Pocket Casts vs. Downcasts: Which is the superior podcast app?

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.

IMG_0684Pocket 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.

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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.

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Review: Cree LED Light Bulb

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I never thought I’d review a light bulb.

That’s because until recently, there’s really only been two choices for your household light bulb needs:  Do you want to continue using the century-old standard light bulb or switch to a newish compact fluorescent light bulb?  The standard light bulb will work in just about any fixture for a low upfront cost, though they are extraordinarily inefficient.  The CFL is a little more finicky. If you want one for a dimmer or an outside fixture or whatnot, you have to make sure you get one made for that purpose. The upside is that over the life of the bulb you should save money as they only use a fraction of the energy (not to mention make Captain Planet happy).

Back when Congress mulled forcing the light bulb industry to shift towards an all CFL market, the issue became very political, very quickly. CFLs were called inferior, part of a left-wing conspiracy, and even poisonous. Foes of the technology said they were too slow to warm up to full brightness. The light was unnatural. If broken you have to call 9-1-1. Of course, those concerns were all overblown. Some of the complaints were based on first generation models that were no longer on the market, others were flat out lies.

The biggest knock against CFLs, though, was that a lot people who tried them out just didn’t like the light. Which is a shame, because they were largely responding to color temperature, which is easy to account for. If you replace ANY bulb with another that’s a different color temp, the light will look “off.”  It’s not because one color temp is better or worse than another, it’s simply because it’s different. (That’s why its generally a good idea to replace all the bulbs in a new home when you move in, before you get used to any rooms in a certain kind of light.) A lot of these people wouldn’t have been so displeased by the CFL experience had they made sure to match the color temp of the new bulb to the old one.

The PR damage against CFLs might be too great to ever overcome, though, no matter how mature the technology gets. It’s a good thing, then, that the next generation of light bulbs is upon us: The LED bulb. They look (a little) more like standard bulbs. They (theoretically) last for decades as opposed to years. They use even less energy and tend to be more universal than CFLs. And they cost roughly $1,000,000 per bulb.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but they are still definitely in the “early adopter” phase. A 60w replacement bulb will run about 20 bucks in most places (though, yes, you can find them cheaper if you shop around).

When we moved into our house, I decided to forgo LED bulbs this go around because of the price (we need to buy A LOT of bulbs on a budget).

Then, this past weekend, I saw a Cree 60w equivalent bulb at Home Depot. It sells for $13. Still not in CFL territory, but this was by far the cheapest I’d seen yet for this wattage. I figured I’d give a try.

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My only problem: How do you review a light bulb? Do I go all technical and measure its output and spread as scientifically as possible then compare it to other bulbs? Or do I just plug it in and see if I like it?

I opted to do a little of both (though mostly the latter). I stuck it in a fixture with a CFL of a similar color temp.

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CFL is on the right. LED is on the left.

Note: These photos aren’t meant to represent the actual light in any way. I don’t have the photography skills to approximate what the human eye sees, particularly for a light bulb test where you need to adjust the settings greatly just to avoid an overexposed picture.

I almost went blind taking this photo.

I almost went blind taking this photo.

The photo below is my best attempt to show a CFL and the LED side-by-side over a neutral background.

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Because the color temps are similar, the light blends very well.

The photo below, though, shows what happens when you mix two light bulbs with DIFFERENT color temps:

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This is a “daylight” bulb in the same fixture as a “warm white” bulb.

What I’m trying to illustrate is that color temp is FAR more important than bulb technology when it comes to matching light.

The next test was… an audio test? Yep. I had read complaints about an LED bulb that Best Buy sells. Some people thought it “buzzed.” So I put the Cree in a fixture all by itself, turned off all other electronics in the room, and let it warm up. There was no buzz that I could hear.

So it passed my light test, mixing well with my current bulbs. It also passed my sound test. Any other tests? Durability? Well, it says it’s “guaranteed” to last for 10 years… So I’ll let you know if it dies before then. Check back in a decade or so. Until then, I can heartily recommend the Cree 60w replacement bulb. For the time being, it’s the best value in the LED market. If you have a fixture that’s really hard to change, I think it’s well worth the extra money.

Review: MartinLogan Motion Vision Soundbar

Product:  MartinLogan’s Motion Vision Soundbar
Retail Price: $1500

Released this past summer, MartinLogan’s Motion Vision aims to fill a small-but-significant gap in home theater offerings:  the “high end” soundbar.  There are very few products in this category and understandably so.  If you have over $1000 to spend on a sound system, why not just go with a multi-speaker set-up?  The vast majority of people will do just that.  But not everyone can.  Some rooms simply can’t be outfitted in such a way.  Outside walls, lots of windows, inadequate crawl or attic space — these are things that can hinder speaker installation throughout a decent-sized room.  Or maybe the room just has a nice charm you don’t want to ruin with a multitude of speakers.  Also: If you could get outstanding 5.1 channel “surround” sound from just a single $1500 bar, it could actually be a good deal.  You wouldn’t need an A/V receiver.  You wouldn’t need to pull cables through walls.  Assuming you’ve already got a decent TV (with multiple HDMI inputs), you can use your TV as the receiver and simply plug the soundbar into your TV’s digital audio out port (which is becoming standard on decent HDTVs these days).  No extra components.  No need to hire an A/V installer.  You might not even need a universal remote.  None of that.  Which brings us to the $1500 question…  Is the Motion Vision that soundbar?

My client’s living room is a little over 20 feet x 15 feet.  That’s either large or medium sized depending on where you live.  In a big city like Los Angeles, it’s actually a nice-sized room, especially for a room solely dedicated to entertaining and nothing else.  It’s got two outside walls, lots of windows AND a charming mid-century Mediterranean look the client’s wife didn’t want to alter.  So the room definitely fit the bill for a soundbar, and powerful one at that (to fill the space adequately).  The Bowers & Wilkins Panorama and the Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR were both out of the client’s price range (each runs over $2000).  Also, they were kinda ugly.  So, after reading some glowing reviews — here, here, and here — I recommended the Motion Vision.

The first thing you notice is how striking it is to look at.  It definitely looks like a $1500 piece of equipment, at least compared to other speaker systems.  But does it sound like $1500?  Our first test DVD:  The Blu-Ray for Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights.  Why a comedy, you ask?  Well, for one — it’s not just a comedy.  It has several racing sequences that can really test a system’s ability to handle action.  And secondly:  Sound is actually pretty important to comedy, especially for a slave-to-detail like director Adam McKay.  For all the over-the-top gags, there’s just as much humor found in the nuance of individual lines.

Our first reaction:  It sounded FANTASTIC.  Out-of-the-box, the sound was rich and full-bodied.   The race car engines revved like they did in the theater.   For a soundbar with no external subwoofer, the bass was more than enough.

But something odd kept happening.  On more than one occasion, I’d have to ask: “What’d that guy just say?”  Occasionally muddled dialogue is par for the course with movies featuring thick accents and lots of background action — but with the Motion Vision, just about any overly-deep, overly-raspy voice sounded like a character in a Guy Ritchie film.

I tweaked and tweaked the soundbar, but no matter how I adjusted the settings, mid-range dialogue sounded either a little muted (compared to other sounds) or too breathy.  I had to turn down the overall bass down a lot just to get the dialogue to sound the way I wanted it to (not an ideal solution if you like bass and don’t have an external subwoofer).

Note: The dialogue sounded better coming from a DTS source than a Dolby Digital source, but if you’re planning to use your TV’s digital out port, DTS likely isn’t an option.

Now, other people who listened to this soundbar didn’t mind the breathiness of the dialogue.  In fact, the amount of “depth” to the dialogue might even be considered impressive to some (because “tinny” voices are a sign of low quality).  Personally, I’d gladly take a little tinniness if it came with a bit more clarity.  So if you plan on watching as many dialogue-heavy costume dramas as you do action films, this might not be the soundbar for you.

For the client, the dialogue issue was actually forgivable.  And I have a feeling this is a common complaint among soundbar technology in general.  But there was a glitch that we couldn’t overlook.  The Motion Vision has an “auto-off/auto-on” feature.  At least, it’s supposed to. I wanted to set it up so the client never had to turn on or off the soundbar, so this feature was something I liked a lot.  On paper.  In actual practice, it didn’t work right.  Every time the Motion Vision turned itself off (to save power), the next time it turned itself on again (whenever it sensed a signal coming from the TV), it defaulted to the wrong audio source.  I tried this with two different units and both had the same defect.  So basically, if you intend to use the auto-power feature to reduce the need for a 2nd remote (or to keep from having program a macro into a universal remote), the feature is worthless.  Every time the system turned on, you still had to manually switch over the right source input.  Very annoying.  I had to turn off that feature and program a universal remote so that it turned on the soundbar manually with the TV.  Not the worst solution in the world, especially if you were already planning to use a good universal remote anyway, but I was really hoping to set-up the system so that it didn’t need a universal remote at all (because the TV and Blu-Ray player were the same brand, and because apps like Netflix and Pandora are baked into the TV itself).

Conclusion:  We returned the MartinLogan.  But it was a tough decision.  The thing was beautiful.  For the most part it sounded EXCELLENT, but the dialogue got a little lost under certain circumstances — just enough that I thought the client could save money and get a less expensive sound bar that wouldn’t be any worse in that area, and maybe even a little better.

The client wound up getting the Harman Kardon SB30 (currently retailing for just under $800). Overall, it’s not as “substantial” a sound delivery system as the MartinLogan — music especially doesn’t sound as good — but for movies it does hold its own against and even does better than the Martin Logan in a couple areas.  Dialogue tended to sound crisper and the SB30’s simulated surround sound worked much better i.e. it has a wider sitting area to get the full effect, and the effect itself was more profound (though still nothing compared to actual rear speakers). It also saved the client nearly $700, which is always a good thing.

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