Much has been said already about Overcast, the new podcast player app from Marco Arment. Out of the gate, I’ll tell you this: I like the apps Marco makes. They tend to solve problems in a way that fits with my mental model, in a style that aligns with my sensibilities. Overcast is much the same in this regard. Additionally I’ve seen comments from people about the release cycle or release machine of big name independent developers like Marco. If this review makes me a cog in the machine, so be it. Think Critical exists as an outlet for me to share the things I like, dislike, find interesting, and think that others will find interesting. If you don’t, my apologies. I call it like I see it.
First things first. If you listen to podcasts, go download Overcast and give it a try. There’s very little reason not to considering the app is free for its basic functionality—including quick trials of the headline audio features. If nothing else, it will help you to better see the design choices you like best in your personal favorite podcast app.
Since I have already addressed the app’s pricing, that leaves just three specific design points I’d like to discuss.
First Run Experience
When you fire up Overcast for the first time, you’re treated to a smooth and personal setup process that is the second reason I recommend downloading it right now. Not only does it cost nothing but time, getting started with shows and subscriptions in the app is as seamless as I can imagine it being. Right of the bat, you set up an Overcast account, complete with the Skeptics FAQ which I found particularly entertaining. It’s a lighthearted take on the heavy privacy language that software so often presents to users. You can see the dense language if you prefer, but I for one was happy to see a realistically readable version.
After signup the import process impresses. You get a list of possible podcast players that you might be using, then specific instructions for exporting (for me it was two taps) and you’re off with Overcast. All the imported shows show up, though as far as I can tell, the state of specific episodes (half-played shows start from the beginning) is not preserved.
Once your subscriptions are imported, the main show and playlist selection screen appears. This is probably the most foreign screen for me as an Instacast user. The mix of text-only playlists and the all shows list with its thumbnails makes the screen seem a bit unfinished. It makes sense to have ended up with this look, but there’s still something about the playlist section that feels hollow.
From there, most users are likely to end up in the playback screen.
So much of Overcast is (apparently) designed for use in the car. Almost all of my podcast listening happens in the car, and though I avoid using the phone (especially for any kind of messaging), features like play, pause, and skip ahead are welcome in Overcast where buttons are larger, better spaced from other controls, and kept to a minimum number. Some podcast apps fill the playback screen with myriad controls and options, horrible for in-car use. Overcast keeps it simple and clear. For that alone, I’ll be keeping it as my default app.
Part and parcel of playback are Overcast’s headline features: Smart Speed and Voice Boost. The latter of these excels, again, in the car. Voices are clearer, more present, and more consistent than with the standard sound settings (or even with the spoken word EQ in the iOS settings). The former feature, Smart Speed, is a bit more controversial. Up until Overcast I rarely listened to podcasts with any playback speed modification. Voices sounded rushed, with unpleasing artifacts and an unnatural cadence. Only in the greatest of need did I use these features (though often with my own shows, where I mostly needed to listen for content concerns). With Overcast’s Smart Speed, I’ve tried to listen with the option both on and off, and I honestly prefer all of my favorite shows with Smart Speed on. It’s not that the shows play faster (though they do), they sound better. The feature tightens up dead time, but not by simply cutting it out, which is one reason that the stock speed options for podcasts sound so awful. Smart Speed shortens pauses, but takes into account that negative space is important in conversation. Personally, I’d love a podcast editing app that used the Smart Speed feature as a starting point, a sort of “Magic Edit” to highlight areas ripe for trimming and with suggested trim amounts (but I digress). Unless you’re an absolute purist, Smart Speed is great.
Overcast’s typography is clear while still retaining that Marco Arment personality. Generally it reminds me more of the choices in The Magazine than in Instapaper. The secondary heading used for dates on the main screen seems oddly angular and stilted, with letter spacing that sometimes makes it difficult to read. The primary heading used in show titles is clear and legibile, pleasant to read and quick to recognize. It’s likely that these are the same font, but that the uppercased and differently spaced dates gives them a contrasting feel.
Overall, this is an excellent 1.0. I’ve noticed some bugs with playlist building (mysteriously vanishing items mostly) and organization, but when it comes to clarity and personality, I’ve yet to see a podcast app that balances the two quite like Overcast. And, more importably for me, it seems to be an app designed with my use cases in mind: mostly listening in the car, appreciative of sound quality and content, but not militant about applying tasteful effects. I’m very interested to see where things go from here. You might be, too. Try it for yourself.