Quibi's short video service for phones is better than I thought it'd be — except for the ads

Key Points
  • Quibi launched on Monday for iPhone and Android.
  • It's a new streaming service that was designed for phones and for short episodes of TV shows.
  • It's better than I thought but there are a lot of ads on the entry-level tier.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Quibi, a mobile video service created by tech and media veterans Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg, launched on iPhone and Android on Monday.

The service is launching with big expectations: Quibi raised more than $1 billion in financing from traditional media powerhouses including Disney, Fox, NBCUniversal and Alibaba, among others.

The subscription video market is incredibly crowded, full of big names like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Apple TV+, Google's YouTube Premium, and soon, AT&T's HBO Max and NBCUniversal's Peacock.

Quibi is meant to stand out by offering short, scripted shows that people can watch on their phones while standing in line, or during a quick bus ride. To help with this, Quibi has a unique feature that lets you watch shows holding the phone straight up or sideways  -- it swaps on the fly. It's also used its funding and Hollywood connections to land some stars including Lebron James, Chance the Rapper, Reese Witherspoon and Chrissy Teigen, alongside shows from major news networks like NBC and BBC.

But the coronavirus outbreak and quarantines throws a wrench into the entire operation. The idea of watching short clips on phones may have been appealing for people who had few minutes to spare while running around. But now, with nowhere to go, we're binge-watching hours and hours of TV and movies.

"Yes, Quibi was designed for when you get up every day, you leave your home, you take your telephone with you which is now a television, and this for the in-between times, when you're commuting to work, when you're waiting at school to pick up your kids, when you're on line at Starbucks," Quibi founder and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg explained to CNBC on Friday.

"Today, you actually have even more in between times — they're just different."

That means Quibi now has to compete directly with services that offer long-form video in places we're more likely to be looking: our big screen TVs.

To lure people in, an ad-supported version of Quibi is free for 90 days for anyone (or for a year for T-Mobile subscribers). After that, it costs $4.99 per month, or $7.99 without ads.

I gave it a spin today. Here's what I learned:

How the Quibi app is organized

Quibi's home screen is called "Today for you."
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The main screen of Quibi is called "Today for you."

It displays the latest daily content it thinks you might be interested in. Mine shows a news recap called "The Report" from NBC News, the first 8-minute episode of a new drama called "Survive," the first episode of "Punk'd," and several other titles. I like that I can just scroll through everything with a swipe up across the screen.

Here's a weird oversight, though: While the app is designed to let you view in landscape or portrait mode (sideways or upright), you can only browse content in upright mode.

There are three other sections of the app that you can access at the bottom of the screen, including Browse, Following and Downloads. 

The Browse screen on Quibi.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Browse tab shows you new releases, a collection of news briefings, trending shows and episodes you've started but haven't finished, so you can continue watching. On the bottom of the screen, there are different recommended sections to explore like "Laugh out Loud" which links to comedic content, "adrenaline rush" for discovering action and drama shows, and an area that shows trailers for shows that are coming soon.

I like the search box at the top, which lets me search by genre. So, I searched for comedy and found 11 results. More on what I found in a bit.

The Following tab on Quibi.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The Following tab presents the shows you've tagged, so you'll see all of the available episodes of the shows you're most interested in. I see the latest episodes of "The Report" by NBC News and "Memory Hole" and Around "The World" by BBC News, for example. 

There are little bell icons next to each listing. If I click one, I'll get a notification on my phone when new episodes are launched, so I'll be able to watch them right away. Also, if I click the small menu button at the bottom of any show, I can mark it to download so that I can watch it when I don't have a connection.

Quibi's Downloads screen.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

That brings us to the final tab: downloads. Here's where you'll see all of the clips you've downloaded to view when you don't have a connection. That's not really a problem most of us have right now, since we're home with TVs and internet connections. But, eventually, it'll be useful for watching content when you're somewhere you don't have a connection, like on a subway or an airplane. 

But here's what stinks: You have to watch an ad to download an episode. Each ad is only about 10 seconds long -- I got one for Taco Bell and another for T-Mobile --  but that's just bizarre. I've never had to watch ads before downloading things on other platforms, like YouTube. Instead, I'm used to pre-roll ads that start before the video begins. It feels like a desperation move, like Quibi is trying to stuff ads anywhere it can.

The experience

Chrissy Teigen has a show called "Chrissy's Court."
Todd Haselton | CNBC

The app is really well done. It's easy to navigate around and fast. That's important, because you want to be able to find and watch content without getting bogged down by content overload. If anything, Quibi could stand to highlight even more of its shows, particularly on the home screen -- if you don't know how the app works, you might be fooled into thinking those are the only shows available. You have to click "Browse" to get a full menu.

I'm a big fan of Will Arnett, so I checked out his show "Memory Hole" after searching for "comedy" in the Browse tab. There are currently three 5-minute episodes of that show available, with new ones coming each week.

First, I had to watch a 30-second ad, which is annoying but part of the free 90-day plan.

Ads on Quibi
Todd Haselton | CNBC

"Memory Hole" is basically a pop-culture history show and the first episode recaps the popularity of hip-hop music's strange appearances in sports, from the NFL to hockey stars singing karaoke, over the years. It has some funny twists, like a "Game of Thrones" character reading rap lyrics. The video is clear and it didn't spend a long time buffering or anything like that.

The portrait/landscape swap feature was smooth and kind of interesting -- the show takes up the entire screen no matter which way you're holding your phone. Yes, you can flip your phone horizontally or vertically for just about any other video service out there, but the big difference with Quibi is that there's no blank space or comments (like you see on YouTube, for instance). It's all video.

So I could watch the show like this:

You can watch Quibi in landscape (here) or portrait mode.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Or like this:

You can watch Quibi in portrait mode (here) or landscape mode.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

But then the show just ends after about 5 minutes. It kind of feels like something I'd expect on YouTube for free. 

Another show I liked was called "Flipped."

It features Kaitlin Olson, one of the stars from "Always Sunny in Philadelphia," and Will Forte ("Saturday Night Live," "The Last Man on Earth"). The first episode is about two characters -- Olson's is named "Cricket" -- who work in a home improvement store.

There are some great actors and actresses.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

According to the series overview, they're eventually kidnapped by drug dealers and forced to renovate homes, which seems hilarious. "Flipped" feels more like a traditional comedy show you'd find on TV instead of YouTube, and it's pretty good.

But, again, I wish I could just sit and watch a full 30 or 60 minutes of this show, instead of just 10 minutes at a time. 

Some thoughts

BBC's "Around the World" on Quibi.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I'm still digging into Quibi and have only used it for a little bit.

I'll admit that at first glance it's way better than I thought it would be.

I kind of thought it would be filled with junk nobody would want to watch, but it has some actors and actresses you'll recognize from popular TV shows and movies, and I really enjoyed the first couple episodes of "Flipped," so I'll keep tuning in to that. I also like the quick hits of news, though admittedly I also watch TV news almost every waking hour of the day.

But, the shows feel too short. It basically feels like they took a show, split it into five parts, and posted on YouTube.

I know that's the entire point of Quibi, so maybe it'll make more sense when I'm back to randomly riding in the back of an Uber or on a subway and want to catch up on some quick TV. In those instances, I don't normally watch Netflix or Amazon Prime because I prefer to watch when I have enough time to finish a whole show. Quibi might more sense to me when I don't have a lot of time.

Then there are the ads. They're similar to what you'd expect on a free YouTube video, appearing before the show starts -- except that Quibi will cost $4.99 a month with these ads. Hulu has a similar ad-supported version that costs even more -- $5.99 a month -- but there, the ads feel like traditional TV, spaced in throughout longer shows. Quibi's shows are so short, the ads feel gratuitous -- especially the ad before you can download a program to watch offline.

In addition, $7.99 seems steep for the ad-free version, considering Netflix costs $8.99, so I recommend picking Netflix right now if you have to pick between the two.

Overall, I'm not sure there's enough here right now to recommend paying after the 90-day free trial. Maybe that'll change in the coming months, and it could be one reason it's free right now. Quibi can get a few customers hooked on the free trial, boost its library and then keep some of them around for the long haul.

Disclosure: CNBC's parent company, NBCUniversal, is an investor in Quibi and also owns NBC News.

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