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How to download and listen to the best podcasts - Serial, This American Life and more

Kat Orphanides
16 Jul 2016
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There's some amazing and enthralling content out there and we show you how to listen to the best podcasts

Podcasts are series of media - usually audio programmes - that you can subscribe to and download either manually or automatically using dedicated software for your PC or smartphone. There are a lot of different podcast receiving apps out there, so we'll guide you through finding and using the best podcatchers on all the major platforms.

Apple and iTunes popularised the podcast format - even the word 'podcast' derives from the Apple iPod - but you don't need to be an iPhone user to listen to them. We're going to focus on audio podcasts: the most popular form of the medium, although other media types can also be distributed in this way.

iTunes on Mac OS X or Windows

If you already like and use iTunes to manage your music and media content on either Mac OS X or Windows, then it's also worth using it to manage your podcasts. Apple maintains its own directory of podcasts, including series such as award-winning US true-crime podcast Serial, the BBC's Click technology podcast, and The Allusionist, a programme packed with obscure and fascinating facts about language and etymology.

To search iTunes' vast cache of podcasts, go to the iTunes store and change the category you're looking at from Music to Podcasts by clicking on the Music category title in the right-hand sidebar to open a pull-down menu. You can also permanently add Podcasts to iTunes' category menu pull-down at the upper left of the window by opening the menu, selecting Edit Menu and ticking Podcasts.

The Podcasts store interface will show you Apple's top and recommended podcasts in various categories, or you can just search iTunes to find podcasts based on title or keywords. Once you've found one you fancy the look of, just click through to it, where you can subscribe or just get individual episodes.

Once you subscribe to a podcast, it'll appear in the My Podcasts section of iTunes, where you can view and manage your subscriptions and collections of downloaded episodes. iTunes will by default automatically download episodes as they become available, although it'll stop downloading to save disk space if five episodes go by in a row without you listening to them. It'll also automatically sync podcasts to your iOS devices. Both these features can be disabled if you want more hands-on control.

But I hate iTunes!

If you're not a fan of iTunes and its admittedly somewhat bloated interface and resource footprint, a number of alternative podcatchers are available.

HermesPod is only available for Windows, and while it's not pretty, it's lightweight and can transfer files directly to your portable music player or smartphone. All you have to do is subscribe to the podcasts you want to listen to, and it'll simply download every new episode to a directory on your PC. HermesPod only downloads files, so you'll have to play them through your program of choice.

To add podcasts you can either search for them and add them using the web browser built into HermesPod or directly paste your chosen podcast's RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed URL into the program's Add Subscriptions screen.

An RSS URL is a direct link to the podcast's automatically updated subscription feed and will allow HermesPod to automatically see and download new episodes of your favourite programme. URLs can be formatted in a number of different ways. For example, like this in the case of the Escape Pod science fiction podcast: http://escapepod.org/feed/ and like this for the BBC's In Our Time podcast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qykl/episodes/downloads.rss

If you want something that works on any desktop platform, gPodder for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux is a popular no-frills option. Although Windows users will have to install a couple of extra programs to allow their PC to run the Python-based program, these are directly linked on the program's download page.

Once installed, you're prompted to add a couple of podcasts, either by directly pasting in the URL of a podcast's RSS feed, importing an iTunes OPML file listing your podcast subscriptions, or by using gPodder's own simple discovery search engine. This lets you search SoundCloud, where many podcasts are hosted, as well as gPodder's own directory. Neither are as comprehensive as iTunes' collection, though, so we prefer finding new podcasts online using podcast directories - more on those later.  Like HermesPod, gPodder uses your default music player to play files, but you can launch them within the application.

Finally, if you don't want to be tied to a single PC, Cloud Caster is a web-based podcatcher that allows you to track and listen to all your favourite podcasts in the cloud. You'll have to create an account to use Cloud Caster properly, but once you've done that, you can search, browse and subscribe to programmes either by entering an RSS feed URL or via Cloud Caster's comprehensive directory of podcasts. While Cloud Caster itself doesn't physically store the podcasts you've subscribed to, you can either download or stream them to any device with a web browser.

Listening on the move

While Cloud Caster is just as accessible via mobile browsers as desktop ones, when you're on a smartphone it's more convenient to use a dedicated app to search for, download and play your podcasts. If you're an iPhone or iPad user and already use iTunes to manage your podcasts, then the default Podcasts app for iOS will sync with iTunes on your PC to help you manage your subscriptions. You can also search and subscribe to podcasts just as you would from within iTunes.

Above: Overcast for iOS

However, if you want to get podcasts from other sources, or simply don't like the default app, Overcast for iOS is our favourite alternative. It's donation-funded, ad-free and has a much smoother interface than Apple's own app.

On Android, our favourite free podcatcher is Player FM's Podcast Player. You can create an account to track and sync your subscriptions across multiple devices and via the web. While the category tabs in its search and discovery interface can feel a little cramped, its user interface is generally excellent and the app is ad-free.

Above: Pocket Casts for Android

If you don't mind paying for your podcast receiver, then Pocket Casts for Android, priced at £2.49, is an award-winning podcatcher with an outstanding search and discovery engine to introduce you to new podcasts and a great user interface. It's also available for iOS and Windows Mobile, and has a browser-based incarnation. They'll all sync their data between each other, but you'll have to pay separately for each version, though, which adds up if you're a cross-platform user.

Whichever mobile podcast receiver you use, remember that while streaming and downloading via Wi-Fi is generally free, most mobile contracts don't include unlimited mobile broadband data. Your average podcast comes in at around 1MB per minute, with most programmes lasting between 30 minutes and an hour.  

Most podcatchers will warn you if you try to download anything when on mobile data rather than Wi-Fi, and the odd podcast won't put much of a dent in your data plan, but if have a serious habit, make sure you download before you leave home.