Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Podcast listening with iTunes

It’s time to revive this dormant blog with a discussion (rant?) on how podcasts work with iTunes. Since I listen to podcasts on an iPod, iTunes is the only viable podcatcher for me. No other software will seamlessly make the tracks “bookmarkable,” that is, able to remember my position in the track if I take a break from listening to it, and integrate with the built-in podcast handling on the iPod. That said, iTunes has some serious deficiencies in this area.

The first problem is how iTunes handles copying podcasts to the iPod. You have several options for how iTunes copies episodes to the iPod. The method that should work best for me is to have iTunes keep only the episodes that I haven’t listened to on the iPod. So, I just need to sync occasionally and check my iPod for new episodes. Once I’ve listened to and episode, it will be removed from my iPod the next time I sync. That would be great if only it worked that way. The problem is that the iPod considers an episode played it I have listened to one second of it. So, if I happen to be in the middle of listening to an episode of a podcast when I sync, which is likely since I subscribe to several podcasts that are an hour long, the episode it removed from the iPod. To make matters worse, the “bookmark” is erased, so when I put the episode back on my iPod so I can finish it, I have to manually find where I left off. This flaw has existed since the very beginning of podcast support on the iPod, but many updates later, there is still no fix. A tenable workaround for this was to have iTunes only copy checked episodes. Then, I could uncheck the episode when I had finished it, and it would be removed. But this feature is gone in iTunes 7. Why, Apple, why?

Once I get the episodes I want on the iPod, new frustrations present themselves. Some of my subscribed podcasts, such as The Daily Giz Wiz and The Podcast About Nothing, are short (10 minutes or less) and frequent. (3 to 5 episodes a week) I will frequently save up several episodes and listen to them all at once. It would be nice if I could just select the oldest episode, play it, and when it was done, it would be begin playing the next episode. This seems obvious to me, but, inexplicably, there is no way to get the iPod to do this. When it finishes playing a podcast episode, it stops and jumps back the the main menu. To get around this, I keep a playlist and dump the episodes into that, so I can play several in a row without having to fidget with my iPod.

Another thing that I find annoying is that iTunes makes little distinction between audio and video podcasts. This is annoying for those of us with iPods that are not video-capable. I do subscribe to some video podcasts so I can watch them on my PC, but I have to wade though all the other podcasts to find them.

A final, minor annoyance is how iTunes handles sorting of podcasts. The podcasts are always listed in alphabetical order. Clicking on a column only changes what order episodes are listed in within the podcast listing. It would be nice if you could click on the date column, and the podcasts that have the newest episodes would bubble to the top. Again, this seems obvious to me, but for some reason, that’s not how it works.

People have been complaining about these deficiencies for some time. I can only hope that adding my voice will help get Apple’s attention.

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