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Overcast is a winning podcast app

Jason Snell | July 17, 2014
On Wednesday, Marco Arment released the podcast-playing app Overcast, his anticipated major return to the iOS App Store after selling his popular Instapaper read-it-later app last year. The app was teased last September, its development has been detailed on Arment's popular podcast, and now it's out there for everyone to try. For the last few months I've been using a prerelease version, and I've come away impressed.

This two-tier approach is a pretty close match to how I listen to podcasts: I have a few go-to podcasts that I want to listen to as soon as they arrive, and then there are podcasts I listen to when the top names are all played.

But with all this automation, there's also flexibility: You can edit playlists to list episodes in any order and add and delete episodes freely. In Overcast I still find myself doing playlist maintenance based on my own whims, but in general the episodes I want to listen to are at the top with the other stuff is at the bottom, which is how I like it.

One of my favorite features of Overcast is its ability to modify and improve audio. Just about every podcast app lets you change the speed of podcast playback, so you can (for example) polish off an hour-long podcast in 45 minutes. I've never been a fan of those features, because they generally add artifacts to the sound (it sounds like a series of clicks to me) that drive me nuts. Overcast does the best job of speed-alteration I've heard, and now I listen to many podcasts on slightly higher than 1x speed.

Separately, Overcast offers a Smart Speed feature that intelligently removes silence from podcasts, shortening episodes even if you don't choose to listen at a higher speed. (You can also use the two features simultaneously for even more time saving).

The app's Voice Boost feature is a single button that alters a podcast's audio, compressing and equalizing it to bring it to a more consistent volume. I've found that Voice Boost makes some quiet and poorly recorded podcasts I listen to more listenable, but decreases the quality of others. Fortunately, Overcast lets you set Speed, Smart Speed, and Voice Boost settings on a per-podcast basis — so you can speed up slow talkers, boost quiet talkers, and even slow down speed talkers.

Given Arment's background building web services (he helped build Tumblr, and Instapaper was very much an app-and-web-service combo), it's not surprising that Overcast is supported by several web-based features. In fact, the app requires that users create an account because the Overcast server is constantly checking for new episodes and then pinging the app when a new one appears. There's also always a backup of your Overcast data stored on the server, in case you lose your phone. The overcast.fm website contains a basic web player, and Arment has suggested that other web-based features — such as the ability to subscribe to podcasts or add episodes to playlists directly from your desktop web browser — may be in the offing sometime down the road.

 

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