I’ve never really had a go-to dedicated podcast manager, though I’ve tried several. As a fan of Google Play Music (rest in peace), I tried out Google Podcasts when it launched. But its reliance on a limited pool of popular ongoing podcasts turned me off, as there are a few sponsored programs that I listen to that weren’t in the database.
But I gave Google a second chance a couple of months ago after it added the ability to put in a standard RSS feed. (You remember RSS, that thing that powered the entire medium of podcasts 20 years ago?) After getting all of my audio shows in, I found to my surprise that, actually, Google Podcasts is pretty good! It only took it a year and half to get there.
Thanks to a solid visual interface and great syncing between the web (Windows, MacOS, Chrome OS) and mobile, Google Podcasts is now the only way I’m listening to my shows. Let’s break down the good bits, and what still needs to be improved.
The interface of Google Podcasts is shockingly good, far and away the best I’ve used so far. The home screen shows you a carousel of your loaded shows, with the latest episodes in a feed right below. The “Explore” tab is all about finding new shows, which I honestly don’t use that much—on the rare occasion that I add a podcast to my routine, I get it via word of mouth.
The “Activity” page is where the real meat of the mobile experience is. You get a queue of shows if you’ve manually selected them, a downloads tab to show which audio files are saved, and a “History” tab to show you which episodes you’ve listened to. This is great if you’re beginning through a long series and aren’t quite clear where you are—it saves you a long scroll in the primary episode interface.
Across both the desktop and the mobile apps, the system has a great way of showing which episodes you’ve already played. The “play” button also shows at a glance how much is left in the episode, both in absolute minutes and in a radial quarter view. Again, this is excellent for parsing through a long list. On top of that, you get the handy option to go forward 30 seconds, go back ten10, and/or adjust the playback speed in different increments.
As nice as the experience for Google Podcasts is on mobile or desktop, it’s very strange that it’s so spare on smart screens. You’d think Google, which has been firing on all cylinders for its Assistant smarthome tech for years, would pay more attention to the way users interact with gadgets like the Nest Home.
Voice commands are extremely limited: Yyou can only bring up the latest episode of a series, and only if Google can parse the title. For example, “Listen to This Week in Google” got me the latest episode, but “Listen to Not Another D and D Podcast” and “Listen to NADPod” got me a non-result and a random YouTube video. Even when you’ve loaded up a podcast, you don’t get those 10 and 30 second buttons, so actually controlling it is a headache.
You can bring up a Google Podcasts card on the Nest Home, but it only has a random selection of episodes connected to your account. Ideally, I should be able to say “keep playing my podcasts,” and have it pick up wherever I left off on my phone or desktop. As it is, manually casting the audio to the speaker is the best (and far from optimal) option.
The Android app for Google Podcasts is surprisingly great. In addition to the interface features I previously mentioned, it supports more or less unlimited audio downloads, quickly casting to different speakers, and swapping between the phone speakers and various Bluetooth connections. And that’s just from the notification!
Seriously, that notification is great, featuring a full scrobble bar and the 10/30 second skip options. It’s also properly integrated into the top section of the notification tray on Android 11. (That’s something you should expect from a first-party app, but Google has a history of selectively updating a lot of stuff.)
Other highlights of the mobile app include options for auto-downloads and automatic storage management, support for dark mode, and even a sleep timer. iOS gets access to the same app, sadly lacking proper iPad interface support. I haven’t been able to test out the Android tablet interface (the app isn’t available on Chrome OS devices, where Google wants you to use the web version).
Because the desktop version of basically every Google app is just the browser version, you’re limited to using Google Podcasts on the web when you’re on a laptop or desktop. That’s usually fine … but what if your connection is out? Sadly, you’re just kind of screwed.
Unlike more “vital” tools like Google Docs, there’s no offline access for Google Podcasts. That also means there’s no way to download audio shows to a local directory. Which is a shame. If you want the Google Podcast experience on the go and you can’t rely on your connection, you’d better download a few episodes to your phone’s storage … which might be a little limited. That, or just manually download the episodes from the show’s general website.
One of the problems I’ve had with other podcast managers is poor performance. That’s almost understandable because their whole deal is downloading and/or streaming big audio files. But when we’re talking about companies as big as Spotify, trying to corner an entire market of content, it’s not acceptable.
Google’s tool has surprised me with just how smooth it is. Scrolling through those big audio files to skip the pre-recorded ads (sorry, but I’ve heard about Manscaped literally hundreds of times already!), I could quickly dial in to the return of the show using the 30- and 10-second buttons.
And starting a new episode, streaming and caching a big audio file, takes only a second or two. It’s a great change over what I’ve seen in other all-in-one podcast applications.
Here’s the big hole in Google Podcasts’ current feature set: no video. I get the feeling that Google would much rather you go to YouTube for podcasts that are released in video form, and thus the mobile app and web interface don’t include video capabilities. It surely doesn’t help that one of YouTube’s premium features is offline video downloads.
You can’t use Google Podcasts for video, whether you use the system’s expanding database of shows or add your own RSS feeds: the interface simply refuses to add a video feed if you try. Even as someone who doesn’t usually watch video shows, I know that if Google wants to make this platform competitive, it’s missing a big piece.
And that makes me hesitant to go all in on my recommendation here. Google has an earned and growing reputation for a fear of commitment. Just look at the way it dumped Google Play Music, even after it invested in it with streaming radio and podcast features. I get the impression that if Google can’t quickly monetize podcasts or the data it gathers from podcast listeners, the app will wither and die sometime in the next 5 years.
That said, Google’s work on the Podcast service over the last year and a half is undeniable. For the way that I listen to shows, it’s currently the easiest and most seamless option. It’s as close as I’ve come to the comfort I had using Google Reader (another one lost to the Google Graveyard) to manage podcasts back in the day.
I’m sure loyal users of other services like Pocket Casts will be hard to win over, and still others will be wary of switching to yet another Google audio service. But if you’re looking for something new and easy, and especially if you mostly listen on your phone or PC, give Google Podcasts a try. You’ll be glad that you did.