The iPhone's default iPod app — which aims to handle virtually every type of compatible audio content on your device — isn't bad, but definitely has its limitations. Apple hasn't done much to innovate in the way you sync your content, play your music, and manage your podcasts and audio books. Fortunately, third parties have filled in the gap. Here's what you need to move on from the iPod app for a better listening experience.
Listening to your music with the iPod app is actually a pretty good experience, but managing and syncing your music library could be a bit better. This choice comes down to personal preference in a lot of ways, as you may want to stream and wirelessly sync your music more than you want to change how you play and manage your libraries. For that reason, we're going to suggest a couple of options so you can decide what makes the most sense for your needs.
For iTunes Sync'ers: Panamp
We've been fans of Panamp for awhile. It's fully capable of replacing your iPhone's music functions because it pulls directly from the library you're already syncing and attempts to offer a better experience. Panamp provides gesture support for easy playback control and excellent on-the-go playlist creation features, so it's extra-flexible. It also has a tree-based display so you don't have to switch screens too often. Panamp is really more effective at managing and playing your music on the go than Apple's offering, so check it out if you're feeling unsatisfied.
Panamp ($2.99) [iTunes App Store]
For Wireless Streamers: Dropbox and Your Computer
Streaming your music often depends on the service you favour, so we're going to offer some of our favourites plus a few ways to roll your own streaming music service with a home computer.
If you want to stream your entire iTunes library, or any folder filled with music for that matter, pick up a copy of StreamToMe. It's also capable of streaming video content as well, which it will convert to a compatible format if necessary. But on the audio side of things, you can stream virtually anything that's sitting on your home computer so long as it's running the free Mac- and Windows-compatible server software. You'll need to know a little bit about port forwarding to make everything accessible but that's not too hard to do. Once you're all set up, you'll have access to nearly every media file you own (so long as it's DRM-free).
StreamToMe ($2.99) [iTunes App Store]
If you keep your music in your Dropbox account, you can play it easily with Songbox. It'll scan any folder you request and let you make playlists (called "Mixtapes") from your music. You can also browse by song or artist. This is very handy if you forget to sync with iTunes (or whatever other service you're using) and also happen to be syncing iTunes with Dropbox (or just have music in your Dropbox).
Songbox ($0.99) [iTunes App Store]
The iPod app's deficiencies, when it comes to spoken word content, are pretty specific. With podcasts, you have to sync or download them manually. With audiobooks, you have to purchase them from iTunes, which comes with a markup. You also miss out on a lot of additional bonus features you get with third-party apps as well. Here's what you'll need to cover your bases.
For Podcasts: Downcast
Downcast was our pick for the best iPhone podcast manager, and when you use it you'll quickly understand why. If you're sick of manually updating podcasts on your iPhone and want an app that syncs all by itself, Downcast will provide. You just add the podcasts you want and it will download new episodes — even in the background — when it finds them. You can set rules for what gets downloaded on 3G and what doesn't, too. In addition to solving the biggest issue with the iPod app's handling of podcasts, Downcast offers plenty of neat additional features like navigational gesture support, a sleep timer, and retention settings. You can learn my by reading our full review.
Downcast ($1.99) [iTunes App Store]
For Audiobooks: Audible (and Others)
When you're getting audiobooks you're probably buying them through Audible. If that's the case, you'll want Audible's free iPhone app. It'll let you download books from your library from your phone (so you don't have to sync) and sync your listening location across devices automatically. You can even navigate and add bookmarks with simple multitouch gestures.
Audible (Free) [iTunes App Store]
In the event you don't get your audiobooks from Audible, you have a couple of other options. Bookmark ($2.99) is a great way to listen. You can add bookmarks with notes to any point in an audiobook (or podcast), and it'll work with the content already on your device. This means you'll still have to sync with iTunes, but at least you'll get additional features.
Audiobooks (Free) will provide you with free access to a few thousand free audiobooks. They also offer premium content at a price as well.
While all these apps offer a lot more than Apple's iPod app, it's definitely worth pointing out that the iPod app does a pretty good job considering it handles all kinds of audio content by itself. Basically, it can manage the work of three apps. While it could be better at doing this (hence the purpose of this post) we don't want to pretend it's a piece of crap. Still, there's plenty more you can gain by going with these third-party options. Enjoy listening better!