When Quibi debuted at CES this year, the mobile-first streaming service for so-called “quick bites” touted its signature Turnstyle technology as the future of streaming – a feature made for people in motion who can pull out their pocket computers at virtually any time and stream high-quality video no matter the orientation of their device. It’s a fun if not an extraordinarily gimmicky concept. To the extent that the service has promised a quality mobile streaming experience with stellar content and star power, the service has definitely delivered. But Quibi’s stubborn insistence on limiting video to mobile makes it feel like a lot of that production value and storytelling are being wasted on teeny screens. I want to love Quibi, I just wish I had more ways to watch.
The streaming service focuses on creating short, 10-minute-or-less episodes of content that users can watch during their “in-between moments,” or that time you’re waiting in line, commuting to work, or just taking a break from something else. The service’s concept was hatched by Dreamworks alum Jeffrey Katzenberg and raised an absolutely jaw-dropping $2 billion in funding prior to its launch. Admittedly, Quibi at first sounded a little like the Juicero of streaming. What was the point of this service if you could, technically, watch anything you’d like on your phone at any time for any length of time? Why cut high-production-value content down to bite-sized pieces? And who the hell was this even for? Having spent several days with the service, I can safely say that the service’s content is very good and its format somewhat appealing. But I’m still not convinced that Quibi is for everyone.
Quibi has two primary tiers: an ad-supported model for $5 per month and an ad-free model for $8 per month (UK pricing TBA). Quibi’s defining characteristic is a technology it calls “Turnstyle” that allows users to seamlessly view shows full-screen in both landscape and portrait simply by turning their phone to the orientation they prefer. One of the benefits of Quibi is that each series is shot specifically for both views, meaning that watching either way will serve you a great viewing experience. It also means shots won’t be cropped incorrectly or be shrunk down to teeny, tiny matchbox-sized frames when the video is in portrait.
This is a feature that’s perfect for streaming on the phone – but not much else. Turnstyle might not be something that folks take advantage of as much at home, where they’re likely to be holding their phone in one orientation or have it propped up against something. (I tried switching the vertical and horizontal orientation regularly while I was using Quibi at home, and trust me when I say it gets old fast.) Turnstyle’s portrait format often crops frames to zoom in on specific details, like a close-up of a speaking character’s face. It does come at the expense of some details, like posters on a wall or subtle visual cues from reactions of characters in the background. This won’t be a huge deal for some viewers, but it was for me.
Turnstyle isn’t the only neat thing about Quibi, though. For one, it’s managed to secure an astonishing roster of talent – everyone from Liam Hemsworth and Chance the Rapper to Steven Spielberg. But Quibi also plans to use virtually every tool it can access – including a phone’s clock, gyroscope, touchscreen, and even GPS – for interactive storytelling that tailors specifically to what you’re doing and how you watch video throughout the day. Quibi’s dating series The Hot Drop, for example, will incorporate viewer interaction. And a forthcoming series from Steven Spielberg will only be viewable at night depending on where you are – a kind of parlor trick meant to intensify how “scary” the series feels. Maybe it’ll work! But it’s worth noting that this has definitely been done already, including by Tinder’s horny foray into streaming.
Content-wise, some series are more compelling and better-suited to the shorter format. Survive, for example, a drama starring Sophie Turner and Corey Hawkins about a woman struggling with trauma – and one of Quibi’s “movies in chapters” – uses the format pretty successfully to intensify suspense throughout each 10-minute episode. Because of this – and thanks in no small part to the compelling performances by its stars – the series is extremely binge-able. After watching the first three episodes of the series, Survive was one of the service’s strongest content offerings. (This show will not be for everyone, however, and the series comes with trigger warnings about its portrayal of mental health crises.)
Ten minutes is also the perfect episode length for a show like Punk’d, hosted by Chance the Rapper. When the Streetlights Go On – a ’90s-nostalgic teen murder mystery starring Chosen Jacobs and Queen Latifah and another of the service’s chaptered “movies” – is also easily binge-able, if not at times strange and prone to bizarre plot devices that seem more intended to shock than to develop the story in any meaningful way. Another of Quibi’s tentpole productions, Flipped – starring Will Forte and Kate Olson as Jann and Cricket – manages to squeeze an extraordinary amount of story into 6- to 8-minute episodes. (That doesn’t come as any shock, though, given that the series is a Funny or Die joint. The production company has been creating shortie comedy content for over a decade, for god’s sake.)
Other series seemed to struggle with the shortened format. Quibi’s home improvement series Murder House Flip – which is exactly what it sounds like, a series where murder homes are improved and given a, uh, second life so to speak – and a series for which I personally had the highest hopes, often felt rushed despite dedicating three individual “episodes” to a single renovation. The series just tries to do too damn much to do any one thing well, something I suspect will be a problem for overly ambitious shows or movies that come to Quibi and can’t balance shorter formats with compelling, high-production-value storytelling.
But there are roughly 50 original titles coming to the service at launch and 175 by the end of the year – in other words, a veritable truckload of service-specific programming. A three-month trial available through April and free access for a year for T-Mobile customers mean that plenty of consumers will have the opportunity to see what the service has to offer before they’re required to pay Quibi a monthly subscription fee. This is the same route taken by recently launched streaming services like Disney+ and Apple TV+, and it’s a clever way to lure in paying subscribers who may either forget to cancel their accounts or simply shrug off the monthly charge and continue paying for a service they might not have signed up for if it hadn’t been temporarily free.
Discovery of any of those 50 shows – and later much, much more – is a little wonky, though, and I found myself constantly having to search for a show I already knew about but wasn’t populating automatically. On the service’s home screen, which Quibi calls Today For You, shows are displayed like individual cards you have to flip through to find something to watch. Quibi told Gizmodo it thinks this is the “quickest and most reliable way to find something fun to watch for your in-between moments.” It’s a little disorienting at first compared to the feeds of, say, Netflix or Prime Video, where you can see multiple titles at once. But Quibi says its algorithm will track what you scroll past, ignore, and close early on in the video to serve you. The company added it also uses machine learning to predict what viewers want to see down to the time of day in order to be “specific to your life and your habits” – and they will have to be your habits if you want the algorithm to work. Unlike most other popular streaming services, Quibi limits the user profiles to one per account, meaning that each individual user has to have their own Quibi subscription. The service does support unlimited downloads, however.
And that brings us to Quibi’s biggest obstacle right now. At a time when people are spending more time at home, it may be hard for some viewers to justify streaming a nearly mobile-exclusive service if – again – they already have access to much larger screens in their homes. Quibi’s founders told Gizmodo at CES in January that the service is meant to be viewed between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., like on a daily commute or while waiting for a lunch order (except, of course, for the forthcoming Spielberg series). In theory, Quibi is then perfect for those in-between work breaks of five or ten minutes throughout the day for people currently working from home. But again, it’s hard to imagine that people will want to watch on mobile if they have a larger, arguably better streaming experience on a larger screen available to them. Quibi’s best feature – that it’s perfectly suited to life on the go – means that it may have difficulty arguing for its own use case right now.
That said, plenty of viewers do stream on their phones – particularly teens – and Quibi in many respects feels like a streaming service for the Snapchat generation. Many of the service’s shows (e.g. Punk’d, When the Streetlights Go On, and the Reese Witherspoon-hosted nature documentary Fierce Queens) feel like they’re specifically for this demographic. Social features on the service as much as confirm this suspicion. Each series landing page – including those for hard news and other nonfiction “daily essentials,” as Quibi calls them – has a “Cast and Crew” section at the bottom of the page that links to the associated social media and IMDb accounts for the actor or anchor.
Ultimately, the thing that frustrated me the most about Quibi is also the whole point of the service. As an intended mobile-first product, you won’t be able to cast the app. You also won’t be able to access it from your laptop, PC, or smart TV (it works on your iPad, but its a version of the iPhone app and not actually iPad native yet).
When asked whether the service has plans to introduce an app for other tablets, the spokesperson said Quibi will “be listening to our users after launch about how and where they’d like to consume the Quibi shows.” I personally would have loved the ability to throw some of the series up on my Apple TV to watch them on a much, much larger screen at home, but for now, Quibi seems determined to enforce the mobile experience. This feels like a huge oversight on the company’s part for winning over older viewers. But then again, the olds aren’t its target demo anyway.
- Quibi is a mobile-first streaming service for “quick bite” content meant to be viewed for those little breaks throughout the day.
- The content is quality, but some series feel more rushed and ill-suited to the shorter format than others.
- Each individual user will have to buy their own account.
- The service allows unlimited viewing for offline viewing.
- Much of the service’s content and some of its features feel like it’s catering mostly to teens.
- You can’t cast video or stream it on any device other than mobile or iPad, meaning this isn’t a service for people who like to stream on the biggest screen possible.