Do you podcast? Google has a new app out for Android that's ready to download and play all your favourite pods. While the functionality is a little on the bare-bones side for now, it does have one ace up its sleeve - the ability to play your podcasts across all your devices with the help of Google Assistant. Here's how it works.
The Google Podcasts app
If you haven't installed the Google Podcasts app for Android, you can get it here, but don't expect too much in the way of flashy interfaces or dozens of advanced features. You can search for podcasts, play podcasts, and subscribe to podcasts, and that's about it.
A quick visit to the settings screen emphasises how lightweight Google has kept this app, at least for now - your only options are to choose how long completed and unfinished episodes are kept around.
Google Podcasts sticks to the basics.Screenshot: Gizmodo
For finding new podcasts, there's a simple search option, plus the usual selection of trending and popular podcasts that you're going to find in most podcasting apps. Episodes can be played without subscribing, but if you do subscribe, the app will then queue up new episodes for you.
Google says AI is used to fine-tune the recommendations users see in the app, but it's difficult to see how this might be working under the hood. If you subscribe to a few movie podcasts, you'll get recommendations for more movie podcasts, but that's hardly cutting edge artificial intelligence at work.
Podcast discovery is an area that needs work.Screenshot: Gizmodo
A more useful application of AI is coming soon, Google says: Automatic subtitling of episodes, similar to what's offered on YouTube, so you can keep up with what's being said even if you're in a noisy environment.
Once you start playing a podcast, you'll see the playback controls are stripped-down and simple. There's a playback bar that you can use to jump to specific points, buttons for jumping back ten seconds or forward 30 seconds, and a tool for controlling playback speed (0.5x to 2x).
Listening across multiple devices
So far, it may seem unlikely that Google could convince you to switch from your current podcast app of choice, but hold on for just a minute; Google Podcasts works across other devices with the Google Assistant installed, so you should be able to carry on where you left off on a Google Home, for example.
Gathering all our Google-powered devices together, we put this to the test, and indeed it seemed to work as advertised - at first. Say "hey Google, play [podcast name]," and it continues playing from where you left off on your phone. You can also say "continue my podcast" if you prefer, and also jump to the next podcast in the episode list.
Listening via Google Assistant on Android (left) and iOS (right).Screenshot: Gizmodo
We successfully carried on listening via a Google Home Mini, a Pixelbook with Google Assistant integrated, and even the Google Assistant app for iOS — so while there isn't a Google Podcasts app for iPhones yet, you can at least get at your current episodes in a roundabout way.
What didn't work so smartly was synching across all these devices. Listening through a Google Home Mini didn't seem to register in the original Google Podcasts app for Android, which means when we went back to the app we heard the same part of our podcast over again — it was a good episode, but it wasn't that good.
The sync works on the Pixelbook too.Screenshot: Gizmodo
When starting and resuming on Google Assistant devices and apps only, meanwhile, the syncing seemed hit or miss. Sometimes whatever system Google has going on in the cloud seemed to log our listening position, but at other times it didn't. Presumably this will get fixed over time, but it ruins the magic if the original app doesn't realise you've listened to half an episode on your smart speaker.
Getting the Assistant to play podcasts that don't have short, snappy names can be a challenge, too — and try not to subscribe to ones that sound like current Google Assistant commands. Also, the "play my podcasts" command we tried seems to send Google off on a hunt for recommended podcasts rather than taking you to the episodes you've actually subscribed to. You need to be careful about what you say.
By the way, if you search for a podcast in the Google app for Android, episodes show up and can be played straight from the results screen, which is a nice touch. This doesn't work (at least not yet) in Google search on the web or in the Google app for iOS.
How Apple's devices compare
Apple has its own Podcasts app which is more sophisticated than Google's offering right now — there are extra features like sleep timers and chapter markers, while the discovery section seems to work a little better than Google's.
Apple offers more ways to dig into podcasts (via a featured podcasts section, categories, trending shows, and search) and a more varied way of presenting them. You can easily listen to shows from the discovery pages if you don't want to subscribe immediately.
Apple Podcasts.Screenshot: Gizmodo
And Apple has invested in podcast syncing, too, thanks to iCloud — it's supposed to work across iOS, iTunes for Windows and Mac, Apple TV, and the HomePod. We haven't tested it extensively ourselves, but posts on the web suggest some users have problems getting everything synced up.
We have tested Siri and the Podcasts app on the iPhone, and it works really well — even better than Google Assistant does with Google Podcasts. You can pick up from where you last listened, control playback, jump between episodes, and more.
Siri is adept at managing podcasts.Screenshot: Gizmodo
Arguably though, it's the ability to jump between devices that podcast lovers really need, and to be fair to Google and Apple, this is something even the best podcast apps in the business have also struggled with. When you've got such a mix of local and cloud content, as well as multiple devices to consider, getting the same playback positions synced across all of them isn't easy.
For now neither Google nor Apple can really brag about independently offering the best podcasting experience on their platforms — Google is obviously playing catch up right now, but both services have their strengths and weaknesses. What seems most promising are the features Google says it's planning to bring to its barebones service. But until then, you may find yourself looking elsewhere for a more sophisticated service.