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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Overcast 5 adds Siri Shortcuts, watch playback, and search

Overcast 5’s redesigned Now Playing screen allows for better discovery of playback controls, show notes, sleep timer, and even direct support for podcasts.

My podcast player of choice, Marco Arment’s Overcast, was updated Monday to version 5.0 in conjunction with the releases of iOS 12 and watchOS 5. It’s a huge update that unlocks a bunch of new features that I have been anxiously awaiting, in one case for years.

Most noticeable is the redesigned Now Playing screen, which now features show art at a slightly reduced size so that two areas can appear on either side of the art, indicating that there’s more interface to be discovered by swiping left or right. To the right is information about the episode, including show notes and chapter markers. To the left are playback controls, including Smart Speed and Voice Boost. There’s nothing dramatically new here in terms of features—it’s just a redesign that attempts to make show notes and playback controls more discoverable.

At the bottom of the Now Playing display are icons that give you direct access to a sleep timer, sound output controls, and (for podcasts with some sort of support system) a direct link to support the podcast you’re listening to. (Tapping on the link brings up a web link that’s set by the podcast.)

For me, the best new feature of Overcast is the return of Apple Watch playback. The app previously made an attempt at supporting Apple Watch, but watchOS just wasn’t advanced enough to reliably transfer and keep playing audio. Now it is. I’ve done several runs this summer with the beta version of Overcast running on my Apple Watch, playing to a pair of AirPods (with no iPhone in sight), and it has worked flawlessly.

Overcast 5 on watchOS 5. You can toggle between iPhone remote and on-watch modes (left), view playlists on your watch (center), and get a quick status view from the Now Playing screen (right).

Overcast looks at your podcasts and playlists and makes some decisions about what episodes it thinks you’ll want to listen to, and transfers specially encoded versions (with Smart Speed and Voice Boost baked in) to your Apple Watch at appropriate moments—generally overnight, when your Apple Watch is plugged in. You can also force the app to send a podcast episode to the watch, using the same interface as you’d use to add a podcast to a playlist.

The Overcast watch app now lets you remote control your iPhone playback (including volume!), or—by tapping on an icon—control playback directly from the device. I’m able to leave my house with only my Apple Watch and a pair of AirPods and run with podcasts filling my ears the entire time.

Overcast also now supports Siri Shortcuts. You can’t arbitrarily name a podcast via Siri and expect it to play in Overcast, but you can choose to enable Shortcut phrases for specific playlists or podcasts, as well as to resume playback and navigate through podcasts. (There are lots and lots of shortcuts available, including toggling Smart Speed and Voice Boost on and off, moving in chapters, and even adjusting playback speed.)

Search a long-running podcast’s archive for keywords.

I set up shortcuts for the two playlists I use the most, as well as for resuming playback, and I can basically control Overcast handsfree now when I’m driving. It’s fantastic.

One other major feature that’s been added to this version: search. You can now search the metadata (titles and show notes) for downloaded podcast episodes, or drill down into a specific show and search its entire feed for keywords. As someone who listens to numerous podcasts with enormous back catalogs, this is a great addition.

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