01 January 2008

PodcastReady: Not Ready

Like many people, I work with more than one computer on a daily basis. In my case, I have a Mac desktop at home, and a MacBook laptop that is my primary work computer. I also have an iPod. This makes for a hugely annoying combination, because iPods are very monogamous. Since my music collection is too big to fit on my laptop, I have to sync my iPod with my desktop. This means that when I'm away from my desktop, I cannot get new podcasts into my iPod through iTunes (or any other new content for that matter).

Someone recommended PodcastReady as a solution. Well, it is not.

PodcastReady is a web site and tool set for managing podcasts with "social" features (share podcasts with "friends", etc). One key feature is that it allows you to manage podcasts from any computer, not just the one you are synced with, hence my interest. It does this by allowing you to install its client application, myPodder, directly onto your portable media device. (It doesn't run on the device, just uses it for hard drive storage. You still need to run it from your computer.) Now the complaints.

First, the web site is whizzy "Web 2.0" in the most annoying way. DHTML ballons pop-up over virtually every link, covering the actual page content. Sometimes the balloons contain useful content, sometimes not. More than once one got stuck and could not be dismissed forcing me to reload the page to get rid of it.

Speaking of reloading, the site features one of the worst uses of AJAX technology I have ever seen. A tool in the profile application allows you to select your favorite categories from a hierarchical list. Clicking on a top level category uses AJAX, but not to load only a list of subcategories for that category. No it makes a background request to reload the entire content well! (Also, the universal "plus sign" symbol that, in every other application, expands the hidden content in a hierarchy, on this web site will add the entire category to your list. At PodcastReady, you must click the name, not the plus sign, to expand.)

But the myPodder application, the linchpin of the whole system, is where things get really annoying.

When you download the application from the website as a logged-in user, the download is pre-configured with your identity, which is a very nice feature. Or it would be, if it were used properly. When I open the application, the first thing it does is prompt me to create a new account. Even though it already knows my account information. And not just the first time, mind you. It prompts me to create a new account every time I open the application unless I explicitly tick the box telling it to stop asking. On what planet is this useful?

The preferences screen for myPodder contains instructional text that does not fit in the alloted space. There is plenty of space remaining to display more text, but no, we can't use it. The potentially helpful text instead just disappears. Also, the preference tool gives me the completely useless ability to create a new account here, but provides no way to configure myPodder to use a different account. (If I did accept this foolishly repeated invitation to create a new account, how would I make myPodder use it? Download a new copy?)

There's a handy link to "go to podcastready.com website" at the bottom of the application's preferences screen. When I clicked it, it did indeed take me to the web site -- and it closed the myPodder application. Argh!

Once on the web site, PodcastReady allowed me to subscribe to podcasts from its directory. With a little poking around, I found how to subscribe to specific URLs not found in the directory, which worked okay. Unfortunately, it also let me "subscribe" to random URLs that were not podcasts or even RSS feeds. It created a new "channel" from a plain old web page I gave it, without noticing that it was not a valid feed. The channel showed up in myPodder, and generated a download error when it attempted to download the podcasts from the broken channel. The error did not say the feed was invalid, just that the download failed.

Oh but wait, I haven't told you about my favorite feature yet. (Can you hear the sarcasm there?) When running from my iPod, myPodder was nice enough to add the podcasts it had downloaded to the iPod's database, so I could actually play them without starting iTunes. That's a handy feature. Except that it corrupted my iPod's database, and now every time I open iTunes, it locks up behind a beach ball and refuses to do anything. And since the iPod restore utility lives inside iTunes, there is also no obvious way to fix the problem. Thank you, PodcastReady, for screwing up my iPod in such an annoyingly painful way. To fix this problem, I had to go into the terminal, locate the hidden iPod_Control folder on my iPod, and delete it. Then I could eject it, force quit iTunes, plug the iPod back in, and restore the now "blank" iPod via iTunes. (With a bit more effort I probably could have located the corrupted file and deleted just that, but I'm not sure what iTunes would think about that, and I was losing patience.)

The worst part is, even if all these problems were fixed, I still don't think I would like PodcastReady. Having it installed on my iPod means I can update podcasts from any computer. But it also means that no computer can download my podcasts unless my iPod is plugged into it. The old process was "plug in iPod, wait 30 seconds for sync, unplug and go". The new process is "plug in iPod, start myPodder, click the explicit download button, wait 30 minutes for it to download, unplug and go". This is not an improvement.

Secondly, since I subscribe to a lot of podcasts, I have an iTunes "smart playlist" that combines all my podcast episodes sorted by date. The myPodder application doesn't update my smart playlists, so it forces me to navigate through them by title instead, which is not what I want. To update the smart playlists, I would have to start iTunes anyway, so what good is myPodder?

And thirdly, whose idea was this "private channel" feature? It's a channel where my "friends" can stick things that they want me to listen to. Isn't that sort of the inverse of "private"? And doesn't that open me to a DOS attack when somebody decides to stuff the entire Internet in there? If I want to get recommendations from friends, why can't I just subscribe to their "recommended" feed? (Maybe I could if I had any "friends", but I never got that far. Too busy restoring my iPod.)

So the summary is, if you have an iPod, stay far, far away from PodcastReady. If you have some cheapo mp3 player that comes with crappy software, myPodder might be less crappy than what you have, but I wouldn't bet on it. PodcastReady is a good idea, designed badly, and executed very poorly.


Anonymous said...

Dear Vince,
With all the commentary about "Blogs" on the news, I am impressed to know a "Blog" personally! Mikey is my son-in-law and gave me this address. I don't have a comment re your Podcast but I need some advice re computers. I bought a new Dell desktop last July and struggled with the Vista operating system and ultimately had the Vista replaced by the previous version to be able to use my existing programs. The "xp" worked fine initally and I got all my hardware hooked up and files downloaded. Today the computer will NOT open up. It appears frozen on the first window that comes on! Any suggestions? I don't want to take it back to the shop at this juncture and drop another $100. I will just have to use my old back-up computer in the interim. It would be good to hear from you in any regard.
Mel Galinat

Anonymous said...

I just discovered how invasive and ill conceived podcastready is. Did you find an alternative program for your podcast needs?

Unknown said...

@Anonymous: No, I never did find an app to do what I wanted. I'm still fussing with iTunes, shifting files around trying to make room on one hard drive or another for all my stuff. Sorry I can't help you there.