Time to Upgrade Your Podcast App?

Although 21 percent of the U.S. population (age 12 or older) listens to podcasts, the medium is relatively young. Yes, the ground-breaking show "Serial" recorded more than 100 million downloads in 2014 and President Obama appeared on Marc Maron's comedy program in 2015, but the art form is still so new, it's hard to find and explore its many offerings.

In fact, if you rely on the built-in podcast app on your smartphone, you may be missing out on features that could greatly improve your listening experience. Wouldn't it be cool if your listening history was synced across all of your devices, for example? How about if you could see the shows that appeal to your friends? And what if I told you there's a way to catch every last word on the TED Radio Hour without having to fiddle with the volume control?

Those all sound like good ideas, right? Well, here are three podcast apps that might suit you better than the one you're currently using.

If You Want Lots of Cool Features

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Overcast (free on iOS and the Web): This app from Instapaper creator Marco Arment draws its podcasts from iTunes' second-to-none directory. That means you can choose from more than 250,000 shows. It's iOS compatible (good news for iPhone and iPad users), but there’s also a basic web browser version for those outside the Apple family. And the interface is easy to use.

Key features include synced playback history, which lets you pick up a show on your iPad right where you left off on your iPhone; smart playlists, which factor in your preferences (news in the morning, comedy on the weekends); and volume boosting, which automatically amplifies quiet voices and sounds so you can hear everything clearly. There's a silence-skipping function, too, which speeds you past all those pregnant pauses from the host and guests that make you question whether your headphones are working.

Overcast even allows you to import or export your podcast subscriptions in case you decide to switch apps.

To help you find new shows, there’s a section of crowdsourced recommendations, plus Twitter integration, which reveals what podcasts your followers are enjoying.

And all of that is free—although Arment does accept contributions "to keep the lights on" through an optional patronage feature in the Settings menu.

If You Listen to Podcasts in the Car

Stitcher (free on Android, iOS, and the Web; $2.99 for premium service): If you like to stay on top of current events, you'll appreciate the utility of this free app, which boasts a library of more than 65,000 podcasts and radio shows. The news feed presents the podcasts you subscribe to, podcasts from local and national news outlets, and yet more podcasts chosen based on your listening habits.

You can also create customized playlists for the weekend workout and the morning drive by "stitching" together personal favorites. And, speaking of drives, car manufacturers like Mazda and BMW  offer Stitcher integration in the infotainment systems of certain models, making it possible to choose podcasts the way you'd pick a radio station. If your car doesn’t have Stitcher integration, you can use a mounted smartphone and the simplified interface in the app's "car mode" to approximate that ease of use.

Stitcher is supported by banner and audio ads that run between shows. If you'd rather not deal with those, you can pay $2.99 for three months of promotion-free service. You'll still have to contend with the ads in the podcasts themselves, though.

If You Live in Apple's Camp (and Android's, Too)

Pocket Casts ($3.99 on Android and iOS; $9 on the Web): Here's another app that syncs podcast playback across your various devices, but the thing that makes this one unique is that those devices don't have to run on the same operating system. Want to shift from your iPad to your Android phone? No problem.

For an extra $9, you can also download a web-based version of the app that lets you leave home and resume listening on a Chromebook or the PC in your office.

Pocket Casts gets its podcasts through iTunes, so you’ll never want for content, and discovering new shows is easy thanks to its curated store. Power users will also appreciate the granular controls. Features include intro skipping, playlist creation, and the ability to download or stream every episode of a podcast with the touch of a single button. You can “star” episodes as well in case you want to listen to them again or share them with a friend.

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