Review: Overcast 3

I don't remember exactly the year I started listening to podcasts. It might have been 2010 or 2011, when I was using the iPhone 4/4S. Whenever I started, podcasts have been a constant source of entertainment (and information) for several years. Put another way, if not something in Apple Music, I’m listening to a podcast.

As I’ve listened to podcasts over time, I’ve nomadically moved from app to app to app in a quest to find the best one for me. I’ve used Instacast (since discontinued), Pocket Casts, and even dabbled with Apple’s first-party Podcasts app. Of those three, I used Instacast the longest, but Pocket Casts was definitely the prettiest.

Then Marco Arment released Overcast in 2014, and my journey ended.

Overcast instantly supplanted Pocket Casts as my go-to podcast client for its design, ease of use, and stellar accessibility support. It’s one of my favorite and most heavily-used apps.

Now in 2017, Arment has released version 3.0, which builds on the success of the last three years. The app has gotten better in every way: better features, better design, and importantly for me, better accessibility. After being part of the beta for some time, I’m convinced Overcast 3 further entrenches itself as the best podcast player on iOS.

I spoke with Arment over email about building Overcast 3. His comments will be interspersed throughout this article. (For Arment’s verbatim comments, along with my questions, see here.)

Same App, New Look

Overcast 3 has a refreshed design, as it now uses the "card-like" interface seen in apps like Apple's built-in Music app. The effect makes the app feel more modern, and iOS's swipe gestures work well in Overcast. In my experience, the app feels lighter with this UI refresh—I don't feel as if I'm tapping a thousand times to get from screen to screen. Overall, though, Overcast's user interface is fundamentally the same as it's ever been. While the design has been updated, the layout hasn't been drastically changed. It's still unmistakably Overcast—it's just gotten a bit of a facelift.

Beyond the card-like interface, there are two aspects of Overcast's new design that stand out: UI controls and the Now Playing screen. Both have positive influence on accessibility.

First are the spruced-up UI controls (read: buttons). Visually, they're thicker and more pronounced, which means much higher contrast against the rest of the screen. As someone with low vision, this higher contrast makes it much easier to find, say, the Share button on the Now Playing screen. As I say often, the less eye strain I endure, the more I enjoy using apps. In this sense, Overcast shines.

When I asked about Overcast 3's updated design, Arment told me the advent of large phones (like iPhone 7 Plus) make it easier to navigate apps via gestures. "With the move to larger phones, it’s much easier to use apps that can be navigated largely by big, imprecise swipe gestures. I think the card design makes the app feel much more modern and easier to navigate," he said. "Visually, most of the icons and text have been thickened and/or enlarged, making everything easier to see and read."

Two areas that could be improved, contrast-wise, are the time scrubber and chapter markers on the Now Playing screen. At least in "light mode," it's hard for me to see how far along I am into a podcast, as well as what topic is being discussed. The numbers and text, respectively, could be thicker akin to other controls. It should be noted, however, that using dark mode alleviates these issues. Still, it would be good to see these admittedly nitpicky gripes addressed in a future update.

Secondly, I'm a big fan of how you can swipe on album art on the Now Playing screen to get to settings, chapter markers, and show notes. It feels more efficient than vertically scrolling, and is reminiscent of how Control Center changed in iOS 10. I like it; it's something more apps should adopt.

On Accessibility in Particular

In my Overcast 1.0 review, I wrote:

Marco is empathetic towards the accessibility community, and tries his best to accommodate disabled users who use his apps by including technologies like VoiceOver. This sentiment is apparent throughout Overcast.

Arment's commitment to serving people with disabilities by making Overcast as accessible as possible remains steadfast. As when it first came out, Overcast is a shining example of the ideal iOS app: well-designed with strong support for accessibility. There are well-designed apps on the App Store, but to be made with accessibility in mind by design is a tremendous, sadly overlooked, benefit. Accessibility is a tough concept to grasp for many developers, so it's great to have apps like Overcast, among others, leading the way in this regard. Arment has created an app that should be aspirational.

Arment believes making apps accessible by all isn't only about doing the right thing—it makes good business sense too. "I see accessibility as a part of whether an app works correctly or not. If my app’s layout breaks on a certain screen size, for instance, that’s a serious bug that needs to be fixed, because some of my customers won’t be able to use it," he said. "Whether an app works properly with different accessibility needs, settings, and technologies is just as important to me for the same reason: if I screw it up, some of my customers can’t use the app."

Of course, due credit goes to Apple for providing the frameworks upon which developers like Arment can build accessible software. The APIs make this all possible.

"The biggest cause of poor app accessibility isn’t a shortcoming in the APIs—it’s developers forgetting to test iOS's accessibility features with our apps, or not knowing they’re there in the first place," Arment said. "There’s really no excuse for major shortcomings in most apps’ accessibility."

Elsewhere, Arment told me Overcast's VoiceOver support has gotten better in the new version. He said the refinement is thanks to "some great full-time VoiceOver users as beta testers, who provide excellent feedback and catch any mistakes that I don't."

The Bottom Line

As long as Marco wants to keep making Overcast, I'll continue using it. It'll always have a place on my phone's Home screen.

Like other nerds, I appreciate design: things like visual flourishes, typography, and the like. Overcast possesses these qualities. But the thing that really pushes me to adore Overcast as I do is its completeness. As I wrote earlier, Overcast isn't just a well-crafted, nice-looking app. It's accessible too—as someone with disabilities, I truly appreciate that. Using it every day makes me feel like I'm eating the moistest, most flavorful cake in the world. It's delicious in itself, but to have a great frosting on top? That's what makes it the best. That's what Overcast is to me.

It's the best, most accessible podcast player on iOS today.