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Eye on Demand | November 17, 2017

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Crackle Review

Crackle Review

Review Overview

Quality of Video Stream
6
User Interface
6
Content on Offer
6
Device Availability
9
Airplay and iOS
7
6.8

Very Good

If you have ever browsed through Samsung’s Smart TV app store, you would no doubt have skipped over a vast pile of sometimes questionable services to find that streaming app you were after and in the process possibly skipped over this little known gem. Crackle sits tucked away between other unfamiliar apps yet it offers hundreds of major films and TV shows all legally available and for free. Surely there must be a catch?

One such catch could be that without a smart DNS or VPN service, Crackle is only available in four countries: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. With that small barrier aside, how does Crackle compare to pay-wall services like Netflix, Lovefilm or Hulu+ and is it really entirely available for free?

Unfortunately, little in life is truly for free. In the context of Crackle, you pay by video quality and advertising. Crackle is much like traditional commercial television but for on-demand, in that content is peppered with commercial breaks. How many ad-breaks depend on the show and its length, but potentially you could expect interruptions between every 10 to 15minutes. This may be comparable to commercial television in some countries, but considered shocking levels in others. In any event, not all ad-breaks will be filled or are terribly long.

Content is sourced mainly from the Sony Pictures library of films and television shows, which does of course limit the range. That said, films do include some surprising major releases, though mostly dating back a few years at least. Television shows can include very recent material including their own exclusive productions, but in most cases consist of odd sporadic episodes from a wide variety of series, but rarely encompassing entire seasons.

There is no need to sign up to enjoy Crackle, but doing so can unlock R-rated movies without the need to approve each time and manage Watchlists to assist with your viewing. The Watchlist feature is cross-device compatible, meaning shows added to your Watchlist on your smart TV may appear on your other devices as well, presuming you log in. Though in our experience it hasn’t always been terribly reliable. It is worth keeping in mind that Crackle seems to consider anything not directly aimed at children to fit into the R-rated category.

Video quality for many will be considered the major issue and viewers hoping for high definition content will be sorely disappointed. Crackle currently only offers two levels of streaming quality, 360p and 480p, essentially standard definition or below. Numbers alone however do not adequately describe how good a video can look and Crackle’s 480p stream, on even a reasonably sized 40” screen is acceptable for most, without compression too high to result in annoying pixelated action.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day Crackle is still a free service, and this is its major attraction. Here is a way to watch a large number of on-demand content, immediately available at your own convenience, with only the cost of your electricity and Internet to account for. If the resolution is not high enough for you, they do offer direct links to buy or rent from Amazon or iTunes – naturally at a fee.

  • Crackle on the Web:

    As is so often the case with on-demand sites, the least enjoyable way to watch Crackle is the easiest, via the web.

    Point your browser to www.crackle.com and within moments you can be watching a television show or film in either a tiny window, a pop-out scalable window or enlarged to full-screen for a much more enjoyable experience. Scaling 480p to a full-screen 27” monitor will be pushing the limits of that resolution however, as monitors generally don’t upscale as well as televisions.

    Most content allows you to select between 360p and 480p, though I would imagine on anything but the slowest of connections, the latter would be the standard for most. 480p after-all is not the most taxing of resolutions.

    Searching options include a direct search box, browsing by genre, category, A-Z or year released. There are quite a few options even if the library is not yet too large to get lost in. Once you drill down to a genre or category, you will soon however begin to see the libraries limitations as Crackle clearly has far less to offer than some pay-wall services.

    Platform Pros:

    • Easy to navigate website.
    • Easy to search.

    Platform Cons:

    • Poor sofa-friendly UI.

    (Accessing Crackle outside of its designated regions, may require a Smart DNS or VPN service)
    iMac crackle

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    [pro_ad_display_adzone id=”19173″]

  • Crackle on iOS:

    Quite possibly one of the best user interfaces for Crackle is via iOS.

    The iPhone app itself is a pleasant and easy way to navigate through Crackle’s library and select content to watch. On such a small screen, it would be easily possible for this app to become cluttered, especially as it is a commercial enterprise financed through advertising. But this is not the case with the iPhone app, though small pop-up ads do appear from time to time at the bottom of the screen whilst browsing.

    Video quality on such a small screen is, as you can imagine, excellent through both Wi-Fi and 3G. Yes, unlike many on-demand services, streaming through 3G is possible meaning even sitting on a train during your commute is no barrier between you and your television. Having said that, fluctuations in streaming quality will no doubt occur as you pass in and out of service areas. Do however, keep in mind your data cap and potential cost over-runs when streaming through 3G, especially when traveling abroad.

    A handy resume button sits happily at the top of the screen, offering immediate access to the last unfinished show, perfect for continuing where you left off as you hopped between trains.

    The iPad version is no less slick and a pleasure to use. Uncluttered like its iPhone cousin and covering most of the same features minus the Resume button. As would be expected, the larger 9.7” screen makes for a more enjoyable experience, though due to the 4:3 aspect ratio, you will see the usual black bars at the top and bottom of the screen with wide-screen content.

    One great feature of both apps is the built in support for Airplay. If you have an Apple TV, you can seamlessly stream your content, from your iOS device to your television and with a 16:9 aspect TV, in full widescreen glory.

    Video quality is quite acceptable for a free service, even on a good 40” screen. Control is of course via your remote or direct from the iOS screen and there are few easier ways to search than through a tablet whilst relaxing on your sofa.

    If there was anything missing from the iOS app, it would be multitasking during Airplay streaming. Your iOS device is effectively locked into this app and this is by Crackle’s choice, not by Airplay design.

    Platform Pros:

    • Excellent video quality on the smaller screen.
    • AirPlay supported to watch content on your main television.
    • Easy to slide quickly through a film or TV show.
    • Subtitles can be switched on & off.

    Platform Con:

    • No Multitasking during AirPlay.
    • No offline downloads.

    (Accessing Crackle outside of its designated regions, may require a Smart DNS or VPN service)

     

    iPad Crackle

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    [pro_ad_display_adzone id=”18165″]

  • Crackle via smart TV:

    Crackle is available directly on selected model Sony, Samsung and LG smart TVs and Blu-Ray players. On Samsung Smart TVs, the app can be downloaded from the app store if you are within one of the four regions.

    Overall, the app functions as it should. Though on the Samsung TV, it is neither quite as responsive as you would find on an iOS device, nor as intuitive. Whilst on-demand apps work wonderfully through smart televisions, after-all, using a remote to navigate up and down through menus is perfectly suited for sofa activities, as soon as you need to type words into a field, whether to sign in or search for a desired show, things become a little painful.

    All that said, there is a certain amount of pleasure in watching television with nothing more than the television itself. Sometimes the very lack of additional hardware devices and set-top boxes is a refreshing change these days and if you can avoid searching, and log in only once, the restriction of a remote is less likely to manifest itself.

    Platform Pros:

    • Great sofa-friendly UI without the need of an additional set-top box.
    • Modern and clear design.

    Platform Cons:

    • Can be sluggish at times (depending on Samsung TV model).

    (Accessing Crackle outside of its designated regions, may require a Smart DNS or VPN service)
    Crackle Samsung TV

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    [pro_ad_display_adzone id=”18174″]

  • Crackle on Roku:

    If you have already used Roku’s Netflix or Hulu Channels, you could be excused for assuming Crackle’s equivalent is as fast, responsive and intuitive. You would surprisingly enough, be a little wrong.

    There is nothing seriously amiss with the Crackle Channel on Roku, except that the platform itself has high expectations and Crackle don’t quite reach them. If anything, it resembles a cut-down Netflix Channel, sporting a similar layout and design, but just a tad rough around the edges.

    The incredibly responsive FFW, REW and scrubbing seen within the Netflix Channel is replaced by a functional, but clunkier method which works, although without the sense of satisfaction that you may have become used to when using the other app. It doesn’t help Crackle either that starting videos can be quite a slow process, which is odd considering that we are not exactly talking HD here. Just don’t expect the video start-up speeds seen within the US based Hulu Plus channel.

    Platform Pros:

    • Solid, easy to use, sofa-friendly UI.

    Platform Cons:

    • Lacking the speed and responsiveness that we should expect from a Roku Channel.

    (Accessing Crackle outside of its designated regions, may require a Smart DNS or VPN service)
    Crackle Roku

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    [pro_ad_display_adzone id=”18165″]

     

  • Best Choice StampCrackle on the Xbox One:

    Crackle’s Xbox One’s platform sports one of the services most pleasant UIs. It’s both a combination of clarity and simplicity that works together in an uncluttered environment – not to bad for an entirely free service.

    There are five main tabs to choose from, all of which can be expanded by the usual Xbox … (More) option along with the Xbox One’s typical horizontal scrolling, Featured, Movies, Shows, Watchlists and History.

    While the Featured section is rather limited, the Movies and Shows tabs can filter down by Genre, Most Popular or Recently Added, along with a sorting order of Most Recent or A-Z, which certainly comes in handy.

    Of course, one of the great features of Xbox One apps, is the ability to pin your favourite shows directly to the hub where they can sit alongside other apps or pins from different services. It’s a little hard to explain, but effectively an icon of a series from Crackle, can sit on the Xbox Home screen next to other apps like Netflix, 4oD etc and selecting this will not only fire up Crackle, but take you directly to the show.

    Then there is the Watchlist, which serves two purposes, one to keep track of shows you want to watch or return to later (good), or if you select the … (More) button, an annoying selection of recommended content that Crackle thinks you should keep track of (bad). I find this secondary usage a little pointless as the standard Featured list perfectly suffices for this purpose.

    At the end of the day, it all comes down to video quality, and here is where Crackle on the Xbox One doesn’t exactly shine. Crackle on this platform is limited to a pleasant, but average standard definition quality, which to be honest is ok considering this is a free service. My own tests were far from flattering, with an average bitrate of around 540kbps*. That said, this is a Sony service here, and these folks know a thing or two about compression. So despite the low bitrate, the video quality looks significantly better than equivalent streams seen from Australia’s ABC iView or the UK’s ITV Player.

    Of course, one really cool thing about Crackle on the Xbox One is that there are no less than five different ways to control your browsing and viewing pleasure.

    Voice: In a scene leaning almost towards Star Trek, you can fire up Crackle directly from the Xbox One’s Home screen simply by using your voice. In fact, if you pin your favourite shows to the Xbox Home screen, you can begin playback of an episode with only a couple of basic command, starting with for example, “Xbox go to Seinfeld”. It is possible to pause, continue, stop, and browse television shows purely by voice, and it even works with fast forward and rewinding, but good luck for keyword searches. Voice control though can be finicky. When it works, it does so with grace and style and really makes it seem like the future is here to stay. But it is almost guaranteed to fail as soon as you try to demonstrate it to someone else, especially those critical of tech.

    Motion Control: Back in mid-2013 I saw an incredible video demonstrating the Xbox One’s motion control features. Sadly in real life it just doesn’t really work. Most will give up after a couple of weeks, but if things do improve, let us know as I have pretty much filed this away as a failure.

    Xbox Controller: In most cases, the Xbox One controller will be the obvious choice. The only real downsides here are the awkward shape requiring a two-handed operation, and the annoyance that it will go into hibernation after a while – still, if you urgently need to pause, you can always yell it out. Otherwise the controller is a pleasant way to navigate and control Netflix, and at least for navigating, one of the best.

    Controller

    SmartGlass: I had been rather excited to see how the Xbox One would improve on their SmartGlass after all the hype Microsoft dished out. The reality is quite disappointing. There are no true second-screen activities here, with the only use being a thoughtlessly designed remote. In fact, SmartGlass is so poorly implemented, the one place where it would work better than anywhere else – the search function – doesn’t even bring up a proper keyboard.

    Programmable remote: As a last resort, you can always turn to a programmable remote such as the Logitech Harmony, and return back to the retro pleasures of horizontal one-hand sofa laziness. Once set up, it will work just as a good remote should, but be prepared for a lot of hair-loss during configurations, especially if you are competing with voice control to also switch on your Xbox and TV.

    Platform Pros:

    • Genres and other filters.
    • Resume feature to continue playing content where left off.
    • Watchlist feature to keep track of interesting content.
    • Cross-platform support.
    • Search feature with filter.
    • Fast and responsive UI.
    • Can pin most shows to the home screen for quick start.
    • Can control entirely by voice as well as a wide selection of other controlling methods.

    Platform Cons:

    • Not all shows can pin to home screen.
    • No HD streams.
    • No keyboard for search on SmartGlass.
    • No dedicated SmartGlass features.
    • Hand gestures do not work terribly well.
    • Controller requires two hand operation.

    (Accessing Crackle outside of its designated regions, may require a Smart DNS or VPN service)

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    [pro_ad_display_adzone id=”16940″]

  • Conclusion:

    Crackle is a pleasant surprise amongst a growing list of streaming services. Granted, many of us expect nothing less than 1080p HD video these days and we would not be surprised to hear people complain that 4K ultra high definition is not yet the norm. Likewise, there will be people put off by commercial interruptions during a film. But lets be honest here, a good deal of us grew up on that with standard television broadcasts and a lot of people still watch television this way.

    Crackle have managed to provide quite a good, free package that has a surprisingly good level of hardware support.

    If this were accessed through a pay-wall, we would not be anywhere near as accepting with the lack of HD – that is without saying, the norm these days.

    But we find it hard to criticize these flaws in a free service. For those on a budget, or in wishing to fill gaps in content availability on a subscription service, Crackle is a welcome addition to the on-demand market.

    Pros:

    • Free.
    • Good, stable user interface without clutter.
    • Acceptable quality SD video considering it is a free service.
    • Some nice titles in the library.
    • Resume feature for continuing shows already started.
    • Direct Airplay support from iOS app.
    • Stream through 3G on iPhone app.
    • Large range of platform support.

    Cons:

    • Lack of HD streams.
    • Airplay does not support full multitasking.
    • Limited library.
    • Includes advertising (although this is how Crackle is funded).

    Technical Details:

    • Video Quality: Sub standard definition at 360p or standard definition at 480p.
    • Available on selected Sony, Samsung & LG TV’s within the correct region. Regions can be changed on certain Samsung models.
    • Also available on PC/Mac, PS3&4, Xbox 360 or Xbox One, Boxee, Google TV, Logitech Revue, iOS, Roku & Apple TV: Current list can be found here.

    Log:

    11.02.2013: Review published. Score: 6.2: Very Good.

    29.05.2013: Updated with new content including Roku platform review.

    02.01.2013: Updated with new Xbox One review. Score updated to 6.8.

     

     

    * Bitrate tests were based on multiple averages and are subject to both the geographical location and ISP bandwidth at the time.

     

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