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Friday, December 3, 2010

Google Listen Review

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I don't think of most of them as "podcasts" so much as "radio", because I listen mostly to radio programs delivered as podcasts. I love podcasts because they work with my lifestyle:
  • I am able to discover new programs based on programs I already listen to and enjoy.
  • I can pause the programs and come back to them, which is good because my listening happens in fits and starts. I listen to programs when I want to, instead of when they are broadcast.
  • I avoid a lot of commercials inserted interstitially in broadcast radio.
  • I listen to the programs I am interested in, instead of the programs broadcast by my local radio station.
  • I am able to skip over commercials inserted in the podcasts.
  • I can see brief descriptions of episodes and make selections based on what is most interesting. I can eliminate episodes I don't care to hear.
Now that I have a new personal audio device I want to configure it in the most useful way possible. A couple years ago after a hard drive crash I started pushing some of my personal data out into the cloud, such as my email, calendar, contacts, and bookmarks. I decided to do the same with my podcast subscriptions by using Google Reader, which will allow me to access the same subscriptions from my Mac laptop, from my Linux netbook, from my Android tablet, or from any other computer.

Because I began using Google Reader, it made sense to begin using Google's official podcast software, Google Listen. I downloaded it with high hopes, but I was immediately disappointed, and over the couple weeks that I tried it, I found it to be downright unusable, even dangerous.

To be clear, there are some good things:
  • It synchronizes with Google Reader both by getting subscriptions from Reader, as well as adding subscriptions to Reader when they are added in Listen.
  • The interface is fairly simple.
  • It's free.
To be clear, there are even more bad things:
  • On my device (an Archos 5), Listen will not play if the screen is off. If I turn off the screen, Listen stops playing a few seconds later. If the screen times out and turns itself off, Listen stops playing a few seconds later. This bug alone made Listen unusable for me.
  • Listen will sometimes delete the wrong podcast. One time, when listening to the very end of a podcast, with a few seconds left, I pressed the button to delete that episode. A dialog box popped up to verify my action, and before I could confirm the deletion, the podcast ended and the next episode automatically started. Then, when I clicked OK, Listen deleted the podcast which was then playing, instead of the one which was playing when I pressed Delete in the first place. This is one of the most serious kinds of bugs: data loss bugs.
  • I could never figure out the right way to get Listen to automatically download and delete podcasts. There are options for these features, but they didn't seem to work consistently. For instance, after about a week of using it, Listen stopped downloading new podcasts automatically. I think that may have been because "deleted" podcasts were still on the disk somewhere, counting against the maximum number of allowed downloaded podcasts. I can't be sure what was causing the problem, but it was a problem.
  • Listen nominally remembers the playback position of a podcast so that later a user can resume playback from that point, but sometimes this failed. Podcasts would appear to be starting from that remembered position, but would begin playing audio from the beginning of the episode. Nothing I did would solve this, such as stopping and restarting, playing another episode and going back to the problematic one, or dragging the position slider. Note: I have also had this same problem in another podcast app, BeyondPod, so I don't know where the failure lies.
  • I had trouble getting Listen to automatically check my subscriptions for new episodes. This may have been due to a lack of understanding on my part, but I just want my podcasts to update once an hour, or once a day, and it seems to me that that should be straightforward to configure, even default.
I was disappointed with Listen. Most Google software is pretty good, but Listen fell short. It was probably one of the Google projects made in a programmer's free time, with too little testing performed before release. It is free, so I won't complain that it wasn't worth the price, except to say that it isn't worth any more than that. If bugs are fixed and features are finished, though, it could easily become a perfect app: simple, bug-free, intuitive.

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