Pocket Casts is an excellent app, but there is one major factor keeping it from being the number one recommendation for every Android user: the price. While $3.99 may not seem like a lot of money to some users, there is a huge market of Android users who don’t have the means to pay for their applications. Typically, this means relying on apps filled with advertisements or limitations on what you can and can’t do without unlocking functionality through an in-app purchase—in fact, several of those apps are on this very list. Other apps, typically from lesser-known developers, might not contain ads or content locks, but typically have outdated or complicated user interfaces.
CastBox, meanwhile, is the rare application that falls outside both of these groups. It’s a free application from the aptly-named CastBox.fm, a development team that previously offered “Podcast Player” in 2016. In many ways, CastBox seems to be an evolution of the ideas from their earlier efforts, an app that went on to reach over 5 million downloads. CastBox hasn’t hit a tenth of that as of writing, but with what we’ve seen from the app, it’s not hard to imagine the app reaching similar levels of success. With some incredible design, features we haven’t seen in other podcast apps, and an incredible value for podcast lovers and newcomers alike, CastBox surprised us with just how good it is. Let’s take a look.
The first thing you’ll see upon loading the app for the first time is the app’s storefront for podcasts. In many ways, this feels like more like an iTunes-style market than anything else on the Play Store, with a sliding panel of popular podcasts along the top displaying popular and noteworthy podcasts general users may be into. Below this is a “Top Podcasts” section, which highlights choices from the entire list, though not necessarily in order of what’s at the top of the list. This makes it easy to browse what others have subscribed to on the platform, with numbers of subscribers listed on the bottom below each title. Strangely, the numbers seem to vary, and the “top podcasts” listing seems to be based on what’s rising in popularity, not just what’s popular overall. Still, there are a lot of good, recognizable shows in here—you could easily stick to this list alone and create a pretty solid curated list of podcasts to listen through.
But that store interface has plenty more to it than a carousel of podcasts and a list of the top shows. There’s a recommendations panel, based on your own listening history and subscriptions, a featured tab that boasts specific popular podcasts, both well-known and underground, and Netflix-style categories like “Learn Something New,” “Creeps and Chills,” and “Sports and Recreation.” Even further below these is a full list of genres and categories, divided into black, white, and highlighted icons. Diving into a podcast listing reveals an episode list, the general description for the podcast from the publisher, a list of similar channels from other podcasts, and finally, a comments section. This is something we haven’t seen from any other podcast application on Android, and while the comments listed seem to come directly from iTunes (which was confirmed using a quick Google search), there is an entry field for users to submit their comments. It’s unclear if these comments are added to the iTunes listing (this seems unlikely), or simply added to the CastBox listing. Either way, it’s a neat feature, and a novel addition in an app genre that sometimes seems to be allergic to new features and ideas.
With all of this talk about the storefront, we haven’t even touched on the rest of the application. Four tabs make up the interface: the Discover tab, the Search tab, the Subscribed tab, and the User tab. Though we’ve discussed the Discover tab pretty thoroughly, the Search tab goes hand in hand with this. A search bar runs along the top of the display, with the ability to enter the name of the show you’re looking for using both your keyboard or a voice search with Google’s voice engine. Below this are a list of popular search tags, making it easy to discover popular podcasts users have fallen in love with. The popular searches seem to display a wide array of stuff you’re probably familiar with, including content like the Joe Rogan show and This American Life, and popular podcasts that aren’t quite household names, including Pod Save America, Last Podcast on the Left, and S-Town.
Once you’ve added podcasts to your collection, they appear on the third tab of CastBox’s interface. At the top of the screen is your listings for downloaded episodes, as well as a playlist feature that allows for custom playlists to be built within the app. Unlike something like Pocket Casts, you can’t build more than one playlist. This might sound disappointing in theory, but we’d bargain most podcast playlists are only listened to once, on long road trips or during cross-country flights. Having a single playlist feature limits the build-up of old playlists, and makes it easy to clear out old episodes and start a new playlist.
Below those listings are your subscribed podcasts. By default, these are displayed in a 4-wide grid layout, though this can be adjusted with the grid-shaped icon on the right side of the display, allowing for 3-wide grid views, as well as a list-view that includes part of the description of the podcast in the feed. Tapping on each of these opens the same podcast page viewed in the store, with a list of episodes, a tab with details about the show, and comments pulled from iTunes. One cool thing from CastBox: the ability to search through episode titles in-feed. It’s unfortunate that the search feature doesn’t also search through the description of actual episodes, something we’d love to see in a future update, but if you remember part of the title—or, for certain shows, the person guest-starring on a show—you can search for that title and immediately find the listings without trying to remember when a specific episode aired in the past. There’s also a sorting function that allows shows to be sorted by newest or oldest episodes first, with newest unsurprisingly being the default state.
General playback is pretty straightforward: a play/pause button in the middle of the display, surrounded by options for 15 seconds reverse and forward, and a sleep timer to the far-right of the UI. You can’t set a custom time, but it does include enough increments to get most users by. On the left side of the display is a list to bring up every episode from the currently-playing podcast, allowing you to skip around the list as needed. At the bottom of the playback display are icons to like, download, share, comment, and add the episode to your playlist, as well as similar recommended episodes from other podcasts for you to check out.
There are a couple nitpicks to point out about CastBox. Some of the app animations feel a bit slow compared to other app offerings, with a small delay often obvious while using the app to play episodes or adding new podcasts to your list. Some users may find it imperceptible, but it’s worth pointing out. This is something that could easily be fixed and smoothed out in later updates, though, so we aren’t too concerned about this delay. Another minor qualm: you can’t hide the suggested episodes inside the playback display unless you drop the episode description down. It’s not a huge quibble, but it just doesn’t feel as visually cohesive as something like Pocket Casts. You also can’t clear your queue without finish an episode, meaning the bottom display of your last-played episode will always appear along the bottom of the screen. The app also seemed more likely to require a restart while sitting in our recent apps list, unused, instead of staying active in our RAM. Luckily, this seemed to only impact the application when audio wasn’t playing and the app was paused.
These are all minor problems with the app, though, and each of them could be both device-specific or be fixable in a future update from the CastBox team. Overall, CastBox was an incredible surprise, an app good enough to replace Google Play Music as our runner-up for best podcast application, running neck and neck with what we’ve seen from Pocket Casts. CastBox represents the best free podcast app we’ve tested on the Play Store, with a great interface, some incredible discovery tools, and no ads or in-app purchases. It’s astounding what a free application can score you here, and we weren’t disappointed by the app. While there is some room for improvement, particularly when it comes to the Playback display, any Android user looking for a new podcast app on Android should check out what CastBox is doing.