Apple made mention of a standalone podcast app earlier this month, but most figured it would arrive with iOS 6 this fall. Not so. Earlier this week, Apple released Podcasts. It's free and universal, designed for both the iPhone and iPad.
When you first launch the app, you'll see the Library view, which features two columns of large tiles of your podcasts. Any podcasts you have previously subscribed to in iTunes get pulled in. There are two buttons at the bottom, labeled Podcasts and Top Stations. Tap the Top Stations button to browse popular podcasts by subject. At the top of this page is a toggle switch for browsing audio or video podcasts, and just below it is a dial you can swipe to view the various subject areas (some subjects feature subtopics). Below each subject are five large tiles; tap on a tile to listen/view that podcast.
Tap the Catalog button in the upper-left corner to discover new podcasts. You are given three views for the Catalog: Featured, Top Charts, and Search. When you find a podcast you like, tap on it to view its page. On each podcast page is a gray Subscribe button, which adds a tile to your Podcasts list. Below the podcast's title, Subscribe button, and ratings and comments is a handful of recent shows.
I've been using the Podcasts app for only two days, but what I like most about it is the clear differentiation it gives between streaming and downloading. To stream an episode, simply click on the title of an episode and it will begin playing. To download an episode, click the gray download button to the right of its title. Episodes you have downloaded are then listed without the download button. Better yet, when you do not have an Internet connection, episodes you have not previously downloaded are grayed out, giving you an easy-to-scan list of available episodes at your disposal while offline.
You are given great control over your subscriptions. You can temporarily suspend a subscription, which stops new episodes from showing up in the list, whether they are downloaded or not. To do so, click on the title of one of your subscriptions above the list of episodes and turn the Subscriptions button off. (Doing so does not remove the podcast from your list of subscriptions.) Below this Subscription on/off switch is an Auto-Download switch, which lets you either set up a list of episodes to stream or, when turned on, will automatically download new episodes as they become available.
To unsubscribe from a podcast, tap the Edit button in the upper-left corner of the Library view and then tap the X on one of the tiles to remove that podcast from your subscriptions. To the right of this button are two small buttons, which let you view your subscribed podcasts as these large tiles or as a list.
The Now Playing screen features play/pause, fast-forward, and rewind buttons, along with two buttons that let you skip back 10 seconds and skip forward 30 seconds. Tap the large tile of the podcast to reveal additional controls. You get a scrub bar, and a dial that lets you listen at half speed or double speed. There is also a button to share a link of the podcast (via e-mail, text, or Twitter), and another that lets you set a sleep timer if drifting off to podcasts is how you like to end your day.