Podcasts on iOS – Beyond iTunes

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There was a time when you wanted to listen to or watch a podcast on your iPod or iPhone, iTunes was your only option.

Nobody can deny that Apple was instrumental in the popularity take off of podcasts since the early days in 2005 when the functionality was added to iTunes but Apple haven’t really done anything revolutionary with them since. In the days of the original iPod the current support of podcasts built into iTunes made total sense. The devices were not wireless and had no Internet connectivity. They needed to be physically connected or docked to a computer to allow iTunes to update their content.

This is no long the case. iPhones, the iPod Touch and the iPad are wireless Internet ready devices and yet Apple still required users to physically connect their device to update their podcast collection up until less than a year ago. Still, when it comes to podcasts the new “WiFi Sync” feature of iOS 5 is not ideal. Podcast management still needs to be controlled from the desktop in iTunes. You still need to go to your computer, fire up iTunes and let your podcasts update.

There are very strong indications that Apple have no interest in supporting podcasts in any more than they do already and this is understandable for a couple of reasons. Firstly the podcasting medium has come full circle in the fact that there are so many applications and websites that search, index and playback podcasts on both computers and portable devices that the reliance on iTunes has all but disappeared. Secondly there is no revenue for Apple when it comes to podcasts. The majority are free and iTunes has no facility (and the content producers have no desire) to give access to subscription based shows as far as I know.

I have absolutely no clue why Apple have not added podcast management features in the mobile versions of iTunes that you access from your iPhone or iPad. Only the most basic functionality is available. You can search for podcasts and you can even manually download them individually but no facility is available to automate the process.

To make matters worse not only did Apple not offer these features they prevented third party developers from offering them for a very long time. Apps that are commonly known today as “podcatchers” we’re banned from the App store until quite recently. They had a very strict policy that third party apps that replicated the functionality of native iOS apps we not allowed. Luckily this policy has gradually been relaxed and there is a good choice of apps available today.

So what is the advantage of using a podcatcher app? Let me describe two scenarios in getting new podcasts on to an iPhone.

Scenario number one: Using iTunes for podcast management, I would need to go over to my computer, fire up iTunes, give it time to go through all my podcast subscriptions and download them. Once that has finished I either have to plug my iPhone in or connect to wifi sync and update the content on my iPhone. This takes a little time, longer if I’m doing it wirelessly and iTunes may also do a backup of my device as well which will delay things further. Finally I can disconnect my iPhone and listen to my updated podcasts.

Scenario number two: I fire up my podcatcher app and it downloads the latest podcasts I’m subscribed to directly to my device. I start listening! :)

That’s the bare bones of it. Of course podcatcher apps do offer quite a few other features depending on which one you go for but even when comes to the basics it’s so much simpler. At the time of writing (as listed in Wikipedia) these are the podcatcher apps that are available in the App Store:

PodCruncher: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcast-player-manager-app/id421894356?mt=8
Podcaster: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcaster-4/id377195245?mt=8
Downcast: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/downcast/id393858566?mt=8
Podcatcher: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/podcatcher/id367314338?mt=8
Instacast: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/instacast/id420368235?mt=8
Pocket Casts: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pocket-casts/id414834813?mt=8
RSSRadio: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/rssradio-podcast-downloader/id382552897?mt=8
iCatcher!: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/icatcher!-podcast-catcher/id414419105?mt=8

I have used a few of these and recently switched to iCatcher! so a review will most likely follow soon. In the mean time I wholeheartedly recommend you try one if you’re still using iTunes.

Update: According to this blog post Apple are planning on removing podcast functionality from mobile iTunes in iOS 6 and giving them there own app. Still a rumour, but interesting.

XBMC Eden Beta 3 for iOS on the iPad 2

The main XBMC app menu screen running on an iPad 2

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Very few Home Theatre PC or digital media enthusiasts would disagree that the XBMC cross platform media centre software does a superb job of giving you the ultimate in functionality. The only exception to this would be the in the DVR space, where they are frustratingly lacking support.

As a huge supporter of XBMC when I heard that it had been ported to iOS I was ecstatic. Of course with XBMC being such an open system there was very little doubt that it would ever pass Apple’s stringent regulations for inclusion in the App Store therefore it would only be available to “Jailbroken” iOS devices. At the time my only iOS device was my iPhone 3GS and although I had jailbroken it in the past I only did it because I’m a tinkerer. This time I had a great reason to do it as I wanted to see how XBMC worked on an iPhone. I installed it and I hated it. The reason being that at the time it was a straight port right down to the standard desktop skin. It was totally unusable in my opinion.

Well how things have moved on! Being the proud owner of an iPad 2 and with the recent ability to Jailbreak the device totally untethered I decided to give XBMC for iOS one more try and I’m so glad I did. The app has now been updated to run the latest beta version of the software, “Eden” and even comes by default with a fantastically design skin called “Touched” which is simplistic yet very functional and as the name suggests, is specifically designed to complement a touch interface. No doubt this will be the skin of choice when installing XBMC on the upcoming Windows 8 tablets.

From what I can tell XBMC for iOS has the exact same functionality to the regular PC version. Within minutes I had connected it to my video library on my desktop PC via a network share and also installed addons for BBC iPlayer and Hulu. Video playback of video library content I can only describe as phenomenal and it had no issues playing back 720p MKVs. The picture was pristine. The same can be said for playback via streaming services such as BBC iPlayer and Hulu.

If you have an iPad 2 and would love to have the ability to have access to a huge variety of media from a practically unlimited choice of sources and are considering jailbreaking then I could not recommend installing XBMC enough. You will not regret it.

TV shows in Library mode

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Settings menu

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BBC iPlayer in action

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Hulu in action

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Ability to add user profiles – a very useful feature

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Enjoy Netflix (US) with a Netflix UK account

20120222-203356.jpgAs good as the content is on Netflix UK nobody can argue that American customers have a better selection of content. After all, the UK service has just launched and Netflix are still busily adding content and making new deals every day.

If you are feeling the green eye of envy towards are American cousins, fear not, as you too can be enjoying the exact same material they are in a matter of minutes. Not everybody is aware that Netflix changed the way they handled user accounts once they branched their streaming service out of the United States and went international. If you happen to be visiting a country that has Netflix then logging into your account on your laptop for example gives you access to their catalogue.

To make use of this feature without venturing out of your home you need to make Netflix believe you are actually in the country of your choosing. Typically a paid VPN service is the way to go. A service like this creates a secure network “tunnel” through your Internet connection giving you a new IP address and fooling other systems into believing you are in the USA for example. While these services are great and have the bonus of pretty much giving you anonymity whilst online they do literally make any network connection you make believe you are where you say you want to be so if you need some services to believe you are actually “home” a lot of fiddling can be involved in switching the VPN on and off. As well as this many of these VPN providers require you to make modifications to individual computers (although some routers can be altered to work with a VPN service) and you cannot use the same VPN account on more than one computer at the same time. Also if you have a PS3 or an Xbox 360 you cannot add VPN services to these for example.

I had used a VPN before and this was how I managed to test Netflix US and other American services such as Hulu and Pandora but I soon got tired of the switching back a forth until I found another solution called Unblock-US which works slightly differently. Instead of VPN that gives you a new network connection this service alters your DNS (Domain Name System) settings, another way computers can identify where other computers are geographically situated, and it tells them you’re in the US. The beauty of this is two-fold. Firstly you still use your own Internet connection and ISP totally so the connection should be much more stable. Secondly only very minor changes need to be performed to your Internet settings (they even have an app that does it for you) to get it to work and similar settings can be found in most modern routers. This means if you want your entire network to use it you can, including consoles, networked blu-ray players etc.

As an added bonus, a lot of the native streaming services to the UK such as BBC iPlayer and 4OD look at your IP address (which doesn’t change and is still UK) and not your DNS settings to see if you in the country and so continue to work even with the service switched on. The end result, for me at least is a pretty seamless streaming experience. I can fire up Netflix US or Hulu one minute then switch to BBC iPlayer the next.

The service is not free but it is a reasonable $4.99 per month and they do have a free trial so you have nothing to lose. If you are outside the US and are looking to expand your streaming choices then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Unblock-US.

Netflix in the UK, a PC user’s perspective

20120222-120553.jpg Well this year it finally arrived. Netflix, the premier US digital media provider came to the UK giving us access to quality movie and TV show streaming (they do not provide a disc service in the UK) for a reasonable price of £5.99 a month.

I had been waiting for this for quite some time as I had the opportunity to test out the US service a while back and I was very impressed. Due to licensing restrictions and contracts, the content available in the UK differs both in quantity and variety and it is fair to say that the American offering is currently superior. Despite this it is my opinion that the selection is much better the the offering from Amazon’s LoveFilm , who at the moment have a smaller selection, no HD content and a poorer quality streaming service technically.

How To Watch Netflix Content

Netflix offers many ways to watch their content from mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets to gaming consoles to Blu-Ray players. They also provide streaming access via their website using Microsoft Silverlight. It can be argued that Netflix see 3rd party devices as the primary method of watching as it seems to get the most support, something I personally find quite annoying. Since I consume my media exclusively via Home Theatre PCs it makes life a little difficult when it comes to Netflix.

The PC problem

Netflix provide some fantastic apps for 3rd party devices. If you have the right device in your living room you can sit back and relax using your remote control to navigate Netflix and playback your content. Unfortunately as far as Netflix is concerned, the PC user seems to be a second class citizen. There is virtually NOTHING available for the PC that optimises the experience. (There are a couple of options that I will go into later).

For PC users their are certain other limitations.

Firstly as the streaming method uses Microsoft Silverlight you need to be running an operating system that this supports, namely Windows or Mac OS X. There is no Silverlight support for Linux operating systems which many Home Theatre PC enthusiasts use their the basis for their “bare bones” media centres due to the fact that these installations are so customisable and have the ability to be fine tuned.

The second limitation is Silverlight itself. Although, in my opinion, it is about 500% better than Adobe’s Flash for video streaming, HD content from Netflix does not play nicely with low powered “net top” PCs which are a popular choice as HTPCs for many enthusiasts including this one. I don’t pretend to know all the technical details but the doesn’t seem to be any GPU acceleration support in Silverlight streams from Netflix. Net top machines, typically Intel Atom / Ion2 based systems rely on this feature to be able to reliably support HD quality playback. Both my HTPCs are Atom/ Ion2 based and they are capable of 1080p video and Blu-Ray playback but when fed a 720p Netflix stream the best they seem to be able to produce is a video running at about 2 FPS! Luckily for those in my position there is a workaround but you do lose full HD playback. In essence, you read a pretty beefy CPU to handle an HD Netflix stream.

If you do manage to get smooth HD playback on a PC you will find that your movie’s audio in only playing back in stereo! Netflix offers many movies and TV shows in HD and WITH 5.1 audio but this is not available via PC streaming. As far as I know this is an artificial limitation as Silverlight does have the ability to pass through 5.1 audio. I see this as another example of Netflix’s disinterest in the PC user.

But there are PC “apps”

There are PC apps available for Netflix you say? Well yes there are but all of them are really front ends to the web streams. The best one both in terms of usability and looks in my opinion is the addon for Windows Media Center. Boxee used to provide a Netflix addon for their PC users but this has since been disabled (and Boxee for the PC has been abandoned in favour of the Boxee Box by its creators) and removed. Several “media centre” systems such as XBMC and Mediaportal have their own front end plugins too.

If you are a HTPC Netflix user in the USA you most likely use the Windows Media Center plugin. This has been available for while and it is very nice. As it is basically just a sophisticated front end UI the same hardware limitations apply to it as streaming directly from the website, so using a net top for HD is a no go.
To make matters worse, it is incompatible with UK Netflix accounts. When Netflix launched in the UK I naively thought I could get this to work and I was very disappointed when it didn’t. The first hurdle is actually getting the app to appear on a UK machine. As standard it doesn’t and you have to tweak your registry a little and set your machine to be situated in the US which is a major problem as you would then lose your UK TV settings if you are using Media Center as a DVR. If you get it to appear you can log in to your UK Netflix account and browse content (only if it thinks you are in the US, but I’ll get to that later) but nothing will play. It appears UK accounts are not supported by the Netflix API which these apps use. There is a small exception as i did manage to get the XBMC Netflix plugin XBMCFlicks “partially” working which i will go into in another post.
After contacting Netflix support with the enquiry if the Media Center app would be updated for UK use and being ignored (and also finding out it was never updated for Canadian users who got Netflix over a year ago!) I’ve come to the conclusion that Netflix are just not interested in their PC customers.

Limitations and benefits of Netflix UK

So apart from it’s content is Netflix UK they same as Netflix US? Well, not quite. For some inexplicable reason Netflix decided not to grace UK users with an instant queue at the time of writing. With the amount of content available, an instant queue is pretty essential in keeping track of things you may find while browsing the catalogue for later viewing. There is no technical reason that I can see for not including this and I am baffled. Perhaps they will introduce this “revolutionary” feature later?

You may ask why I am a Netflix customer after reading this article as I don’t seem to have much that is good say about them. Although there are problems in usability for the PC user, once you get your content playing it is superb quality and a great value for money service. The other added bonus is that since Netflix went “international” so did their user accounts. If you’re abroad in a country that has Netflix you can sign in with your account and have access to the content available in the country you are currently in. The beauty of this is if you use a VPN service or something similar it has the same effect, instant access to US content for example. I have personally gone down that route as the American content is far superior.

If you are a TV and movie fan you can’t go wrong with joining Netflix. With so many viewing options it is a superb value for money service. Just don’t choose a PC as your preferred consumption method unless you are already invested in it like me! :)