Analysis Wearable Tech

Overcast shows how the Apple Watch could be a better music (and podcast) player

Commentary: The Overcast podcast app's latest update shows the promise -- and the problems -- of away-from-phone playback on Apple Watch.

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Overcast on Apple Watch: Podcasts without an iPhone nearby.

Scott Stein/CNET

I love the Overcast app. It's the best podcast app I've used on the iPhone, and it's better than Apple's Podcasts app. And a few days ago, Overcast added a really fascinating feature for Apple Watch owners: it stores podcasts onto the Apple Watch to listen to away from the iPhone.

Turning the Apple Watch into a little podcast repository is a great idea, one that Apple hadn't enabled before. Even the basic task of transferring music isn't easy. The Apple Watch has 8GB of total storage -- less of that is available to the user, though it's enough for a good handful of music -- but getting tracks onto the Apple Watch requires making a playlist and syncing it from within the Apple Watch iPhone app, which isn't instantaneous. In fact, it's usually something I need to let sit overnight. I can't browse Apple Music or my music library and just instantly send things to my Apple Watch.

Overcast's app, however, allows this, and it shows what the Apple Watch could be capable of if more apps enabled easy audio file transfers. The new app has a few quirks -- podcasts seemed to stop in the middle sometimes, as if the app has timed out mid-play (which an app update has already addressed), and the app doesn't have its own volume control -- but I was able to listen to "Jordan, Jesse GO!" with just the Apple Watch and AirPods, and it felt oddly liberating.

It's fun listening to something with just the watch and my AirPods. AirPods help make the Apple Watch seem like a music product. Their pairing -- and handoff -- between watch and phone is more seamless, and their small size fits the Watch's design. But that simplicity doesn't carry over into the Apple Watch's music handling.

The whole idea of a tiny little way to play back music reminds me of what I liked about the old iPod Nano years ago. Yet, two years after the Apple Watch's first debut, the watch doesn't handle stand-alone music as seamlessly as it could.

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Matt Elliott/CNET

How the Apple Watch can be a better music player

But, the Apple Watch itself isn't a complete iPod yet, I'd argue. Its music features are at the bottom of a long list of functions.

  • The Apple Watch should have more music storage (at least 16GB). The 2GB available now isn't enough.
  • It should have an easy-access central volume control, like the swipe-up Control Center on iOS. The Apple Watch doesn't have an easy on-the-fly way to control volume outside of the Music app, and weirdly, the AirPods lack volume control, too.
  • Music (or podcasts) should be easily sent to Apple Watch with a tap: either in-app or with iOS' pull-up "share" interface that's often used to send photos, videos, PDFs or other files to other apps. Why not add a "Send to Apple Watch" feature there? Google Play Music has an on-watch download function for Android Wear.

Overcast's feature is fun to play with. But it's a reminder that the Apple Watch isn't a killer audio device yet.