The ad hoc distribution of Podcaster weighs in at 724 KB in a downloadable zip file that expands to a 1.9 MB application file and 16 KB mobile provisioning file. To install the application, the mobile provisioning file is dragged to the iTunes Applications page, followed by the application file. One quick sync and the app is installed on your iPhone.
Once Podcaster is happily residing on your iPhone, it's time to add podcast URLs to the application. To do this, one tap on the traditional iPhone "+" (add) button brings up a search and import page. To search for a podcast, just enter the name in the search field, and if Podcaster finds the correct listing, you simply tap on its name to import the feed. There are also buttons at the bottom of the search and import page to show you listings of Featured, New, Top Rated, or Popular podcasts from Podcaster.fm.
When you've have established the feeds for your favorite podcasts, they appear on the My Podcasts screen with an icon and the date of the most recent podcast episode. A tap on the podcast entry displays a list of all of the episodes in the feed file. To stream a podcast episode to your iPhone, simply tap on it, then tap the play button to listen. Podcaster does a remarkably good job of streaming podcasts over an EDGE connection, which is great if you have a first-generation iPhone or (like the author of this post) have really crappy 3G service. WiFi connectivity works as well, of course.
If you'd like to download a podcast for future playback, there's a small download icon in the lower right corner of the screen that you can tap. While the podcast is being downloaded, a small floppy disk icon -- a blast from the past -- shows up next to the podcast speaker icon. You can tap on it to see the progress of your download. Where does that downloaded podcast end up? Not in the iPod application, but in Podcaster in a listing under Downloads. To play the saved podcast on your next flight to Australia, just tap on the entry for the podcast on the Downloads page, and a player appears. Once you've listened to the podcast, tap the trash can icon to delete it.
The user interface is functional, although a bit unimaginative. Since this is an application you're supposed to listen to rather than look at, that's not a deal-killer for me.
Your alternatives to Podcaster? Well, you can always sync podcast episodes to your iPhone from iTunes. Hmm ... gotta have a computer to do that. A reader suggested using NetNewsWire for iPhone (click opens App Store), but that means that you need to go to the NewsGator Online site and add the feeds. I couldn't get it to work, but then again, I didn't try that hard.
Is Podcaster worth the US$9.99 donation that Alex is asking for? It depends. If you want the ability to be able to subscribe and listen to podcasts from anywhere with an EDGE, 3G, or WiFi connection without jailbreaking your phone, then this may be the app for you. However, Alex notes that 1) Ad Hoc distributions are only good for one year, and 2) Apple has remote app "kill switch" capabilities, so they could choose to be nasty and remove Podcaster from your iPhone.
Frankly, I can't see why Apple nixed Podcaster from being in the App Store, unless there are some native podcast tools in the works for a future release. Even then, there are many other applications that duplicate the capability of iPhone apps -- think of the calculator applications that compete with Apple's built-in calculator app as an example -- although it's been pointed out that Podcaster cuts a lot closer to the core functionality of the iPhone than a calculator does. Meanwhile, it seems that the controversy over this application hasn't hurt the donation-based distribution: over 1300 copies of Podcaster are already in the wild, stretching the Ad Hoc distribution system way beyond its original boundaries.
To take a look at the user interface of Podcaster, check out the gallery.