Apple Watch has always been able to play music on its own — first by syncing with iPhone, then by standalone streaming — but podcast playback has been much harder to achieve. A few apps have helped reduce the friction, but official Apple Podcast support has been at the top of my wish list.
Starting with watchOS 5, currently in developer beta and likely released in September, Apple Watch Series 1 and higher will finally have its own Podcasts app. For podcast listeners, this update will make cellular connectivity even more compelling and make leaving your iPhone behind a bit easier.
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If you use the Podcasts app on iPhone, the Podcasts app on Apple Watch will automatically appear and sync. Shows that you subscribe to on iPhone just show up on Apple Watch when new episodes are made available. No need to manage a separate set of subscriptions. Optionally, you can manually select which shows appear on Apple Watch, but it’s not required or default.
The layout of the Podcasts app is similar to the Music app layout. Cover art for updated episodes scrolls vertically. Just tap an episode to start playback. If you want to browse further, you can scroll to the top (tap the time as a shortcut) and find Library. This lets you browse alphabetically by subscribed show, tap a show to specific episodes, or tap Episodes at the top to see all available unplayed episodes.
Alternatively, you can remotely control podcast playback on the iPhone from the Apple Watch. Just tap ‘On iPhone’ from the main view on Apple Watch, then select from Listen Now, Shows, Episodes, or Stations. That’s a handy new convenience, but the real fun is in playing podcasts directly from Apple Watch without the iPhone.
Episodes download for offline playback when available, and brand new episodes show up with a cloud icon and can be streamed over Wi-Fi or LTE. Like music playback, you need Bluetooth audio (like AirPods) to hear your entertainment.
Siri works with Podcasts on Apple Watch too. Use Siri to start playing an episode from your subscriptions, request a show in the Apple Podcast Directory without being subscribed, or subscribe to a currently playing podcast not in your library.
With the new Podcasts app on watchOS 5, the Apple Watch finally becomes a standalone podcast player — just like iPods of the old days, only with Siri, iPhone sync, and LTE in the mix.
You could already stream music and select talk radio stations with Apple Music and Radio, and Apple Podcasts on Apple Watch adds a whole new genre of audio entertainment — all without your iPhone.
For me, podcast playback from Apple Watch is especially useful during workouts. While I still prefer to run to music for a faster pace, I really enjoy listening to podcast episodes during outdoor walks and cycling for a change of pace.
I also enjoy casually listening to podcasts from my Apple Watch with my AirPods when I’m doing work around the house and yard. No need to worry about Bluetooth range and distraction from the iPhone is minimized.
Any opportunity to take a break from my iPhone and improve my focus is a great feeling.
Playing podcasts from the Apple Watch to AirPods or other Bluetooth audio is a really good experience today with watchOS 5, but there’s always room for improvement. In the future, I’d love to see a few enhancements.
Notifications for new podcast episodes appear on Apple Watch from the iPhone, but these aren’t actionable so you can’t start playing on Apple Watch from the alert. Instead the alerts just launch the watch podcast app, then you need to find the episode on your own.
I’d also like to see an option for a denser layout when you first launch the podcast app. It mirrors the design of the Music app which works well with album art, but for podcasts I prefer the more dense list view like in the Episodes section (or even the Listen Now section when viewing the iPhone library from Apple Watch). With the top level based around an artwork carousel, it can take a lot of scrolling or tapping to find what you want.
I’m not a big ‘Stations’ user, but I do like the concept of podcast playlists. While you can see Stations from the iPhone on Apple Watch, I don’t believe these are listed on the local watch library yet.
Finally, expect battery life to take a bit of a hit when streaming podcasts for extended periods of time. I’ve tested listening to several hours of episodes from the Apple Watch with AirPods. The watch will outlast the AirPods, but you might need to charge before the end of the day. For lengthy podcast playback sessions, the iPhone may be ideal.
In the future, I think playing podcasts from the built-in speaker on the Apple Watch could be ideal. This wouldn’t be appropriate in all settings, but I can imagine a few scenarios where the option would work. The built-in speaker may need a sound boost before that’s practical though.
watchOS 5 is a big update to Apple Watch for lots of reasons, and the new Podcasts app is at the top of that list for me. Using the Apple Watch with AirPods and cellular to take Apple Music and Podcasts anywhere with me makes it my dream workout watch — nothing comes close.