Downcast: a Budget Alternative to Instacast

When Instacast came to the Mac a few months ago, I decided it was time to make the switch from Downcast on my iOS devices. I’ve enjoyed Instacast ever since, but now the people over at Downcast have released a shiny new Mac counterpart. I was intrigued, so I’ve spent the past day learning its ins and outs to tell you whether or not it’s worth downloading.

Let’s take a look.

Not As Polished in Design

Not the most pleasant user interface.

Not the most pleasant user interface.

Right away I noticed that Downcast simply wasn’t as nice-looking as Instacast was in its first beta. All the icons inside the app seem choppy around the edges and most transitions just aren’t smooth. The pause button, for example, is so slim that it looks misplaced. Additionally, the advance (30 seconds or 2 minutes) and backtrack (15 seconds and 30 seconds) buttons look as if they’ve been rendered for the wrong PPI. I used a MacBook Air to test this app and all around, the graphics were choppier than I would hope to see in a final release.

Importing Podcasts Can Be Twitchy

Importing feeds and settings with iCloud is quick and easy.

Importing feeds and settings with iCloud is quick and easy.

Since I already had a bunch of feeds synced to iCloud, I immediately clicked the cloud icon in the bottom right corner of Downcast to import them. The app allows syncing of settings, episodes, podcasts, and playlists, so I was able to import everything nicely. I did like to see Downcast making use of iCloud rather than only allowing for cross-platform sync on its own server, which is what Instacast does. The latter method requires that you create an account, and that just seems silly since iCloud is typically registered with your device already.

Upon refreshing my feeds following the initial iCloud sync, I found that the app was re-downloading all the podcasts it had already stored on my hard drive. Earlier in the morning, it sent me a notification saying all feeds were refreshed and new episodes had been downloaded. However, that must have been a bug or something, because it proceeded to re-download the episodes I was listening to before.

Searching produces no results.

Searching produces no results.

The only way I was able to import a podcast was manually using its feed URL or through iCloud. Downcast’s search function failed me with no results on every query I initiated. I even tried popular shows like MacBreak Weekly, but the search didn’t yield any results. I also found that I wasn’t able to browse categories after searching: they too were empty. I had to reopen the app to successfully explore for new podcasts.

Playback, of All Things, Also Has Issues

I encountered some glitchy behavior when scrolling through my episodes. Hovering over each one makes a play button appear, but there’s a delay between when you hover and the button actually displays. It also enlarges the size of the text, which makes part of the title disappear at times.

Playback worked well most of the time, but sometimes the app beach-balled in the middle of an episode. I found that this was due to a feed attempting to refresh and getting stuck somewhere along the way. This happened on quite a few occasions and I found it impossible to refresh all my feeds successfully while something was playing.

A downloaded episode must "prepare" for playback.

A downloaded episode must “prepare” for playback.

One of the weirdest things about the app’s playback feature is that it spends a good 10–20 seconds “preparing” the episode for your listening pleasure. That makes no sense, though, because all the podcasts I tried to play were around 40 MB, I was using a MacBook Air with a SSD, and episodes always open instantly on my iPhone. Why would it need to “prepare” one for playback? My only theory is that it didn’t actually download the episode, which would mean that the small “downloaded” icon was false.

My major quibble: When listening to a podcast, it’s not possible to pause it with the hardware play/pause button. (To be fair, Instacast doesn’t have this function either. Both apps just open iTunes.) Rdio and Spotify seem to have no problem with such functionality, so why are podcast apps stumbling?

Show Notes are Hidden

Strangely, show notes are hidden in the Get Info pane of an episode.

Strangely, show notes are hidden in the Get Info pane of an episode.

Most podcasts use show notes to give you links to what they talked about. Downcast’s are a bit harder to find than average. You’d expect them to be on the now playing screen, but since the app doesn’t technically have one, they’re actually hidden in the Get Info pane of the episode, which can be opened with the shortcut Command + I once the item is selected. The notes are then displayed in a small pane below the episode information. Really, this entire pane should be shown by default when an episode is playing, or there should at least be an easier way to access it.

Sharing is Limited

Twitter and Facebook are supported, but App.net and others are left out.

Twitter and Facebook are supported, but App.net and others are left out.

Sharing is an important feature in all apps nowadays. Downcast’s options are limited to the stock four, though: Twitter, Facebook, Email, and Message. Instacast, on the other hand, offers the ability to add a podcast to your Safari Reading List, Pocket, or Readability account, and even share it App.net. The developers of Instacast also ask you to support the podcast by Flattring it, something that Downcast doesn’t integrate.

Good Effort, Bad Start

Downcast in fullscreen.

Downcast in fullscreen.

I used to enjoy Downcast on iOS for two reasons: it supported gestures for quick navigation in the car and it always worked well. However, I never enjoyed the bland iOS default user interface, and after trying Instacast there’s no reason for me to go back. Downcast for Mac doesn’t integrate gestures, much less a mini player, and has far too many bugs for daily use.

A choppy example of design.

A choppy example of design in Downcast.

In Conclusion

I like that the developers chose to go with iCloud as their syncing service, but other than that, the app doesn’t make me want to switch from Instacast. In fact, it helps me to appreciate the polish of that podcast client even more. For half the price of Instacast, Downcast may be worth it for some.


Summary

Good podcast apps were hard to find on the Mac before Instacast. Even though Downcast has a good iOS counterpart, its recently-released Mac app needs some work.

5
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