How to: hands on with Apple's Podcasts 1.2

Like a lot of people, I was hardly bowled over by Apple's first stab at its iOS Podcasts app. Version 1.2, released last Thursday, is the reboot we've been waiting for.

Like a lot of people, I was hardly bowled over by Apple's first stab at its Podcasts app. It didn't support playlists, didn't sync podcasts between devices, and its Now Playing screen was split into two pieces -- one of which featured a reel-to-reel tape recorder interface that, while cute for those who had some notion of what such a device was, took up a lot of space and provided very little useful feedback.

With each update, Podcasts has improved slightly, but version 1.2, released on Thursday, is the reboot that we've been waiting for. Playlists (called Stations) have been added, iCloud syncing has been implemented to ensure synchronization between devices (and with iTunes on your computer), and the Now Playing screen is a single unit that blessedly lacks the tape-deck interface. Let's look at these highlights.

Station to station

Fire up Podcasts and you'll now discover a My Stations button at the bottom of the screen. Tap it and you're taken to the Stations screen. Here you find three entries -- On the Go, Most Recent, and All Unplayed. A number bubble to the right of each entry reflects the number of episodes that either haven't been played at all or have been only partially played. To create a new station just tap the New Station button. You're prompted to name and save your station. A sheet (iPad) or screen (iPhone and iPod) pops up, displaying all the podcast series that are on your device.

You can choose to include all your podcasts in the station or just those you've selected. By default, they're all selected, so just tap those that you don't want to include. When you're finished, tap Done.

If you'd prefer to not create a playlist of shows but rather a hodgepodge of episodes from a variety of podcasts, tap On-The-Go. In the On-The-Go screen tap Add, tap a show in the resulting Podcasts screen, and then tap just those episodes you wish to add to On-The-Go.

Within the Stations screen tap Settings to configure how the app deals with your stations. You can, for example, change the play order to Most Recent or Manual, globally choose the number of most recent episodes you want immediate access to (1, 2, 3, 5, or 10), and select the kind of media you'll accept (audio, video, or both). If you want finer control over the number of recent podcasts you want to see for each individual show, tap a show name at the bottom of the list and select what constitutes a recent episode (again, 1, 2, 3, 5, or 10 episodes). You can also choose to get all of the show's episodes.

That syncing feeling

For those who had multiple iOS devices -- an iPhone in their pocket, an iPad on the couch, and an iPod touch at the gym -- it was frustrating to switch to a new device and not be able to find the podcast you'd been listening to just an hour before. Those days are now over.

To sync podcasts between iOS devices using the same iCloud ID, call up the Settings app, select Podcasts, and toggle the Sync Subscriptions switch to On. It's within this setting that you can also choose to enable auto-downloads (your options are Off, All, or Most Recent), choose which episodes to keep (All; All Unplayed Episodes; Most Recent Episode; or the last 2, 3, 5, or 10 episodes), and choose whether you'll allow podcasts to be updated over a cellular connection.

Now, not only can you subscribe to a podcast on one device and have it appear on another, but playback progress syncs as well. So, listen to a podcast halfway through on your iPhone and, if you have an Internet connection on both devices, you can later pick up your iPad and listen from the point you left off on the iPhone. The stations you create on one device are also synced to others using your iCloud account.

Now Playing now making sense

Wisely, Apple has given up trying to reinvent the Now Playing screen. We have plenty of experience from such screens in the Music and Videos apps and we can once again draw on that experience to play podcasts.

The screen is very straightforward. The show's artwork occupies the middle of the screen. Double-tap on this artwork and it flips around to reveal a list of that program's episodes. (Tapping the List icon in the top-right corner has the same effect.) If the episode includes chapters and the producer has embedded a URL into the chapter, that link appears at the bottom of the artwork. Tap it and Safari opens and takes you to the linked webpage. As someone who takes time to embed these things, I offer a mouthed "Thank you, Apple."

Above the artwork are sleep-timer and speed controls. The sleep-timer options are 5, 10, 15, 30, 45, or 60 minutes; you can also choose When the Current Chapter Ends (if the podcast has chapters), and When the Current Episode ends. Speed options (which change the pace of the podcast without altering its pitch) are 0.5X, 1.5X, 2X, and normal speed. A timeline is next, which offers the same kind of scrubbing controls found in the original Podcasts app (where, by dragging lower, you have finer control over scrubbing increments). If a podcast has chapters, a Chapters menu appears to the right. Just tap the chapter you want to start playback from. And then there's the Share button, which allows you to share a link to the episode via email, Twitter, or Facebook.

At the bottom of the screen are the play controls--Rewind, skip back 15 seconds, Play/Pause, skip forward 15 seconds, and Fast Forward. A volume slider and, when available, AirPlay menu appear to the right of these controls.

Nothing fancy. Nothing reeling. Just the things that make the Now Playing screen immediately and effortlessly useable.

The last vestiges of skeuomorphism

Perhaps to avoid entirely killing the patient by ripping out too much of its innards at once, Apple left untouched the app's Top Charts selection wheel, which, in my view, remains a waste of space. Tap Top Charts and there's a large selection wheel that displays broad podcast categories -- Comedy, Education, Games & Hobbies, and so on. Swipe the wheel to move through these categories and view sub-categories within each.

Below the wheel is enormous artwork for a single program. You can browse other podcasts within this category by swiping up to reveal another large hunk of artwork. To preview one of these podcasts, just double-tap on it to begin playing the most recent episode or tap the small Play icon to its right. Double-tap it to stop playback (or tap the small Pause button). Tap a single time and you can see a list of recent episodes along with a Subscribe button and download links.

Again, I find this much ado about very little, but perhaps it's useful to people just coming to podcasts who want to explore what's available. Fortunately, more experienced listeners can just tap the Store button and browse the iTunes Store's podcasts in a more efficient manner.

Yes, get it

If you've been put off by the Podcasts app's past limitations and questionable interface elements, it's time to revisit it: Podcasts 1.2 is the version Apple should have shipped all along.

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Christopher Breen

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