31 July 2012
Podcasts are one of the best things about the iPad. Many universities issue their lectures free as videos or audio recordings. For someone like myself, concerned with the best way to put across a topic, the broadcasts offer fascinating models of how —and how not—to go about it.
As a result iTunesU has become a regular dropping off point, whether to hear the exemplary Amartya Sen on economics and justice, or following the U.K.'s Open University course on design. That means going through iTunes — and there's the rub.
Apple's own App for podcasts seems to arouse universal complaint.Since I live in Switzerland, all the offers come up in German. It's what I call Google syndrome. No matter often I tell Google I want to work in English, sooner or later it slips back into High German, even in the French-speaking part.
The page design is simply terrible. Lots of large promotions for numbskull games shoulder out more interesting books and mp3s. The front page is virtually unusable, even for German-speakers, I would guess: German best sellers are hardly appealing to the Swiss (though Paris life is to the Romands).
But what makes iTunes really annoying is the downloads procedure.
Until recently, when I splashed out $100 to be sure my whole iPad could backup to iCloud, I had turned off automatic syching of music and podcasts (my iPhone GS has only 6GB of total storage).
And surely I'm not the only person that finds it annoying I have to connect to the iTunes store to use it, or that downloads doesn't mean stuff I have downloaded.
So now I have lots of podcasts on my PC without a clear way to transfer them the iPad or vice versa.
As for the iPhone, forget it. I've read the instructions five times, when I can find them, and I still don't get it.
iCloud & Match
That said, I am encouraged by the potential of iCloud and Match to store what I need and make if universally available to my machines wherever I have access to wi-fi. If only I can work out what they do.
I signed up for the 50G storage thinking it would back up my iPad to the cloud. Then I found it was only looking at. my documents and photos.
My advice: Don't buy more than the free space until you are sure you need it.
You might also find Match disconcerting. On my computer iTunes was vaunting its qualities even after I had paid.
Finally I took the plunge and signed up again for the $35 special. iTunes did recognize that I had paid already. Phew!
Cost: Free, for iPhone and iPad
The original version was criticised as buggy, and that seems to have been people's experience of the update. It insists on offering me German podcasts (since I am in Switzerland). Lots of holes in its coverage, it seems. The one good feature, if you can get it to work, is the variety of ways to subscribe to the podcasts you want and the download options. See the image above.
Cost: $1.99 + $1.99 for iPhone version
This is the app reviewers were raving about when I first wrote this review in March 2012. But I can only put it down to the typically low standards of Apple file management programmes.
It has hundreds, even thousands, of video and sound podcasts, particularly for nerdy types like me. You can download casts for watching on the train or in the coffee shop (Astonish your friends!).
But how you do it remained a mystery for a month. Don't Apple developers know how to write help files?
The solution, it seems, is to press the right-hand list button, choose download, select the podcasts to download, then press download again.
You can choose to view only the podcasts you have downloaded, via the its-bitsy down arrow on the left side of the screen.
You control playback via a barely visible button at the bottom left. Everything I have reads suggest you put important stuff on the right hand side of the screen, since this is where we read first. InstaDrive puts a Play arrow top right and stream (whatever that means) and leaves you to figure the rest out on your own.
If you shut it down, the podcast keeps playing in the backgound, which usually is not what you want at all (Instacast boasts of this as a feature).
And once you have finished with the podcast I don't see any obvious way of remove it from the list or sorting your podcasts: I had to go back and forth over 140 titles in the Roman History series to listen to them in order.
You can reverse the listing order—if you do it globally in the settings. And you can reorder subscriptions (see below).
After three months I worked out that you have to call up the podcast info, then click on the download tray (on that screen not in the left bar), and then you are given the opprtunity to delete it.
Elementary! Of course, if you haven't downloaded it, Instacast will start to do so.
Instacast is also very spotty in its coverage. Searching for iTunesU and Open University didn't bring up anything I wanted.
That said, it does have a good built-in browser to provide onscreen backgounding, bios and links from the cast.
It also plays files at half or double speed, remembers where you stopped a podcast, and you can reorder subscriptions with a fingertip.
Cost: $1.99, works on both iPad and iPhone
Since writing the first version of this review, I have discovered Downcast, updated to run fast on older machines on 29 July 2012. This immediately became my favorite, as also for Sarah Lane on iPad Today, one of my major references for all things iPad.
It doesn't have Instacast's inbuilt browser but I found its use very intuitive, especially for downloads. The summary views are as complete as you need. It is easy to find iTunesU podcasts.
I can't spot any major differences between Downcast and Instacast apart from that. What else do you need to know?