App Review: Pocket Casts for iPhone

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:

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And that app was Pocket Casts, which I immediately bought.  Here’s what the app looks like once you get it up and running:

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Above is the app’s home screen, where you’ll find a bevy of filters and lists you can customize to organize your library.

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This is what the app looks like after you’ve subscribed to some podcasts.

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.

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You can also see podcasts grouped by popularity, categories, and network.

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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Viola. A list of just the episodes that are both unplayed and downloaded.

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.”

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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.

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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.

Review: Google Chromecast — Google’s most Apple-like product yet?

72 hours ago, “Chromecast” was just a good name for a podcast on hood ornaments. Now it’s the “it” item in the tech world, selling out online within a day (though I had no problems walking into Best Buy today and walking out with one — they had plenty in stock).

In my “premature thoughts” column three days ago, I had tempered enthusiasm for the product. I knew it wasn’t going to outright replace the Apple TV in my media room nor the PS3 in my family room (my current online streaming devices) simply because the Chromecast didn’t offer any groundbreaking new features not found in either of those devices. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not having a whole lot of new features is okay if the things it does do, it does really, really well.

In this way, Chromecast might just be Google’s most Apple-like product yet. Apple is the king of streamlining devices, taking away features that offer more clutter and confusion than practicality. Particularly in the Steve Jobs era, if Apple felt like there was a better way of doing something, they just did it, and without giving people the option of continuing to do things the old way (for better and for worse). In this regard, Chromecast feels like a play right out of the Jobs playbook. Google’s bread and butter is in the cloud. Chromecast is built to access that cloud faster and easier than any other streaming device. Locally stored media is an afterthought (and in the case of accessing media stored on your phone, it’s not a thought at all — there’s no way to do it). Does Google care? Nope. Like Apple, they’re betting on what you’ll want to do tomorrow, not what you want to do today.

All that said, it’s still a piece of brand new technology. Results will vary. So how did it actually work for me?

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I didn’t buy the product just to review it. I bought it wanting to keep it. Specifically, I wanted it for my bedroom, which currently has no way to access Netflix (or any other online streaming service, for that matter).

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The bedroom TV is ANCIENT for a plasma HDTV. It’s also “off brand” (unless you consider Sceptre a brand, which I don’t). The set is nearly a decade old and is the only piece of technology my wife brought with her to the marriage. It’s not a smart TV. It’s not even a dumb TV. It’s barely a TV at all. It has more analog connections than digital ones, and just one HDMI port. USB? Nope. If Google Chromecast can work on this TV, then it’ll work on any TV.

The good news: The HDTV’s sole HDMI port was free since our DirecTV box has to use component video cables (for reasons I won’t go into here). The Chromecast requires a separate power source, though. You can either plug it into a USB port or into a wall socket. But the nearest wall socket was too far away and the TV didn’t have USB. So what did I do? I used the USB port on the DirecTV box. The Chromecast ONLY needs USB for power, so just about any USB port on any device will do. So I powered Chromecast up, opened my laptop, and downloaded the Chromecast software needed to set it up.

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The laptop found the Chromecast and the set-up wizard began doing its thing. Before the Chromecast goes onto your wifi network, it first sets up it’s own mini wifi network. The set-up software will temporarily take your computer off your home wifi network and put it onto the Chromecast’s mini-network, so they can talk. Pretty smart. The set-up wizard is very good at explaining what’s going on. At no point are you left to wonder what’s happened and if you should be doing something.

So far, everything was working just like it should.

Until it didn’t.

When it came time for the Chromecast to finally put itself onto my home’s wifi network, the Chromecast couldn’t find it. The signal was strong on all other wifi devices in the room — laptop, iPhone, and Blackberry — but the Chromecast couldn’t pick up a wifi signal at all. Thinking the Chromecast might simply be broken, I hooked it up in the family room, to see if it would work there.

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The Vizio in the family room had a nice empty HDMI port right next to a USB port. Very convenient. Not-so-convenient? The fact that the dongle wasn’t completely hidden by the TV’s bezel.

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As you can see above, the USB cable couldn’t help but protrude a bit. The good news? In this room, the Chromecast had no problem finding a strong enough wifi signal. Everything was good to go. And it worked as advertised. Apps with the ability to “cast” built-in, worked great, even on my iPhone. (Note: There are only a handful of supported Apps at the moment.) From a computer, web pages with video and audio can add a “casting option” which will send content directly to the Chromecast, just like the mobile apps do. Netflix.com and Youtube.com already have this ability. Others, like the Washington Post website, have already announced plans to incorporate this ability soon.

But you don’t NEED the web page to be optimized for Chromecast for it to work. It’s only a “beta” function at moment, but the Chromecast is able to “mirror” a Chrome browser window on your computer. This will allow you to send almost any web-based content to your TV. I was expecting the feature to be rather buggy, but it actually worked well despite its limitations.

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Every time I’d “mirror” a web page to the Chromecast, I’d get a white screen that wouldn’t go away until I hit the “cast” button a second time. I imagine this bug will be fixed in short time.

You can only mirror a single browser tab at a time, but that’s understandable. To mirror an entire desktop would require some sort of integration into the OS itself. Maybe one day Android devices will offer that level of integration, but that day isn’t today. Or tomorrow. This is one area where the Apple TV has a clear advantage.

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“The Colbert Report,” streaming off Hulu onto a TV via the Chromecast and a laptop.

Watching Hulu on the Chromecast was as easy as going to the website in the Chrome browser, hitting the Cast button, and mirroring the browser tab on the TV. Once you’ve started watching a program, Clicking the “fill screen” button on your computer will also fill the screen on your TV (though I can see there being some aspect ratio problems arising here and there in the future). Unlike Apps or webpages optimized for Chromecast, in order to watch content “mirrored” from the Chrome browser, you have to keep the browser up and running. Anything you do to the browser tab will be reflected on screen.

Now, the Chromecast isn’t made for streaming local content (i.e. music, videos, and photos stored on your hard drive). Google is more than happy to point that out. Yet if you point that out in a comment section on any tech site that covers the Chromecast you WILL get reamed by Google fans more than happy to tell you you’re wrong. They’ll say that local streaming IS possible. And they are sorta right. There is a trick to get local content to stream from a PC or Mac, but media content on your smartphone/tablet is completely off-limits.

The trick for streaming content from your computer hard drive involves manually dragging the movie/music/whatever file to the Chrome web browser and then mirroring the entire browser window over to the Chromecast. I tried it with a very high quality video clip of my nephew playing basketball. Things weren’t perfect though.

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Compared to the Stephen Colbert clip, you’ll note that the basketball footage — despite being a 1080P file — doesn’t fill the entire screen. And nothing I did would rectify that. I also couldn’t get sound with this specific clip. Different file types will yield different results.

Side note: This is another way that the Chromecast is like an Apple product. Frequently, it is possible to make Apple products do things that Apple doesn’t officially support (like jailbreaking an iPhone), but it’s always at your own risk. Local streaming is definitely an “at your own risk” feature. And it definitely feels like a “workaround” more than a feature. Results will vary. Greatly. Don’t buy a Chromecast expecting this to be something you can count on. And don’t believe anyone in any comment sections who tells you otherwise. Most of them don’t even own a Chromecast yet.

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Now, I said I bought the Chromecast specifically for watching Netflix, so let’s take a deeper look at that experience. Unlike local streaming, Netflix streaming is something that Google is more than happy to promise will work without any limitations. Whether from your browser or your mobile App, they want the Netflix experience to be seamless. I’m happy to report it is. Google clearly made sure there was nothing “beta” about Netflix performance.

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This is what it looks like when you cast a Netflix movie from your iPhone to a TV with Chromecast. Note: The Netflix app says it’s playing in the “Bedroom” beause that’s what I named this Chromecast when I first set it up.

As soon as I casted the Netflix stream from the iPhone to the TV, the Netflix App turned into a remote. You can turn your phone off and the Netflix movie will still play (though you won’t be able to control it). Again, everything worked great, but I did notice something interesting when I opened the Netflix App and hit the cast button for the first time…

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I was expecting to see two options: Watch it on my iPhone or watch it on the Chromecast. But I actually had THREE options of where to send the Netflix stream. I could watch it on the iPhone. I could watch it from the Chromecast (still labeled “Bedroom”), or I could watch it from the Vizio TV without the need for any intermediary devices whatsoever. I knew Netflix was built-in into the TV, but I didn’t know that it would communicate with a mobile App. This is a Netflix/Vizio feature I never knew existed. Thank you Chromecast for pointing me towards a useful special feature I already had. The irony, of course, is that the discovery of this feature is yet another reason why I don’t need Chromecast in this room.

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You’ll now note that the App says it’s playing on the Vizio DTV. And it is. With the push of a button, the Vizio’s built-in Netlix App opened automatically and started playing the video where it left off on the iPhone. No Chromecast needed.

Chromecast totally does everything that Google says it will. It even does a couple things Google won’t really talk about. But, overall, I’m sorry to say I still gotta return it. I bought it for a room where the Chromecast can’t get a wifi signal (yet every other wifi device in that room can). I would keep it for another room, except, well, I don’t need it for those rooms. The PS3 is a full-fledged gaming device that Chromecast can never be (nor should it). And the Apple TV, well… the Apple TV can do this:

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The Apple TV’s ability to use any HDTV as an external monitor for your computer is a feature you won’t find on any $35 dongle.

Above you can see my wife trying on maternity clothes for her sister 3000 miles away. The Macbook and the HDTV are linked wirelessly via an Apple TV. This is “true” mirroring and it’s super easy and responsive. Anything you do on a Macbook will show up on your TV. Will Chromecast ever be able to mirror an entire desktop experience like the Apple TV can? When it does, I’ll be back in the market for one. Heck, I’ll still buy one if it can up its wifi performance. ‘Til then… it looks like I might be the first person in America to actually return one of these things. (Which sucks, because I REALLY wanted to use this to watch Netflix in the bedroom…. Stupid wifi.)

As for you? If you have a room with a “dumb TV” and have been looking for an easy way to get loads of online content to it, the Chromecast is definitely worth a try.

Note About My Reviews

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When I review a product it’s based on personal experience after buying the product either for a client or myself.  I don’t do “reference reviews” where the reviewer places the product next to a bunch of similar ones and runs a series of calibration tests to see which offers the best pure performance.  There are a lot of sites that specialize in such things, like CNET, Home Theater Review, Sound & Vision, and Digital Trends.   And as important as reference tests are, they should only be the starting point when deciding what to buy.  They can tell you if a certain product is worth its price under ideal conditions, but unfortunately most home environments are far from ideal.  The difference between “great” and “excellent” is often unnoticeable in many real world situations.  They can also be information overload.  The most important question isn’t: “What’s the best product out there?”  It’s: “What’s the best product for me?”  There’s a difference and no single review can answer that.  Ideally, you want to find a review from someone whose set-up is as close to your own as possible.

Also: The best advice I can give to someone about to make a major A/V purchase — buy from a place with a good return policy (no restocking fee) and don’t be afraid to return it if it’s not everything you expected it would be.

Why is Sprint still airing their "first" Evo commercial?

I saw this commercial again just last night.  I get that when the HTC Evo came out in June, Sprint wanted to really play up its “first” status among 4G cell phones, which was a great idea back when it was the only 4G phone.  But all Sprint’s doing now is reminding people the Evo is the oldest 4G phone out there.  Not sure that’s the message they want to be sending.

Side note: Does anyone even remember what the first 3G or 2G phones were? Nope. I don’t, and I actually pay attention to these things. The commercial pretends like being the first 4G phone is as iconic and groundbreaking as being the first rotary phone or the first rocket into space, but as far as I can tell, only three cell phones have officially reached icon status:  the first iPhone, the Motorola Razr, and Zack Morris’s grey brick mobile phone.  That’s it.

Though it helped make Zack popular at school, it also lead to his fatal brain tumor.

A Midsummer Day's Update

A follow-up to some some previous posts…

1. Apple released a software update to iMovie for iPhone.  Works like a charm now.  No more still image issue.

2.  Looking forward to trying out Hulu Plus.  Between that and ESPN3.com, I figure I can get 60% of my TV watching needs from just two websites, and I can access them from just about any web-connected device I own.   Speaking of ESPN3, I have no idea why ESPN and internet service providers aren’t promoting it more.  It’s friggin’ great.  ESPN3 is basically all the sporting events that ESPN covers made accessible via the web, with many more exclusive to the web.  Not all ISP’s offer it though.  A list of ESPN3.com compatible ISPs can be found here.

3.  Still not regretting returning the EVO.

iPhone 4: the antenna isn't an issue for me, but this is…

Yesterday I started making my first video using iMovie for iPhone 4.  I was giddy.  I couldn’t believe I was making a project on my cell phone with the same non-linear ease I used to only expect from a top-of-the-line desktop machine (I’ve been using Final Cut Pro since the day it came out over a decade ago).   There were some limitations, of course, but nothing I couldn’t work around.   I made a video for my girlfriend, timing pictures and video of her nephews and niece to one of her new favorite songs. I showed it to her on the phone’s high quality screen.  She loved it.  She wanted to share it with her sister 3000 miles away.   And that’s when I had a problem.  A big problem.  Every time I tried to export the video, the app crashed.

A simple Google search turned up this support document on Apple’s website.

Apparently iMovie currently has a problem with still images:  use more than a dozen or so in a project and you could start to have issues exporting.  I had close to 40 photos in my project.   Playing around with the suggested settings didn’t help.  Apple’s final suggestion:  Use less photos.

In other words:  When all else fails, start over again with lesser ambitions.

That’s not an attitude I’m using to hearing from Apple.

Anyways, I’m not going to do that. I’ll continue to show off the video on the phone while I wait for a bug fix (it’s clearly a bug — the App has no problem processing all those photos on the fly during editing or playback — just when compiling for export).  When that will come, no clue.  Apple seems a little busy at the moment.  But at least while I wait I can listen to some podcasts