free-version-with-less-features method to hook users into using the application and when the trial expires the application turns into a nag-ware. The main problem with that is that the “free version” only appears to work – it doesn’t actually do anything useful other then play your already downloaded content: it doesn’t let you update feeds (even manually) or download new content (even manually) or even play other content you downloaded yourself from outside the program. It basically stays on your phone like a large ad for the payed version.

The user interface is pretty if a bit annoying (also, too much iphone-like), and the download buttons in the feeds are really small and easy to miss.

Other problems I had was that it tends to always download last X items (as configured) from a feed even when they are marked as read, and you can’t cancel downloads after they are started – you must complete them and then delete.

Other then that, its one of the best applications in the category and by a long distance from any other except Dogg Catcher and Listen (see below). The downloaded items screen is incredibly useful as it shows how much you played from each podcast with a very nice effect of the background being a progress bar. It also has very nice swipe and page turn effects when you move between views and basically its the best looking podcatcher you can get.

If you’re willing to pay $7 for your podcatcher application, then you should check BeyondPod out. Its not my top recommended application, but as it came a close second and you can download it for free (unlike the winner of this comparison), then I do recommend you give it a try.

Listen:

This is Google’s idea for a pod catcher, and its very well done although a bit limited in functionality. The main idea with Listen is the “queue interface” – you have a screen where you get a list of all new items from all your feeds, ordered initially by ascending date (i.e. new content is added to the bottom of the list), and the list is separated into a “queue” and “incoming” (or some such). You need to move new podcasts that came in to the queue part, at which point Listen will download them. You can also reorder items that are already in the “queue” part, if you want to listen to them earlier or later. The queue is also your playlist and when you finish playing one podcast, the player will move to the next item in the queue while the old item will be removed from the queue (and eventually deleted).

Another very interesting feature of Listen is that it doesn’t work with OPML feeds or other import/export methods – instead it uses Google Reader: after you tell Listen your Google account details, all your current feeds will appear under a “Listen Podcasts” category in Google Reader. When you add or remove feeds from that category in Google Reader, the changes are automatically picked up by Listen.

The application itself is very simple – there are almost no settings to configure and as such there are also very limited features. You can’t even read the show notes except for the very small excerpt that Listen displays when you open an item. Also it doesn’t handle HTML or Unicode for non-Latin texts in the show name or text. The last problem, and its also the reason why I don’t use Listen any more, is that it does not download new items automatically – it just shows you the new items and you have to manually put them in the queue. If you forgotten to do that then you may find yourself with no new content to listen on a long drive. It does support streaming for content that is not downloaded yet, so you’ll at least have that – although streaming over cellular IP can get quite expensive.

Another problem is that it doesn’t support the bluetooth headset play/pause button, which is something that is important to me as I almost always listen to podcasts through my bluetooth headset and I need to be able to stop and resume the podcast without taking the phone out of my pocket.

To summarize, Listen is very well built, though simple. It might fit your needs if you just want to listen to a bunch of shows and the Google Reader management is a nice touch. For me it ranks as number 3, but as the only good free (as in beer) pod catching application – if you rather not pay for your software then Listen is the application I recommend for you.

Dogg Catcher:

This is another commercial application that you are expected to pay for, but this one has no demo/free version – you either buy it from the Android market (where it isn’t listed in most cellular providers markets – only in those that have support for paid applications) or you can download it directly from the developer’s web site and pay using Paypal.

The application is useful and supports both classic podcasts that are audio only, as well as video podcasts that it plays using the Android video player and standard text only feeds where you can read their excerpt internally in the application and click a button to read the rest using the web browser. Its the only application I’ve seen that supports full show notes, though it doesn’t support Unicode so you can’t read show notes in languages other then English.

Other useful features I like are that the audio player is always visible no matter in what view you are; You can configure how much to rewind or to skip when pressing the back/forward buttons of the media player; You can configure how many items to download from each feed, so if it downloaded as many as configured and you haven’t listened to them yet then it won’t download new content and there by blow up your storage, until you finish listening to some of the old stuff.

The main view in Dogg Catcher is the feed list, from which you can jump to the audio playlist (showing only downloaded audio items), the video playlist (showing only downloaded video items), the news list (showing new text items) or the download queue. The main problem I have with Dogg Catcher is that when you switch back to it after going to another application, it always reverts back to the main view – while for me the most useful view is the audio playlist and I have to manually switch back to it if I switch to another application and back. Another annoyance is that in horizontal display mode (which is mostly how I’m interacting with DoggCatcher – in my car or on the media dock) the title and the navigation buttons take up so much space that you can see less then two items in the actual content display and that makes it very hard to manage the long content lists I have. The last major problem I’m going to complain about is that if an item failed to download (probably due to network connectivity problems) then DoggCatcher will try to redownload it immediately up to 5 times and then give up and show a notification that there was an error, and you have to go to the download queue and use the “Queue failed/partials” button to retry. That being said, aside from that its operation is fully automatic – it updates the feeds automatically and downloads new content when it becomes available and I don’t have to think about stuff like that any more.

On the plus side, it supports the bluetooth headset just fine, it can pause playback when detecting disconnect from the bluetooth headset or headphone jack so you don’t lose anything when changing connectivity, it has a desktop widget that you can use to play and pause the current podcast, you can switch between full autoplay or play one item at a time and in autoplay mode you can choose whether to play items in chronological order or to batch them by the originating feed.

Initially I managed to get my hands on an older version of DoggCatcher through an illegal download site, and I tried it for a while. Quickly I figured out that this is the podcatcher that I want to use – it gives me full control over things that I want to do, and doesn’t bother me with things that are easy to automate – so I went to the developer’s web site and payed the $7 for the application (about the same as BeyondPod, my runner up).

The developer is active and keeps fixing bugs and releasing new versions that as a registered user you can download immediately (the application comes pre-configured with the RSS feed for the release announcements, so its a useful and unobtrusive update notification mechanism which is a must for people that get this app not through the Android market). I had a problem with the date sorting on my system (which we eventually figured was due to the Israeli locale) and the developer was very helpful and forthcoming and eventually we got the problem fixed. As a result I highly recommend DoggCatcher as the podcatcher of choice for Android users.

PodKicker:

Update: A new comer to the party, PodKicker was released on June 2011 – a long time after this review was already posted, but it is a worth opponent and it deserves its spotlight, so I’ve reviewed it and added it here (Thanks for ST2 for mentioning it).

PodKicker’s premise is to be very simple – as the author says in the market review “all those features that most people never use has been left out”, which indeed it does. It offers the most important features – it collects all of your audio RSS feeds and shows you which items each one has; a “New” view shows all the items from all the feeds in reverse freshness order and clicking on an item in either view will open the item’s summary page and allow you to download or stream the podcast. It has a download manager – which interestingly downloads two items at the same time instead of the standard 1 active item, I guess its utilizes bandwidth better but I suspect that it’s less ideal for the battery life of your android device. Once an item has been downloaded you can click it to add the postcast to the playlist and the player shows you the playlist and allows you to skip between items as well as rewind and fast-forward.

And this is basically it – there are no hidden features, the global setting screen has so few options it doesn’t even take up a full screen and there are no feed specific options – all you can do is list feeds, list items, download and play (though the main tool bar lists them in a different order for some reason). The UI is also no-frills dead-simple to use, and the horizontal mode is interestingly useful in that it has an additional view port, so that you can select an item from the list and see it on the right side instead of the items detail view taking over the screen. My main gripe with PodKicker is that its so simple there is absolutely no automation or help to the user: the only automation it has is that the player skips to the next podcast in the playlist automatically and (optionally) it can delete items after you finished listening to them. There is no automatic download of new items, no automatic queuing of downloaded items and it doesn’t even mark items that you’ve already listened to in the item list – so when you look at the “New” list you have to figure out by yourself that is new and what you’ve already discarded.

The main things PodKicker is good at are: dead simple to use; can stream podcasts directly instead of downloading; supports bluetooth headsets that can pause/play the stream; supports the pcast:// schema so if your podcast offers a subscription link like that then a click in the web browser will open the PodKicker subscription dialog; OPML import with automatic file detection – it doesn’t require you to browse to an OPML file or put it in some directory like other pod catchers, instead it simply scans the entire SD card looking for a valid file. It also has a nice icon.

But PodKicker also has these problems: no automation whatsoever, so that basically makes it useless to me; no “skip to the next item” control in the player – if you are fed up with the current podcast you have to fast-forward manually to the end to get rid of it, or stop and delete it manually; it has some annoying bugs, for example if you add a podcast by clicking a pcast:// link in the browser, it will open up the “add feed” dialog with the pcast:// URL but refuse to accept it until you change the “pcast” to “http”, and after that whenever you come back to the application it will always start with the “add feed” dialog with the URL of the podcast you’ve already subscribed to. Also I found out that while PodKicker is playing, my phone is dead slow and everything I want to do takes ages – I think the internal audio player it uses hogs the CPU.

All in all, if you are looking for something very simple, I recommend giving PodKicker a chance, especially as it is brand new and I expect the author to work out most of the kinks out of the system in the next few months.

The rest of the contenders, in no particular order and are mostly presented here for completion, are:

ACast:

This is an interesting podcatcher but I found its user interface to be way to complex and clunky. The on-screen “menu buttons” are mostly annoying and could have easily gone into a standard Android menu bar (which is not available). It also had severe problems during playback while switching to another application or while downloading a postcast.

Finally it can import OPML, though only from a URL, which you have to type manually by hand. So you have to either manage your feeds online or upload your OPML somewhere before you can import your feeds. The only other option for adding feeds to it was to hunt for your feeds one by one and add their RSS URL manually. I didn’t like this application at all and can’t recommend it.

Carcast:

This is a very basic podcatcher. As you can probably guess by its name, it was meant to use in a car, and not anywhere else – and as such the UI is minimal and you can’t do almost anything with your podcasts: You can’t look at episodes before downloading, you can’t update feeds selectively and you can’t schedule updates – its just manually update all, and finally there is no import/export support at all.

I found Carcast very lacking and I can’t recommend it.

Dpod:

Another simple pod catcher with a no-thrills interface. The main problem I had with it is that it doesn’t have an internal playback UI – it relies completely on the Android media player for the playback UI. When you start to play a podcast it simply drops you into a media player and when playback is done you can get back to the podcatcher UI. The problem with the Android media player is that it doesn’t have a skip/rewind buttons – if you missed something and want to hear it again, or the podcasts goes into a “sponsor message” that you want to skip, then you need to try to use the seek bar to aim at what you want. Try to do that while driving.

Other then that this is a nice pod catcher that can import feeds from Google Reader similar to the Listen functionality, it can show the full show notes for podcasts (though without active links) and it also has a download manager and can update feeds automatically and download new content (but only on a daily basis – you can only choose at which hour to update each day), and it also integrates with Locale if you have that installed so you can trigger podcast updates according to Locale criteria. But the media player dependency is a show stopper so I can’t recommend this one.

Esobi mobile:

Esobi offers a set of service to synchronize content between your computer, web and mobile, and this application is just the mobile counterpart. I’m not sure how well it works if you subscribe to their entire model (please forgive the lousy pun), but using just the mobile application by itself is not such a rich experience: it lets you subscribe to feeds, and if the feed has media then you can download it and play. And that’s it – there is basically none of the features that I’d expect from a pod catcher, such as scheduled updates and downloads, playlist or queue, etc’. Another annoying thing with Esobi is that any operation you do is modal and synchronous with the entire UI – for example f you start an update on a feed, the UI is stuck while updating the feed and you have to wait for the update to complete before you can do anything else. It also does not support Unicode. Highly not recommended.

Feed droid:

This is basically a feed reader (aggregator) application with basic podcatching support. It supposed to be support OPML import, but I get crashes when I tried that. Other problems are that scheduled updates can be configured in time frames from 1 minute to two hours – which is way to frequent for pod catching (I usually schedule updates between daily to 3 times a day). Also it does not support Unicode and has no background playback – it does use an internal player UI, but when you play a podcast you can’t get back from the playback UI without aborting the playback, nor do you get any playback controls such as skip and rewind.

If you need just a feed reader with an occasional media playback ability, this might do the trick, otherwise – stay away from Feed Droid.

Hapi (xulun):

This is a nice podcatcher with a simple enough interface – the main UI is just a menu with a few options for managing feeds, managing downloads or showing the playlist. Once you go into the playlist you can play items one by one. Unfortunately the player does not have a rewind button – only to skip forward and to reset to the beginning of the podcast. Similarly you can’t mark a podcast as “read” if you don’t want to listen to it – you need to open it and then close it, but you can select to mark played items as “unread”. It does support Unicode apparently, but I had a lot of problems with showing Hebrew text on the item lists – it shows garbles until you scroll to it, at which point it displays fine.

Another thing that troubled me is that it tended to revert back to the main UI sporadically and without warning while I was doing something in one of the internal screens. One important feature that I was missing was supported the bluetooth headset play/pause button – it plays fine to the bluetooth headset, but if you press the play/pause button on the headset then the Android media player picks up the command and start playing in the background to the podcast. Very annoying. If they fix all these problems, then it might be a good podcatcher for general use, but it was to simplistic for me and I didn’t feel like I had good control over my podcasts.

MyPod:

This podcatcher features a very nice and colorful UI, though it was rather complicated and its not often clear how the colorful icons relate to the actions that you want to do, and the available options (or their descriptions) are not really intuitive. To help with this problem they have inline help pages that popup whenever you go into a view, with lots of explanation text. The help pages popup every time you go into each function until you dismiss each with the “do not show again” button. An interesting solution to a problem that shouldn’t have been created in the first place.

An interesting feature in MyPod is that it has two players – a “foreground player” and a “background player”, supposedly so you can listen to both music and podcasts at the same time – you can actually select in which player you want to play each downloaded content and if you start playing an item in one player, you can go back to the item list and start playing another item in the second player and the output of both will be mixed together. This sounds weird to me and I can’t really see how that is useful. Furthermore the UI for the players does not make it very clear at which player you are looking and how to switch to the other one.

Other things that I found confusing are that there is no option to mark item as read/unread (not even an automatic “mark read when viewing”) but there is a checkbox “flag” that you can set on downloaded files, which is not clear what it does, and also there is a menu option to “toggle listened flag” which doesn’t appear to do anything or interact with the previously mentioned flag. This podcatcher also does not support the bluetooth headset play button, but at least it prevents the Android media player from grabbing it so it simply doesn’t work instead of starting to play another track in the background.

On the other hand, MyPod has lots of low level options such as limiting the space that podcasts take, limiting download speeds or handling pausing while using the phone, but there is a huge amount of not very Android-like UI to support it and it is all very confusing (for example, it has a cancel button for the settings screen instead of relying on the “back” button like normal applications do).

You can import OPML feed descriptions by browsing the web with an internal browser (a very nice feature) or load feed descriptions from a local file – but then only from its own directory, so you have to copy the opml file to its MyPod directory using a third party file manager, and in either method you can’t just import all the feeds in the OPML file with a single click – it lists all the feeds in the file and you have to manually open each one, wait for my pod to query the feed, set options and apply. Tedious.

Another problem in MyPod is that when it update a feed, it takes a long while to parse the RSS file that it downloaded (sometimes it may take a couple of seconds or more), and if you ever want to go into the feed’s item list and see it again, you can choose whether you want to download an updateed RSS or to parse the old RSS file that it cached – but either way you have to wait for it to parse the files again.

This application might speak to some people, but for the life of me I can’t figure out who – as an advanced user who doesn’t shun complex interfaces (if they’re useful) this was way too much for me.

NowPod:

This podcatcher is very simple. It has a simple but useful user interface, it can do OMPL export and import (for import it requires the 3rd party application OI file manager to be installed, but its better then limiting you to a single directory). On the downside, it has no download queue – you can download just one item at a time, it has no “downloaded items” list – you have to access downloaded items through the feed item list, and there is really no distinction between listened and unlistened items , it simply does not record that information.

For a good pod catcher I do require at the least to have control over downloaded items, which this application lacks – so I can’t recommend it.

Summary

As you can see, there’s a lot of bad applications out there – which is one thing I can say for Android: it has a lot of options. In UIQ there isn’t a tenth of this many pod catchers and Symbian (S60 and the current version) hasn’t that many more. That being said, from the top of the top you have three podcatchers you can select from, even one that is completely free of charge.

As usual I’d appreciate any feedback regarding my selection of application or my comments, and if you think I need to check or re-check something, please let me know by commenting below.

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5 Responses to “I Hate Pod Catchers”

  1. Alan:

    Interesting reviews. For my part, I would elevate Hapi podcatcher to being worth downloading. I tried BeyondPod and ACast and for various reasons, discarded them. I have stuck with Hapi, and have found, with a bit of digging around and perseverance, that it does all I want. Different folks get different mileage from the same product …

    • Oded:

      Yep, that sounds about right – to each his own. For my side – if DoggCatcher wouldn’t have been that awesome I would probably would have stayed with Google Listen even though it is really simple and missing several features I really need.

      Another note for the actual review, if I may, is that I’ve added standard (non-audio) RSS feeds to DoggCatcher and it handles them very nicely (you have a “news” view where you can see all non-media carrying posts) so I’m using it also as a mini RSS aggregator.

  2. ST2:

    Nice reviews there, but you have forgot to review podkicker, wich I have found to be the best on android.

    • Oded:

      Thanks for mentioning PodKicker, ST2. It wasn’t around when I wrote the review (apparently it was first released on June 2011 (really a short while ago), but I’ve reviewed it and added my comments above.

      I’ve added PodKicker immediately after the three main competitors – the ones I consider worth using – because even though its new and have some problems, I think it deserves this spot as it looks very useful and I would love to see it being developed more.

  3. KJ:

    With Google Labs being discontinued, Google Listen is being phased out and hasn’t been updated since October 2010. I’m finding Podkicker to be the best alternative. It can import from your Google Reader or from opml backups. And it is being actively updated.

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