Against my better judgement

Eventually, the snow that’s been covering the Chicago area since Christmas will melt, and I’ll be able to start biking to work again. And when I do, I’ll want to listen to podcasts, which poses a problem.

Time was when managing podcasts on various devices took no thought whatsoever. Subscriptions had to be handled by iTunes and every iDevice you owned had to be connected to your computer by a cable. This wasn’t convenient, but there were no decisions to make. Those days are gone.

Now I use a dedicated podcast app, Downcast, on my phone to download and listen to podcasts with no need for a computer. This is great during the winter because my iPhone is my exclusive podcast player during those months. But I prefer to use an old-school iPod nano for listening while biking, and that complicates things.1

I can, of course, double my subscriptions—use OPLML export/import to ensure I have the same subscription list on my syncing computer that I have on the phone. This works, and is what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years, but it forces me to manage episodes on both devices. And if I’ve listened to half a podcast on the ride home from work, I’ll need to scroll forward on my iPhone to the point I stopped listening on my iPod. Not a terrible burden, but it seems like something these smart devices should take care of on their own.

You can probably guess where this is leading.

Podcasts tryout

Apple’s Podcasts app promises to handle all the subscription, episode, and playback syncing. The problem, of course, is that Podcasts has always been widely regarded as a piece of shit. But it’s been updated since I first looked at it, and since I second looked at it, too. So I promised myself I’d give Podcasts another tryout, because the upside of automatic syncing on both devices is worth a lesser experience on the phone.

I still think that, but syncing just didn’t work the way I expected. What I expected was that episodes that I downloaded to or deleted from my phone would be similarly downloaded or deleted from iTunes within a reasonably short period of time. That, to me, is the definition of syncing, but it didn’t happen, at least not consistently. So I’ll be deleting Podcasts from my phone yet again.

Many of you may be shaking your head and saying “What did you expect? It’s iCloud.” But honestly, I haven’t had trouble syncing Contacts or Calendars in ages. And although I’m not a big fan of the dumbed-down iWork apps, they’ve never failed to sync their documents between devices. So although my earlier experiences with Podcasts were discouraging, I held out hope that it would work as advertised.

Update 3/18/14
Jason Beck and Giles Croft both pointed out on Twitter that the problem is more likely with iTunes than iCloud, and I agree. I had actually written a section here in which I complained about how podcasts are handled in recent versions of iTunes. It quickly swerved into an overall rant on how Apple can’t make user-facing software anymore, which wasn’t my intent for this post, so I deleted it all. Probably should have been more judicious in my editing so as not to leave the impression that the sync problem is entirely iCloud’s fault. Jason points out that Downcast uses iCloud for syncing and it works fine.

What’d be nice is if the decent podcast apps that also have a Mac version, like Downcast and Instacast, had an option for syncing their content to iTunes, but their descriptions don’t include that capability. Instacast has an AppleScript dictionary and a way to export media files, but I don’t think the exporting is scriptable. Too bad. I don’t like listening to podcasts on my computer, but I’d gladly buy the Mac version of either of these apps if I could use it to sync my iPod.

  1. I’ve thought about abandoning my iPod and listening to my iPhone as I ride. This would eliminate any need to sync. As I thought about it more, though, I realized that I ride in light rain fairly often, and I wouldn’t want to give up listening during those rides. I’m willing to risk damage to an old iPod but not to a new iPhone.