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Overcast 2.5 review: Patron-backed podcast app gets more efficient and adds exclusive features

Glenn Fleishman | March 21, 2016
The original Overcast locked its best features away. It added streaming and Handoff in 2.0, and adds patron features and better battery efficiency for all in 2.5.

With version 2, everything went free, and developer Marco Arment asked those who found the app useful to engage in patronage, paying $1 a month as a non-renewing three-month, six-month, or 12-month in-app purchase. It’s not mandatory, and the two unique patron features are relevant only to a subset of users. The app notes patronage expiration, but doesn’t nag about it. (It also asks for a review in its settings, but doesn’t use pop-ups or reminders for that purpose.)

Merrily down the streaming

What I want mostly from a podcast app are three things: to download podcasts automatically or otherwise have episodes be available so I don’t have to manage the download process; to let me easily add podcasts recommended by others or mentioned (often on other podcasts); and to help me discover podcasts when I want to find something new, different, or subject-specific to which to listen. In and around that, I don’t want storage of downloaded episodes to balloon on my phone. Nor do I want to have an endless list of unplayed episodes I know I’ll never get to.

The keenest critique of the original Overcast release is that it offered no streaming support: all podcasts had to be downloaded in full to play. While it had excellent background downloading, this remained a problem if iOS’s various needs didn’t align to pull down files when it should have, and you wanted to listen while out and about without sufficient bandwidth or data transfer remaining on a cellular plan to download quickly enough.

Version 2 supports both streaming and downloads, and offers a sometimes confusing intersection of settings. In Overcast’s New Episodes settings, you can pick among Stream When Played, Download on Wi-Fi, and Download on Wi-Fi or Cellular. However, Overcast also has an entry in the Settings app, where you manage notifications, background app refresh (for downloads), and cellular data usage. And there’s yet another entry in Settings > Cellular in the apps listing. With one misaligned combination of settings, you could have everything in the app set up the way you want, and be unable to stream or download except on Wi-Fi.

In practice, given that we have a family 15GB-a-month plan (with AT&T’s one-month rollover data), I’ve made sure cellular use is enabled everywhere in Overcast. Most podcasts are in the 15MB to 60MB range, and I’m mostly on Wi-Fi networks. I doubt I use more than a few hundred megabytes a month for out-and-about podcast retrieval.

Arment says that version 2.5 has a re-architected synchronization engine that uses much less data transfer to manage the metadata—the RSS feeds that contain the list of all episodes for each podcasts. The system retrieves new episodes as they’re posted, but only updates the full list for any given podcast when a user consults the All view for a podcast. (I was unable to confirm the scale of data saved, but from many years’ work with podcast RSS files, this could be on the orders of tens to hundreds of megabytes per day; not so much individually, but it adds up over time.)

 

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