Have you ever noticed that when you ask somebody a detailed, multi-part question and he answers in a single line, without addressing most of your points, he might be hiding something? That’s what I found after purchasing Instacast for Mac and Instacast for iOS.
Background: how I listen to podcasts
I love listening to podcasts and they’re a big part of my life. I usually listen to them in two distinct modes: the first is commuting to and from work, on my old iPhone 4S that I use as an iPod Touch; the second is at home, while I’m washing dishes and cooking dinner, on my Mac Mini using AirPlay to stream the audio to my Apple TV (living room) and to three AirPort Express base stations (kitchen, bedroom, bathroom).
The fact that I’m listening to the same set of podcasts on nearly a daily basis using two different devices introduces the need for a good way to sync them. Syncing, for these purposes, means that:
- All podcasts and series that I’ve downloaded on one device should automatically be synced to the other.
- As I listen to a podcast episode on one device, my progress within it should be synced to the other device.
- Every podcast that I’ve completed, or marked as played, should be removed, both from the device on which I listened to it and on the other.
For reasons that have long bewildered me, Apple has never managed to make podcast syncing work. It’s difficult to tell if this is a result of iTunes, which is widely considered a train wreck, or of iCloud, which is a laughingstock, or both. But it’s bothered me for years that I’ll listen to a podcast on the road, come home and sync my iPhone, and iTunes will not recognize that I’d listened to anything; or I’ll download podcasts to iTunes, then sync my iPhone and start walking to the subway, only to find that none of those podcasts are present.
Relatively recently Apple broke podcast listening and management out of Music app for iOS into a new Podcasts app, and I had high hopes for this move, but I soon learned that there had been no improvement. So I continued to suffer.
Instacast, made by Vemedio, is a podcast player and management app for the Mac and for iOS, with a syncing service built on iCloud. When searching for a replacement to iTunes/Podcasts, Instacast appealed to me over alternatives like Stitcher or Overcast because they primarily support podcast-listening and -management on iOS, with a very thin web app for use on desktop computers, while Instacast has a native Mac app. I tend not to like web apps and prefer native apps, both on mobile and on desktop; I also think that trying to listen to podcasts in my apartment through a web interface could get very annoying as the browser would be likely to behave in ways that I don’t like.
Getting started with Instacast was pretty simple. After buying and downloading their apps through both the iOS ($2) and Mac ($20) app stores, I created an account on their website, and logged in with my account credentials on both apps1.
Then I exported my podcast subscription list from iTunes, and imported it to Instacast on my Mac and let it sync.
The only tricky part of setting up was that I was only importing subscriptions to Instacast and not which episodes for those specific subscriptions were already downloaded and waiting for me to listen to them, or my progress in listening to any partial episodes. Instacast’s approach was just to download the single most recent episode for every subscription. I had to go through all my subscriptions manually and mark the most recent episode as played for most of them, and for others I had to download additional past episodes to which I hadn’t yet listened.
Problems with Instacast
In order to explain what’s wrong with Instacast, I’ll go a bit further into how I actually listen to podcasts.
Of all the podcasts to which I subscribe, there are three kinds:
- Podcasts that are timely or news-oriented, like the Slate Culture Gabfest. I like to listen to these whenever they’re available. I want new episodes to jump to the front of my queue.
- Other podcasts that I really, really like a lot, but aren’t specifically timely, like the BBC’s In Our Time podcast. I like to listen to these soon after they become available, but not before timely podcasts.
- Podcasts that I still like, but which I don’t need to jump to the head of my queue, like The Moth. In many cases, these are podcasts for which I’m slowly slowly listening to the entire back catalogue over many months or even years. They should come at the end of the queue.
So it’s important to me that, when I open up iTunes at home or Podcasts on my iPhone, and press play, I should be able to listen to podcasts in the order that I want. It’s also important to me that as I listen to a podcast and it reach the end, its status goes from unplayed (or partially played) to played, which should remove it from my queue, and that I immediately start listening to the next podcast in the queue without any action.
Apple’s apps iTunes and Podcasts has a pretty counterintuitive way for managing podcast order: in the My Podcasts tab in iTunes, I drag podcasts into the order I like, and then I create a station (basically a playlist) for them, and then in the My Stations tab I edit settings for that station to use the My Podcasts order, include all episodes, &c. Despite the complexity, this system actually works.
When setting up Instacast, I could not figure out how to get podcasts to play in the right order. Instacast does give me the option to change the order of my different subscriptions in the Subscriptions tab. But when I go to the Lists tab and choose the Unplayed list, the podcasts in the list don’t appear in the order of the Subscriptions that I chose. Instacast did also let me create new Lists and Smart Lists, but I couldn’t find any way to get them organized by podcast subscription. They only seem to support individual podcasts.
Another bewildering thing about Instacast was that I could not find any way to get podcasts to play straight through: whenever I finished an episode, playback would stop and I’d have to take out my iPhone, unwind my headphone cable, swipe to unlock, open Instacast app, navigate to the next podcast and press play; or put down the dishes that I was washing in my sink, dry my hands, walk to the living room, sit down on my couch, use the mouse to select the next podcast and press play. Fiddling around with the Instacast settings did not help me.
Shortly after I set up Instacast, I contacted Vemedio through their website’s contact form. I explained in detail exactly what problems I was having with their apps:
- I couldn’t get podcasts to appear in the right order.
- I couldn’t get podcasts to continue playing from one to the next.
And I heard nothing at all from them.
Once some time passed and I felt like they were probably ignoring me, I decided to contact them in a more public manner:
— Natan Gesher (@gesher) July 29, 2014
They did reply to this tweet:
@gesher You can set this up. Enable 'Group by Podcast' in the subscription settings.
— Vemedio (@vemedio) July 30, 2014
But their answer wasn’t clear at all! So I asked them this followup question:
@vemedio Is this on the Mac app or the iPhone app or both?
— Natan Gesher (@gesher) July 30, 2014
And then they really did ignore me.
But I don’t like to be ignored, so I kept at them:
@vemedio And how do I get podcast episodes in my Unplayed list to play straight through? I want to listen to the entire list.
— Natan Gesher (@gesher) July 31, 2014
Meanwhile, I submitted a few more support requests to them via their website. Hell, why not?
But I also continued contacting them via twitter. Because, hell, why not?
@vemedio Do you ever answer support emails? I’m a paying customer and I’d appreciate a serious and thorough answer to my questions.
— Natan Gesher (@gesher) July 31, 2014
@vemedio Will you answer my support email today?
— Natan Gesher (@gesher) July 31, 2014
By this point, I was getting pretty fed up.
— Natan Gesher (@gesher) August 1, 2014
@vemedio When should I expect to see the refunds?
— Natan Gesher (@gesher) August 1, 2014
And then they finally woke up!
@gesher Hi Natan, sorry, but we’ve not received any email from you. Please follow our Twitter account and I’ll DM you an alternate address.
— Vemedio (@vemedio) August 4, 2014
So all of the times I contacted them via their website, the messages disappeared into a bizarre internet ether… that still doesn’t explain why they ignored my tweets.
At this point, they DMed me on twitter with their gmail address. I emailed them:
Hi, I am the guy who complained a bunch of times on twitter (@gesher) after submitting a several support requests on your website and
getting no answers.
Here’s the problem:
I bought Instacast for Mac and Instacast for iPhone. I want both Instacast apps to let me organize my podcast episodes by podcast series order, and I want to be able to listen straight through all the unplayed episodes in that order.
To elaborate: suppose I subscribe to podcasts Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta and Echo. But that’s not the order in which I want to listen to
them. The right order is Delta, Bravo, Alpha, Charlie, Echo.
Now suppose there are three new episodes for Alpha that I haven’t yet heard, two for Delta, one for Charlie and none for Bravo or Echo.
I want the podcast episodes to appear in this order: Delta One, Delta Two, Alpha One, Alpha Two, Alpha Three, Charlie One. And when I start playing Delta One and it gets to the end, I want it to immediately start playing Delta Two, then Alpha One, all the way to the end.
Can I do these extremely basic things? I could do them on iTunes (Mac) and Podcasts (iPhone) before I bought Instacast, and they are dealbreakers for me. If Instacast doesn’t support these features, I want to cancel my Instacast membership and get a refund.
Here’s how they responded:
thank you for your email. The trick is to configure the Unplayed smart list to be grouped by podcast. This will resort the episodes as you wish.
Once again, they answered in a way that was deceptive and confusing.
Are you talking about the Mac app or the iPhone app?
Another person at Vemedio answered:
[He] is referring to the iOS version. This functionality doesn’t yet exist in Instacast for Mac.
Finally a straight answer out of Vemedio about what their products don’t do. After being ignored and given the runaround for so long, I was beginning to think that I’d never get them to communicate with me. Here’s how I replied:
Thank you for finally answering the question.
I’m disappointed that this is not something Instacast does. I understand how software development works and that everything is a tradeoff – more features means less simplicity, and so forth. But organizing podcasts in the way that I prefer is a necessity for me.
I bought the Mac and iOS apps to work together and to replace the podcast functionality of Apple’s iTunes (Mac) and Podcasts (iOS) apps. Since I will no longer be using Instacast due to its lack of support for a feature that I need, I’d appreciate if you could help me get a refund for the purchase price of both apps, and cancel my account.
Thanks for your help.
His final reply:
Sorry to hear that you don’t want to continue using Instacast. We will certainly keep your comments in mind re sorting parity, and hope you’ll consider Instacast again in the future. To my knowledge, I’m not sure that there’s another non-Apple podcast client/ecosystem available that meets all your needs (i.e. having both iOS and OS X apps, instant sync between devices and grouping all unplayed episodes in a list by podcast)?
Regarding a refund, you will need to contact Apple directly to get a refund for the iOS version of Instacast, and if you purchased Instacast for Mac via the Mac App Store, you’ll have to take that up with them too (sorry, but this is out of our hands). However, if you purchased Instacast Mac from our website, please reply to this email by pasting your licence code and the email address that’s registered to it and we’ll process your refund.
It’s not all bad: what Instacast gets right
If there’s anything that Instacast does very well, it’s syncing. Their syncing implementation puts Apple’s to shame. I really think that Apple ought to buy Instacast and base their own podcast listening and management service on what Vemedio has done – as long as they can get everything right, instead of just a few things.
Don’t buy Instacast, unless you really really really don’t care about your podcast order or listening to one podcast after another without having to play the next one manually.
The account, by the way, was necessary for syncing. If I didn’t need to sync, I would have been able to use either of their apps without an account. But of course, if I hadn’t needed syncing to work, I wouldn’t have needed to switch to Instacast in the first place. ↩