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October 13, 2011

Pocket Casts 3.0 for iOS

by shiftyjelly

We’re proud to announce the availability of Pocket Casts 3.0, for iOS: http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/pocket-casts/id414834813?mt=8

Over 3 months ago we took a long, hard look at Pocket Casts. It was by far our favourite app, yet it was selling really badly. So we had a decision to make: let it go and move on to something else, or double down and work on making it better. We loved it too much to let it go, I for one use it twice a day, if not more. So we made a decision that’s not easy as a small developer with very tight cash flow…we decided to spend whatever it took on getting the app right. ‘Whatever it took’ turned out to be 3 months. That’s a huge risk, but we think it was worth it.

New Look, New Layout, New Flow

The first thing you’ll notice when you open version 3.0 is that everything has changed. The look, the feel, the flow of the entire app. There are many reasons for this, but the main one for us was always about making the app more usable and more friendly. For long time users of our application, we realise this can be quite jarring at first but give it a few days we think you’ll love it. We can’t explain every single change we made, but we’d like to cover a few.

When we first created Pocket Casts, we came up with the concept of the updates tab. New episodes stayed there, until you either downloaded or deleted them. We loved this, but it confused people to no end. Some people don’t like deleting, others were confused when after a podcast was downloaded, it would disappear from the updates tab. Where did it go, what did I do…they didn’t know. So the concept of ‘Recent’ and the Episodes page was born:

The way it works now is that episodes that you’re phone has found out about recently, appear in the ‘recent’ page. Downloading them leaves them there, but also places them in the ‘downloaded’ page (which also flashes briefly when you download something. This makes it clearer where your podcasts are, and how to get to them. Another new feature is that the app will now download 2 podcasts at once, which is handy when one podcast authors site is screamingly fast, while the other is slow.

Cloud Power! (Notifications, Speed, Data Use)

Pocket Casts is the only podcast application for iOS (as far as we know) that does all its podcast processing on a server. What this means is that when your phone needs to see what’s new, instead of downloading individual podcast feeds (which can be very large), it just calls our server once “hey what’s new” it says. “Here are 3 episodes that are new since the last time you checked” says our server. That’s about 10kb’s worth of data, vs potentially many megabytes worth. Also worth noting is it’s a lot faster.

Talk is cheap though. Let’s compare Pocket Casts with the highest ranking of our competitors. I installed both apps cleanly, and imported my OPML file with the 27 podcasts that I subscribe to. I let both do their first refresh/setup without timing. Next I quit both apps, and performed a refresh in each one in turn, measuring the amount of data used, and the time taken. The results might surprise you:

Pocket Casts took 1 second to refresh all 27 of my podcasts. Our competitor took almost 2 minutes (105 seconds). That’s about 70x longer. It’s worth noting here that I could have been really mean and added 100 podcasts. Pocket Casts would still do those in 1 second, while the competing app (without a server) could take up to 10 minutes. It’s not rocket science, their app has to go off and look at every single RSS feed for every single podcast and see what’s new. That’s where our server comes in, it refreshes podcast feeds at a rate of about one million per day! All this so that your phone doesn’t have to.

Time aside, I decided to monitor the data use. To refresh 27 podcasts Pocket Casts sends 5kb to our server, and receives 3kb, for a total of 8kb. That’s tiny. The competing app sent 69kb and received 2252kb for a total of 2321kb (2.3 megabytes). In this case the competing app uses 290x more data than Pocket Casts. Note that we’re not deriding our competitor in any way, you can’t do any better than that, since you have to parse the feeds from the phone. That’s why we designed our app to have a server, because we wanted fast refreshes with minimal data use. And not just any old server, we currently run 11 high-end servers, that plow through many, many gigabytes worth of data each and every day. Yes, we do take this very, very seriously.

Speed, and bandwidth aside, having a server also adds one more benefit, the ability to do push notifications. Something we’ve expanded quite a lot in the new version:

You can now opt to receive text notifications, along with a sound when new podcasts are released. You can even turn this on or off per podcast, if you like some more than others. What it means is that you’re always notified about what’s new, even if you have the app closed.

Now Playing

The old now playing screen was ok, but there were a few things that bothered us. Firstly the progress bar was too close to the top of the screen, which didn’t work well with iOS 5 and its new notification pull down. Secondly the controls were a bit small, and felt cramped down the bottom. Lastly there didn’t seem to be any consistency as to how we placed  these controls on the page. In the new version we’ve fixed all that, while retaining the ability to see all the podcast artwork by tapping in the middle of the screen. The show notes are now much more accessible as well, just swipe to the right to see them. We also download the show notes when the podcast is downloaded, so no more having to have an internet connection to read them. On the list screens, you can now see exactly where you are up to in each podcast (and it updates if the podcast is playing) as well as being able to pause and play right from those screens. Lastly (and this is one of our favourite features) you can now start playing a podcast while it’s downloading.

Storage

If you listen to a lot of podcasts like we do, then you can quickly become overwhelmed with having to manage them. Deleting old ones can especially turn into a chore. With the new version of Pocket Casts, we now let you configure how many old episodes you’d like to keep. You can do this for all your podcasts, as well as each one individually. So in my case I tell it to keep the last 3 Tech News Todays (a daily show), but only the last This Week In Tech (a weekly show). You can also ‘star’ an episode if you want to make sure it never gets automatically deleted by the app.

Podcast Settings

New to Pocket Casts v3.0 is the Podcast Settings page. We realised fairly early on that some podcasts have really terrible album artwork. Others have long and cumbersome names. Well worry about those things no longer:

Now you can change the name of a podcast, or its artwork at any time. We may have accidentally also created a way to listen to more…how shall we say…’risque’ podcasts with this feature, but that wasn’t our intention. Honest.

Sharing

Another great new feature of Pocket Casts v3.0 is the ability to share your podcasts, episodes, or even the position in an episode with other people. This means if you’re really liking a podcast, or an episode, you can recommend it to a friend in a few simple taps. When you tap on an email, tweet or website with this sharing link in it, you can open that straight from your phone, and it will launch Pocket Casts, and let you choose if you’d like to listen/subscribe. When we release version 3.1 for Android, you’ll even be able to share with your friends on the other side of the fence.

The Small Things

We could go on for hours (quite literally) about all the things we’ve changed, but we’ll leave you with a few extra things:

  • You can stop an episode from playing (or streaming) by long pressing on the now playing tab icon.
  • We now have podcast chapter support, swipe to the left to see all the chapters, tap on one to play it
  • You can now export your subscriptions to an OPML file, for backup and to use in other podcasting apps
  • You can now turn our giant skip buttons off, handy for people that want to listen to advertising
  • You can now check out the podcast description, and visit the podcasts website from the podcast page
  • You can tap on the first podcasting tab to switch from the tile view to the episode view
  • You can now add videos into your playlist as well. By default they’ll play as audio, but one tap and you can be watching the video instead.
Don’t tell me you made it to the end, and are still reading? Go grab the app already. Tell a friend. Heck yell it out from the rooftops if you have to:

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