iOS podcast apps and automatic/background downloads
February 15, 2012 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Are there any iOS podcast apps that will automatically check for and download new podcasts in the background without me having to open up the app and refresh it?

I got tired of Apple's inane approach to iCloud/iMatch/wi-fi sync and the distinctions it draws between new music and podcasts, so I've been investigating 3rd party podcasting apps for my iPhone. I've installed iCatcher, which is great, but the 'background downloading' feature appears to only mean that if I begin the automatic refresh of all feeds within the app I can exit the app and the podcasts will continue to download in the background. Looking at iTunes it seems like many of the podcasting apps are the same. Are there any that will run some kind of minor process in the background and automatically download new episodes when WiFi is available?
posted by modernnomad to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Downcast is 1000x better than iTunes podcast management and automagically updates your podcasts for you on a schedule.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:05 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Instacast (which is by far the best designed ios podcast app and what I reccomend) will send you a push notification when there are new episode available and then if you want to start downloading you can click on the app to do so, in addition it will also stream episodes so that when you open the app you do not have to wait for one to open before downloading.

Push notifications / streaming is the best solution currently available. No apps will automatically download new episodes in the background - as this is a technical limitation of ios. Apps can only work in "background mode" for about 10 minutes before they are suspended to ensure that there are is minimal battery life draining. The only exception to this at present are newsstand apps - which are allowed to automatically update.

This is definitely a feature that many other developers want though, I would not be surprised to see background downloading in a future version of ios
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 12:11 PM on February 15, 2012

Response by poster: No apps will automatically download new episodes in the background - as this is a technical limitation of ios.

I guess that's my answer -- thanks!
posted by modernnomad at 12:14 PM on February 15, 2012

No apps will automatically download new episodes in the background - as this is a technical limitation of ios.

I don't think that's true, actually. I've been stymied by the problem the OP describes for years. A month ago, I came across iCatcher. With that app ($2 in the App Store, I believe; worth many times that, to mee) you can set up a whole lot of specific behaviors for each podcast (check for new episodes every X hours/days; automatically download newest episodes; keep x number of episodes -- basically, just a much more finely-controllable version of the podcast corner of iTunes).

Better still, you can stream and delete (!) episodes on the fly. Deleting is HUGE for someone like me, who listens to something like 20 hours of podcasts per week -- now, I just delete when I'm done listening to them and never have more than a gig or two used up on podcasts, where before I would have 5 or sometimes more, depending on how carefully I was managing old episodes when syncing with my desktop. There are many, many other features as well (playlists, icons that tell you if a podcast has been listened to/how much of it has been listened to, mark episode as played -- like 'mark as read' in Gmail or whatever -- sort by oldest->newest or vice-versa, send podcast to Dropbox if you have dropbox set up on your phone... etc). And the interface is great once you spend a little while unlearning the iTunes one. Swipe across a podcast in the menu and you're given the option to delete, get more info, etc.

Seriously, I probably sound like I'm viral-marketing this thing but I assure you I'm not; it's just a great bit of software and it blows my mind it's so cheap. I cannot recommend this thing more highly to anyone who listens to podcasts, and especially if you're looking for the ability to download podcasts in the background/automatically/without syncing to a desktop.

I have mine set up to check for new episodes in the middle of the night, so when I'm frantically trying to get my ass out of bed and to the subway, I don't need to spend 10 minutes firing up the iMac, downloading latest episodes to my computer, then syncing to my phone. In retrospect, it's crazy that they don't allow you to do this using Apple's own app already -- downloading to a HDD and then plugging in your phone and then transferring the exact same file you could have theoretically downloaded directly to your phone is so... 2009. Or if you don't want it to download new episodes at a set time, you can open the app, click refresh to get the newest stuff, then exit the app while they download. You hear a satisfying little 'ding' when they save, and I can confirm you'll hear it whether or not you're in iCatcher (which is why I think AFPFTNF, above, might have outdated info).

Last killer feature that's maddeningly absent from iTunes: you can download on the fly, using wifi of course, but also using 3G if you want (and if you have a generous data plan, like the unlimited ATT one I am grandfathered into). This is a small convenience for most people I suppose, but for me, it's AWESOME to be able to download an hour-long (or four-hour-long, in the case of Hardcore History!) podcast without getting that god-damn "Error: filesize over 20mb" message. I still have half-downloaded podcasts cluttering my iOS Music app, even though I've long been using iCatcher exclusively and tried to delete all the other podcasts off the phone. Those incomplete downloads just do not want to be deleted. In any case, this is not an issue in iCatcher.

So, yeah. If you like podcasts and you want to be able to download the newest episodes of your shows without thinking about it, get this app.

Happy listening! (And if you've read this far: what are favorite podcasts? I'm aways up for recommendations -- I learned about Radiolab and Hardcore History right here on the Green.)
posted by andromache at 1:20 PM on February 15, 2012

No apps will automatically download new episodes in the background - as this is a technical limitation of ios.

Hmm. That does make sense, based on what I know of iOS, but somehow Downcast manages it? I guess maybe it just starts downloading as soon as I open the app, but I don't notice that the downloads are already completed because it seamlessly allows streaming and/or downloading over WiFi and 3G.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:28 PM on February 15, 2012

I just checked Downcast on my phone, and it doesn't look like it downloads when the app is not open. But yes, you can set it to refresh feeds and download on a schedule (and you can set global and individual podcast settings, which is nice). One awesome feature of Downcast (and maybe others, I don't know) is that you can use gestures to control playback, which is great for driving.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:40 PM on February 15, 2012

Oh, and I'm curious to know if anyone has used both Downcast and iCatcher and if they have a preference between the two (and why). It looks like they have pretty similar features.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:42 PM on February 15, 2012

Nope, IOS does not allow background downloading from apps before they are launched.

Downcast explains this clearly in its app store page that it only supports "Continue podcast downloads in background (per iOS restrictions)" - those restrictions are that it cannot download in the background before it is launched.

I very much doubt icatcher it is doing what you say. I suspect you may be confused because these app start to download the episodes as soon as they are opened, so it seems like they are downloading in the background - but they are not, because ios does not allow that.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 2:13 PM on February 15, 2012

If you stick with iCatcher, you might want to look at Launch Center. It can schedule an app to be opened at a certain time every day. So the app will show up in your Notification Centre.
posted by backwards guitar at 2:45 PM on February 15, 2012

No apps will automatically download new episodes in the background - as this is a technical limitation of ios.

I don't think that's true, actually.

No, the ten-minute limit is real, if another app has taken the foreground. I've tested this out and have seen my app killed when it's hit that limit.
posted by ignignokt at 7:10 PM on February 15, 2012

Well, it would be reasonable for iOS to restrict background downloads in some way to keep certain apps from monopolizing system resources or bandwidth, but at least on iCatcher's website, I'm seeing the following on the feature list:

Download over WiFi, 3G or Edge and in the background (on supported devices)

We might be splitting hairs here, but as far as I can tell, it's updating in the dead of night, when the phone is left on but the app is not open. If in fact it's just pulling new episodes the second I launch the app, it happens so quickly and without my having to do anything -- not even hit the 'update' button -- that it might as well be downloading in the background.

Either way, between this and Downcast, sounds like you've got great options. We are spoiled for choice. Awesome.
posted by andromache at 7:01 AM on February 16, 2012

Response by poster: Andromache, I have iCatcher, and it definitely does not update in the middle of the night of its own accord unless I have left the app open (i.e. there is a podcast being played). The "download in background" just means that once I have begun the refresh procedure (either by manually hitting refresh or just opening up the app) and new downloads have begun, if I exit the app the downloads will continue in the background (so long as they do not hit the 10 minute mark). Downcast and the others all appear to have the same limitation, so it's definitely a flaw/limitation in iOS rather than a poor choice on the part of the app designers. C'est la vie -- I'm still relatively happy with iCatcher; it's a definite improvement over the stock iPhone podcast app (which is crying out for iCloud integration in this area, I think).
posted by modernnomad at 5:03 PM on February 16, 2012

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