Technology

Google Podcasts: Is The App Worth The Download?


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We’re big fans of podcasts — from true crime to science — but when we ranked the best podcast apps last summer, we found that nobody had truly nailed the ideal app with great controls, awesome search, great recommendations, and the flexibility to listen to podcasts the way you want to. It seemed like Google would be the ones to hit it out of the park with their new podcasts app, Google Podcasts.

But while the company does manage to pull off a fairly sweet app, it still needs some work. Expect version 2.0 to refine the issues; for now, there’s still a lot to like. Here’s what’s working and what’s not about the app.

What’s Good

Google Podcasts, currently only available on Android, nail the basics. The sound quality is great, whether you’re streaming or downloading episodes, although the download function can be spotty. The controls, which it pulls from Google Play Music, are simple and easy to use. It also offers a faster play function, if you want to listen to a podcast at high speed to get caught up. It has a useful interface, which tells you how much time is left on an episode in the notifications area, and as you add shows, it creates a convenient queue of new episodes so you can chew through them, one bit at a time.

The search feature is robust, as you’d expect; but the, for now, the recommendations feature just points you towards similar shows. Still, they are fairly good. One highly useful feature of the search function is you can search for a podcast network, like Gimlet or Maximum Fun, and find shows that way. One bonus feature we found particularly intriguing is that there are podcast playlists from podcasters that offer a sampler based around a theme, such as The Lonely Palette‘s Tamar Avishai’s favorite podcasts about art.

That said, the real killer feature here is that it’s tied to Google Assistant, and also the Google app. Once you add your podcast, you can, at least in theory, stop listening on your Android and use Google Assistant to pick up where you left off on any device that has Google Assistant — from the Google Home Mini to an iPad. You just boot up Google Assistant, and say something like “Hey, Google, play Disgraceland” or “Hey, Google, continue playing Dime.” Trying it out, with a Google Home Mini and an iPhone, it worked fairly well jumping from the app to the device, but not vice versa. If you half-finish a podcast through a device, it’ll likely take you back to the beginning when you return to the app. It’s also a bit fussy; you have to word what you want very precisely at the moment, and if a podcast you love has a title similar to a command you can issue to Google Assistant, you probably should just give up on that one for now.

What’s Bad

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The main problem for Google Podcasts is Google already has a podcast app, namely the podcast section of Google Music and, well, to be entirely honest the latter is a far more robust app in most of the ways that count. To some degree, this is unfair; Google Play has been around for much longer and Google Podcasts is so barebones it only has two settings. It’s clear Google will, over time, be adding more features. Still, especially if you use Google Play regularly, the problems are fairly glaring.

While the search function is still bad, and weirdly some podcasts turn up on Google Podcasts that don’t appear on Google Play Music (S-Town being a notable example), Google Play Music has more detailed subscription options that let you, for example, download the latest three episodes of a podcast when you subscribe, will offer you a notification when a new episode appears, and lets you reorder episodes to either newest first or oldest first, handy for when you’re binging a podcast with a lot of episodes. Why these features weren’t added to Google Podcasts when it launched is a puzzle. Similarly, Google Play Music has a handy button that lets you stream to any speaker on a network, such as the Google Home Mini or the Sonos One, which Google Podcasts doesn’t currently have.

Worse, though, is the fact that Google Podcasts does not sync with any other podcast app, even Google Play. I have a list of easily over a hundred podcasts that I subscribe to, either to listen to at some point or to keep track of after I finish, and the fact that I can’t sign into my Google account and roll over my list is simply bizarre. You’d think Google would want that treasure trove of data. If you’re already committed to any podcast app, it’s going to be hard to switch simply due to sheer volume.

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Worth A Download?

Google Podcasts is fairly basic at the moment, and it’s clear that it will be a continual work in progress. And if you don’t listen to many podcasts, or want a solution that will hop between devices, it might well be your best option for the moment. But for now, if you’re already committed to an app, there’s not a point to switching.

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