I’ve never really had a dedicated podcast manager, although I’ve tried several. As a fan of Google Play Music (rest easy), I tried Google Podcasts when it launched. But the reliance on a limited number of popular running podcasts put me off as there are a few sponsored shows that I listen to that are not in the database.
But I gave Google a second chance a few months ago after adding the ability to enter a standard RSS feed. (Remember RSS, that thing that powered the whole medium of podcasts 20 years ago?) After getting all my audio shows in, I was surprised to discover that Google Podcasts is actually pretty good! It only took a year and a half to get there.
Thanks to a solid visual interface and great sync between the web (Windows, MacOS, Chrome OS) and mobile, Google Podcasts is now the only way I listen to my shows. Let̵
Good: a simple interface
The Google Podcasts interface is shockingly good, by far the best I’ve used to date. The home screen shows you a carousel of your loaded shows, with the latest episodes in a feed below. The “Explore” tab is all about finding new shows, which I honestly don’t use that often – on the rare occasion that I add a podcast to my routine, I get it through word of mouth.
The “Activity” page is where the real meat of the mobile experience is. You will get a queue of shows if you have selected them manually, a Downloads tab to show which audio files are saved and a “History” tab to show you which episodes you have listened to. This is great if you’re starting a long series and aren’t quite clear where you are – it saves you a long scroll in the primary episode interface.
Both on the desktop and in the mobile apps, the system has a great way to show which episodes you have 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 image. Again, this is great for flipping through a long list. In addition, you get the handy option to go forward 30 seconds, go back 1010 and / or adjust the playback speed in several steps.
Bad: Awful smart screen experience
As nice as the experience for Google Podcasts is on mobile or desktop, it is very strange that it is so sparse on smart screens. You’d think Google, which has been running at full throttle for years due to its assistant smart home technology, would pay more attention to how users interact with gadgets like the Nest Home.
Voice commands are extremely limited: you can only summon the last episode of a series, and only if Google can parse the title. For example, “Listen to This Week in Google” got me the final episode, but “Listen to Not Another D and D Podcast” and “Listen to NADPod” got me a no result and a random YouTube video. Even if you’ve loaded a podcast, you won’t get those 10 and 30 second buttons, so actually controlling it is a headache.
You can open a Google Podcasts card on Nest Home, but there is only a random selection of episodes associated with your account. Ideally, I should be able to say “keep playing my podcasts” and let it pick up where 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.
Good: smart mobile functions
The Android app for Google Podcasts is surprisingly good. In addition to the interface features I mentioned earlier, it supports more or less unlimited audio downloads, fast casting to different speakers and switching between the phone speakers and different Bluetooth connections. And that only comes from the report!
Seriously, that notification is great, with a full scrobble bar and 10/30 second skip options. It’s also properly integrated into the top portion of the notification tray on Android 11. (You should expect that from a first-party app, but Google has a history of selectively updating many things.)
Other highlights of the mobile app include options for automatic downloads and automatic storage management, dark mode support, and even a sleep timer. iOS gains access to the same app, unfortunately it lacks proper iPad interface support. I have not been able to test the Android tablet interface (the app is not available on Chrome OS devices, where Google wants you to use the web version).
Bad: No desktop downloads
Since the desktop version of almost every Google app is just the browser version, you’re limited to using Google Podcasts on the web when using a laptop or desktop. That’s fine most of the time … but what if your connection goes down? Unfortunately, you’re just kind of screwed.
Unlike more ‘essential’ tools such as Google Docs, there is no offline access for Google Podcasts. That also means that there is no way to download audio shows to a local folder. That’s too bad. If you want the Google Podcast experience on the go and can’t rely on your connection, you’d better download a few episodes to your phone’s storage … which might be a bit limited. Either that, or just manually download the episodes from the show’s main website.
Good: great performance
One of the problems I’ve had with other podcast managers is poor performance. That’s almost understandable, as their whole deal is to download and / or stream large audio files. But when we talk about companies as big as Spotify trying to conquer an entire market of content, that’s not acceptable.
Google’s tool has surprised me with how smooth it is. While scrolling through those large audio files to skip the pre-recorded ads (sorry, but I’ve heard about Manscaped hundreds of times!), I was able to quickly dial in on the return of the show using the 30 and 10 seconds tests.
And starting a new episode, streaming and caching a large audio file only takes a few seconds. It’s a big change from what I’ve seen in other all-in-one podcast applications.
Bad: No video support
Here’s the big hole in Google Podcasts’ current feature set: no video. I feel like Google would much prefer you to go to YouTube for podcasts released in video form, which is why the mobile app and web interface don’t include video capabilities. It certainly doesn’t help that one of YouTube’s premium features is offline video downloads.
You can’t use Google Podcasts for video, whether you’re using the system’s growing database of shows or adding 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 chunk.
And that’s why I’m hesitant to go all inclusive here on my recommendation. Google has a deserved and growing reputation for fear of commitment. Just look at the way Google Play Music got dumped even after investing in it with streaming radio and podcast features. I have the impression that if Google can’t monetize podcasts or the data it collects from podcast listeners quickly, the app will wither and die sometime in the next 5 years.
A great option for specific users
That said, Google’s work on the Podcast service over the past year and a half is undeniable. For the way I listen to shows, this is the easiest and most seamless option right now. It’s as close as I’ve gotten to the comfort I had with using Google Reader (another lost from 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, 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 usually listen on your phone or PC, give Google Podcasts a try. You will be glad you did.
Google Podcasts is available for free on the web, Android and iOS.