Date: April 2, 2011
App type: Entertainment
Release date: January 18, 2011
Phone features used: Data connection, media library, web browser, RunsUnderLock, phone identity
Download BringCast for Windows Phone 7
Now that Microsoft is finally, belatedly, shipping out its first actual software update for Windows Phone, I'm turning my attention to the more pragmatic matter of looking into the many holes in the current versions of the OS and finding ways to work around them. The issue, of course, is that unless something dramatic changes with Windows Phone, we won't see the first major update to the OS, and the second real update overall, until the fall. And that is too long to wait when there's so much missing in the system we're now using.
With that in mind, here's the first workaround for some curiously missing functionality in Windows Phone 7: Yes, using the Zune PC software and Windows Phone's very limited PC-to-phone syncing capabilities, you can find, subscribe to, sync, and then listen to podcasts. But there's no way to update your podcasts from the phone itself, or download new episodes or subscribe to new podcasts over the air. With Windows Phone, all of your podcast activities have to be controlled from the PC, using Zune.
That stinks. And for the millions of podcast listeners (and viewers) out there, it's simply unacceptable. So they turn to other mobile platforms, like the iPod touch or Zune, for podcasts or, in extreme cases, just refuse to use Windows Phone all together.
There are, fortunately, a couple of workarounds, however, in the form of third party apps for Windows Phone that allow you to access podcasts over the air. The one I use and recommend is called BringCast, and while it suffers from some less-than-ideal limitations, I will point out that almost all of those limitations are in fact caused by (you guessed it) limitations in Windows Phone OS, and are not the fault of its programmers. But even with these limitations, BringCast is a great podcast solution for Windows Phone. And that's true no matter how you use it, as your sole source for podcasts on Windows Phone, or as an adjunct to the built-in functionality for those times when you're on the road and simply want to get new episodes.
BringCast provides a simple enough interface, though it might be confusing the first time you run the app. It's a multi-pane Windows Phone-style app, with a Home screen consisting of two items: Your playlist (available podcast episodes) and your subscription list (those podcasts to which you've subscribed). On first run, they're just two big blank boxes; hence the confusion. But once you start using the app, these items will fill out and make more sense.
The next pane, What's New, is again blank on first run, but once you subscribe to podcasts, new episodes will appear here. The My Feeds pane lists all your subscribed podcasts. Browse provides a list of the available podcasts, out in the ether, segregated by topic (Arts, Business, Developer, Education, and so on), providing a way for you to find new podcasts. There is also a Search app bar button so you can find specific podcasts.
Here, we find BringCast's first strange limitation, and this one isn't Microsoft's fault. I'm not sure from where BringCast is getting its list of available podcasts, but when I search for my favorite shows, many don't come up. There are no Rick Steves podcasts. There are many NPR podcasts, but not the Technology show I like. No Coffee Break language podcasts (French, Spanish), and so on.
Now, you can however import unknown podcasts like these using an Import Feeds command. But you will need the URL for the podcast subscription feed in question (in XML format, not the iTunes link) and then have to laboriously type it into the URL field of the wizard page. (If you have the March 2011 update for Windows Phone, which adds copy and paste support, you may be able to snag the URL for a favorite podcast in IE Mobile and then paste it into this page. I was able to get this to work for some podcasts.)
Once you get some podcasts going, BringCast comes to life. You can subscribe to podcasts, as noted, or download individual episodes on the fly, over either Wi-Fi (preferred) or 3G. Note, however, that doing so triggers a few examples of Windows Phone's current limitations: Third party apps can't yet multitask or download content in the background (those capabilities are both coming in the late 2011 update, codenamed "Mango"), so any time you trigger a download, you have to leave the app running and ensure the phone doesn't go to sleep. That's because when the screen goes dark, Windows Phone inexplicably turns off Wi-Fi and continues the download over 3G. This can sap your data plan quickly, especially for video. So you have to be vigilant.
This sounds like a lot of little issues, and it is. But again, most are Microsoft's fault, not BringCast's. And if what you're looking for is the ability to actually find, download, and listen to (or watch) podcasts while on the go, this is a great little solution. And a nice workaround to one of Windows Phone's many lame little missing features. For that reason, BringCast is highly recommended.