There are few things as unpleasant in life as getting a headphone cable snagged on a doorknob. Or the corner of a table. Or the watch of a total stranger passing me on the sidewalk. Because the cable runs the length of my body, from the earbuds on my head to the phone in my pants pocket, it’s way too easy for it to get caught on just about anything, and it’s a truly jarring experience every time it happens.
It looks like I now have a weekly column at Digital Trends, and my first post is all about the (unspoken) connection between cable channel bundling and show quality. The more click-baity headline would be something like “How à la carte cable is going to destroy the golden age of television,” so I’m very happy they went with something far less incendiary.
If you have any ideas for media-related topics I can address in the future, let me know!
Speaking of podcasts, let’s say you’ve gotten a brand new podcast-playing app for your iOS or Android device. If only there were an easy way to get the new app to know what podcasts you were already subscribed to… Wait, there is! If you’ve been using a third-party podcast app like Pocket Casts, Instacast, Downcast, etc., there’s a good chance it’ll allow you export all your current subscriptions into a single file you can then import into your new app. (Note: Apple’s default Podcasts app, sadly, does not allow this.)
Look in the settings of your current/old app for the option to “export to OPML.” (If you must know, OPML is a file format that works well with RSS feeds, which are the heart of podcast subscriptions… but don’t worry about the specifics, you won’t be tested on this.)
In Pocket Casts, for example, the option can be found in SETTINGS > SYNC & BACKUP > EXPORT. The Export window looks like this:
Just enter an email address you can check on your iPhone or iPad, and it’ll send the OPML file as an attachment to that address. Open the message on your device, click on the attachment, and then use the “send to” feature (the little box with an arrow pointing up) to send the list to your new podcasting app. On an android device, you might need to first save the file to your phone’s internal storage, then open it in the new app.
Downcast for iOS makes things a little easier. Click on the “More” button at the bottom of the home screen, then click on “Tools.” Select “Export Feeds to OPML” and you’ll see the option to send the file directly to a different application, no email required (unless you really want to use email).
Overcast makes things even simpler. In Settings, click on “Export OPML” and a list of compatible apps will automatically come up.
If you’ve been using iTunes to subscribe to Podcasts, you’re in luck. Control-click on the “Podcasts” item in your sidebar (if the sidebar isn’t visible, you can unhide it from the View menu), and an “Export” button will appear. Select OPML as your file format and email it to your device.
A cursory internet search reveals that a lot of popular podcast apps support OPML, so if you’re switching apps and you’ve got A LOT of subscriptions to re-subscribe to, do take advantage of this convenience. Note: This method will inform the new program what podcasts you’ve been subscribed to, but it won’t transfer other metadata, like which episodes you’ve already listened to/downloaded.
And if you’re really, really curious what exactly an OPML file looks like when you open it, here it is:
I’ve been using Pocket Casts as my main podcast-listening app since the beginning of the year. (You can read my original review here.) The main advantage Pocket Casts has over Apple’s own podcast app? Greater ability to organize podcasts. For example, I like having a listview of only podcast episodes that have been both downloaded (i.e. not-to-be-streamed) and are unplayed. Pocket Cast can do that. Apple’s podcasting app can’t.
Pocket Casts does have one annoying quirk, though. The app’s filters are a great way to view your preferred podcasts, but they lack “continuous play” (i.e. when one podcast ends, the next one on the list automatically begins). To get that, you have to manually add episodes to a separate playlist. It would be better if filters and playlists were the same thing.
(Note: The app does offer a couple other ways to “build a queue,” but none of them are ideal solutions.)
This might not seem like a big deal, but I hate it when I’m driving and the podcast I’m listening to ends, only to be followed by dead silence. The last thing I want to do while behind the wheel of a car is mess with my iPhone. It might not happen often since the average podcast is about an hour long, but it happens enough that I figured it’s time to give another app a chance.
That app: Downcast. Let’s take a look at how it compares to Pocket Casts.
Like Pocket Casts, Downcast has a little red icon with two curved lines.
Like Pocket Casts, Downcast currently costs $2.99.
Like Pocket Casts, Downcast is extremely customizable when it comes to automatically filtering out (or in) podcast episodes.
Unlike Pocket Casts? Downcast does its filtering right in playlists.
Downcast must be my new default podcast player, right? Not so fast. Let’s look at them side-by-side.
I live in Los Angeles, city of transplants. Not heart transplants or face transplants, but whole people transplants. Somehow I managed to marry a local, but everyone else I know out here seems to hail from somewhere else. As such, we all root for teams that are way out-of-market, and watching out-of-market games isn’t cheap.
As of this writing, DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket package costs at least $240 ($330 for the version that includes web & mobile access). Adding the MLB Extra Innings package costs $200, same as the NBA’s League Pass. If you’ve got the money to spend and really think you’ll wind up watching a high percentage of games, they can be worth it. For most people, though, they are overkill.
Another option — a Slingbox. In theory, a single Slingbox can solve all your out-of-market challenges. Just hook it up to a cable box in your hometown, and wherever you are in the world, you can watch all the local coverage of your favorite teams. In practice, though, it’s not an ideal solution. The boxes themselves run from $180 to $300, and — chances are — you’ll need the more expensive option because the cheaper model doesn’t include wifi (i.e. it needs to be physically situated not just near a cable box, but also your home’s internet router). “Slinging” the content to mobile devices is easy (though the smartphone and tablet apps cost an additional $15 each), and watching on the web is free, but it’s difficult to get the high quality content to a TV set. Whenever I use Airplay to mirror the iPad app to my living room TV, the video quality always takes a hit. Also: if you’re using Slingbox to watch a program remotely, then whoever is at home looking at that TV has to watch the same thing. (And don’t forget, this is all contingent on you having family or a friend in your hometown willing to let you hijack their cable box at will.)
Really, I’m just happy watching my favorite teams the few times a season they show up on local TV. As a Tampa Bay Rays fan, between the nationally televised games that ESPN, Fox, and the MLB network air, not to mention all the times the Rays play the LA Angels, I can easily watch well over a dozen games a year without having to spend any additional money. For football, I can watch the Bucs at least 3 or 4 times a season the same way. Hockey is tougher because my DirecTV package doesn’t include the NBC Sports channel, which has the rights to most of the games. (Thank goodness Tampa doesn’t have a basketball team, as that’s one less sport to worry about.)
The hard part –> Knowing in advance when games will be airing locally. Using a “keyword” search on a DVR (i.e. looking for any programs with the words “Tampa Bay Rays” or “Buccaneers”) is inexact. You wind up getting a list that includes non-games, repeats of games, and lots of games on channels you don’t subscribe to. Websites that specialize in channel listings weren’t much help either. Ideally, I wanted a site that would email me whenever a channel I get shows a game with a team I want to watch. Though many sites offered email reminders and customizable channel listings, I couldn’t find a site that offered both the way I need them. I then turned to an app called IFTTT — which stands for “If This, Then That.” It’s an amazing app that ties different services together in incredibly useful ways. You can program it so if that anytime “A” happens in one app (or service), then “B” will automatically happen in another. “If” a Rays game showed up on a local channel, “then” I wanted an email reminder and/or it to set my DVR. This, too, turned out to be a dead end, thanks to inadequate TV listing apps and services.
Then, last night, I turned on my TV and I saw this message from DirecTV:
It’s a new update for DirecTV Genie users specifically to help them track their favorite teams. Sounds great, right? Well… Let’s check it out. I followed the above messages instructions and navigated over to Sports.
Once there, I navigated over to “My Teams” and added the Rays as a favorite.
Then I selected the “Team Page” of the Rays. And from the Team Page, I was able to set recording options. Note: Because of DirecTV’s obtuse menu system, this is so far taking twice as long as it should.
As you can see, it very clearly says it’ll record on my subscribed channels. Perfect. I set it to automatically record the Rays whenever they show up on any channel I get (which should be soon, since the Rays play the Angels this weekend, and I definitely get that channel). Now let’s navigate over to “upcoming games” and see what it plans to record…
Wow, that’s a lot of games over the next week. Too many in fact. All that should be listed is the upcoming Rays @ Angels series. I’m also seeing Rays @ Seattle (which is on a channel I don’t subscribe to), A’s @ Rays (also on a channel I don’t subscribe to), and Red Sox @ Rays (again, on a channe to whichl I don’t subscribe). Even the Rays/Angels games, which are shown locally on Fox Sports West are set to record on the wrong channel (Sun Sports, a channel I don’t get). In other words, if I trusted this new feature to do as promised, it would record absolutely nothing. All it weeded out was the “MLB Extra Innings” premium broadcasts. That’s it.
So much for this new “smart” search feature. It’s just as dumb as ever. If you subscribe to every channel, though, I suppose it’ll work as advertised, but if you don’t, it’ll just frustrate you with its wasted potential.
Back to a combination of Slingbox and manually checking the Rays upcoming schedule and matching it to local TV listings. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than relying on DirecTV’s heinously flawed feature.
Whenever someone tells me they need a new TV, but they don’t want to pay through the nose for above-average performance, features, and size, I steer them towards Vizio.
Another reason to love Vizio smart TVs: They replicate a lot of the functionality of Google’s remarkable Chromecast. This is something I first noticed when I did my Chromecast review, but I didn’t realize just how extensive this functionality was until last night, when I found myself able to “fling” Youtube content from my iPad directly to the TV. Here’s how it works: Mobile apps like Netflix and Youtube now have a “cast” button — the button you’re supposed to use to send audio and video to a Chromecast device. But Vizio has smartly used the same “casting protocol” that Chromecast apparently utilizes. So if you’re watching a movie on Netflix or a video on Youtube and you want to continue watching it on your TV, just hit the “Cast” button and select “VIZIO DTV” (see above screenshot of the Youtube app for the iPad). The Vizio’s built-in Netflix/Youtube app will kick in and pick up right where you were on your smartphone/tablet. You can then use your mobile device to control the video on the TV.
Note: I’ve only done it with Netflix and Youtube, but I’ll try some more apps next time I get a chance. I’m guessing that any service built-in to the TV will work, so long as there is a corresponding mobile app.
Oh, and, of course, the TV and the mobile device need to be on the same wifi network.
Long-time readers of this blog (hi, mom!) know my affinity for podcasts. I’ve offered advice to aspiring podcasters. I even returned my first Android phone largely because I didn’t like how that platform handled podcasts (in 2010). So when Apple came out with their own dedicated Podcast app over a year ago, I was ecstatic. Though version 1.0 was full of bugs, it offered one feature that made it worthwhile: A single playlist that automatically showed all my downloaded & unplayed podcasts, ordered from oldest to newest. That’s all I really needed.
And then Apple updated their Podcast app. The bugs largely went away… but so did the one function I actually used.
The new “unplayed” list now showed all the unplayed episodes of all the podcasts I subscribed to, whether they had been downloaded or not. Here’s the thing: If I haven’t downloaded a podcast episode, that means I don’t want to listen to it. (I have zero interest in streaming podcasts while I’m out and about.) I kept waiting for a revision that would restore the ability to automatically hide undownloaded episodes, but, alas, that day would never come.
After a year of manually managing my podcast library, I decided to finally break Tech Guy Rule #121: “Never pay for an app when a decent alternative is free.” I emptied my piggy bank and scrounged up enough coins to buy a new podcast app. But which one? Downcast, Instacast, Pocket Casts and iCatcher all had good write-ups on the web, as well as largely positive reviews on the app store. They all cost less than five bucks. They all bragged about their customizability. But only one had this on its app store page:
And that app was Pocket Casts, which I immediately bought. Here’s what the app looks like once you get it up and running:
Above is the app’s home screen, where you’ll find a bevy of filters and lists you can customize to organize your library.
Subscribing to podcasts is very easy. As soon as you hit the “+” in the upper right hand corner (from almost any page), you’re greeted with a page of Featured Podcasts.
You can also see podcasts grouped by popularity, categories, and network.
The Network view is very useful, though it’s far from complete. Earwolf and MaximumFun.org, for example, were both missing. (But their podcasts were easily found using the search tool.)
Once you’ve subscribed to a podcast, you can see all available episodes. You can then download only the ones you want to listen to. You can also set it to auto-download new episodes in the future, if you wish. Thanks to iOS 7, downloading is done in the background, and only on wifi if you don’t have an unlimited data plan.
Some of the icons were unfamiliar to me. For example, I had no idea what that little checkmark meant until I clicked it. (FYI: It’s to toggle between “played” and “unplayed” status.)
From the episode page, you can choose to start playing the episode immediately or add it to a playlist. There’s also a “PLAY NEXT” option I’ll go into detail more later.
The app is not without its quirks. For example, you can create a “filter” — like the one seen above — that will automatically sort your podcast library by whatever criteria you want, but it’s not the same as a playlist. Selecting an episode in the “filter” list will only play that individual episode. It will not automatically go onto the next one in the filter. You need to create a “playlist” to do that. Adding episodes to a playlist is easy, but, still, it’d make more sense to just have filters and playlists be the same thing. The reason I left the Apple Podcast app is because I didn’t want to have to manually add anything to a playlist, yet here I am, having to do just that.
But just when I was ready to give another podcast app a try (for another $3), Pocket Cast won me over. The saving grace? The “play next” button. One of the reasons I hate playlists is this: Let’s say you see an episode you’d like to listen to after the current podcast you’re listening to is over. So you add it to a playlist, where it appears at the bottom of the list, and then you have to manually move the episode up, in order to hear it next.
With the “play next” button, it’ll cut through all that. Just hit that button and the app will automatically cue the selected podcast to start playing as soon as the current one is finished. It’s a feature I never knew I wanted… and now it’s the main way I listen to podcasts.
Another cool thing about the app is the way it handles “chapters.”
Only one podcast I listen to — Scriptnotes — uses chapter markers, but I imagine more and more podcasts will start to.
Another thing it handles quite well: Links to additional content.
The app might not be quite what I expected (seriously, filters and playlists shouldn’t be two different things), but I’m not regretting the purchase. If the idea of super-customizable filters, a “play next” option, and an extremely user-friendly interface for finding & subscribing to new podcasts intrigues you, then I can easily recommend Pocket Casts.