Marco Arment, developer of Instapaper, blogger, podcaster, coffee nerd, etc, has released a new app called Overcast for the iPhone. I hadn’t planned on writing a short review of this app until I used it to listen to the latest episode of The Geek Whisperers podcast. About halfway through that episode, The Unicorn from Redmond, I realized the app was negatively affecting my impression of the guest.
First, though, let me say I really like Overcast – especially now that I understand the app a bit better. Like Marco’s other apps, It’s well-designed, and easy to use. It’s also free to use with somewhat limited functionality, although I paid $4.99 to unlock the full functionality right away, including all of the features you can read about here.
The feature that seemed most interesting at first glance is called Smart Speed. As I understand it, it dynamically cuts out pauses during a conversation without actually speeding up the speakers themselves. That sounds great, and now that I’ve listened to a handful of podcasts using it, I really like it. As I mentioned, however, before I really understood what Smart Speed was doing, it kinda made me think Symon Perriman from Microsoft was a bit of a ball hog conversationally. The Geek Whisperers typically have a guest on to discuss one or more topics, and the co-hosts, Amy Lewis, John Mark Troyer, and Matthew Brender take turns engaging the guest in spirited back and forth Q&A.
What I found myself thinking as Symon spoke, however, started out as, “Wow, does this dude ever take a breath or is he just a talking machine?” Pretty soon I was laughing and thinking, “I’ve never heard someone just so completely dominate the discussion like this.”
At some point, however, I noticed one of the co-hosts jumping in with a comment in a way that made me wonder if the Skype recording combination had been just a bit off, because the transition from one speaker to another was just … off. At that point I remembered Smart Speed and wondered if it was causing this weird breathlessly non-stop feeling I was getting listening to Symon. So I disabled Smart Speed and replayed the last couple of minutes. The difference was striking. I’d still say Symon is one heck of a talker, but just like everybody else, he pauses between sentences or stops to let a point sink in. He might have been enthusiastically “on message” when describing the MVP program and how Microsoft’s decentralized approach to user groups might be better in some ways than VMware’s VMUG program, but he wasn’t just spewing out words like a machine gun spits out bullets.
I left Smart Speed disabled for the rest of the episode and found that I enjoyed the remainder of the discussion more than I had the speed up portion. I would not agree that “conversations still sound so natural that you’ll forget it’s on” because this one certainly didn’t.
Having said that, I re-enabled Smart Speed for some other podcasts, including Marco’s own Accidental Tech Podcast, and in doing so, I’ve gotten a bit more used to the Smart Speed feature. I even combined it with the increasing the speed of the playback itself, although just one blip on the speed slider, and the combination which seems to work out to 1.2-1.4x. For lighter nerdy podcasts like ATP, I’m ok with cranking up the speed and cutting out the pauses. For others, especially those about more complex or deeper topics, I’ll probably listen without the time-saving features enabled.
Overall, I really like Overcast. I like supporting independent developers and I like using well-made apps. If you use an iPhone, give it a try.