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Quibi app review: shifting landscape

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A mobile-only video app was always going to be a hard sell

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

After months of publicity, Quibi — the mobile phone app that’s centered on short, bite-sized original programming — is launching today on iPhone and Android. The platform is the brainchild of entertainment industry giant Jeffrey Katzenberg and seasoned tech executive Meg Whitman, and it has been built from the ground up for smartphones. After investing $1 billion in star power and content production, Quibi is about to find out whether consumers are willing to pay $4.99 (with ads) or $7.99 (ad-free) for shows that last 10 minutes or less.

We’ll have a separate review for Quibi’s launch shows, but I’m focusing more on the app itself. To start, let me reiterate that your phone is the only way to experience Quibi. There’s no TV app, which has already stood out as a clear deal-breaker for some people I’ve talked to — especially right now when everyone is at home for so much of the day. You can’t access the service on the web, and there’s not even a tablet-optimized version of the app. No Chromecast. No AirPlay. It’s for your phone, nothing else.

(Disclosure: Vox Media, which owns The Verge, has a deal with Quibi to produce a Polygon Daily Essential, and there have been early talks about a Verge show.)

At launch, Quibi has delivered an app that is, in a word, fine. It works reliably, even if the user experience comes off as a little basic compared to Netflix and other streaming giants. When you rotate your device, Quibi automatically flips between landscape and portrait presentation modes, and both orientations have been factored into the creative process. You’ll notice different angles or shots when switching between them, and text / credits are also optimized for these back-and-forth changes.

Quibi calls this trick “Turnstyle,” and it’s one of the app’s headline features. Katzenberg has boldly claimed that with Turnstyle, Quibi will usher in the “third generation of film narrative.” After a few days of testing Quibi, I’m not about to call it revelatory, but I do find myself frequently rotating my phone just to see how the frame will change when I do. Some of the creative use cases — like seeing a FaceTime call or a character’s Tinder app on your phone when flipping to portrait — aren’t part of the launch shows, but they’ll come. Quibi has said that some programming will utilize the clock (like Steven Spielberg’s horror series), GPS, and the sensors found in every smartphone.

Opening Quibi starts you off in the “For You” tab, which uses a vertical card interface. It feels more Instagram and less Netflix carousel. You’ll see a show’s title, metadata, and, if you stay on one card for a few seconds, video begins autoplaying. There’s a nice touch of vibration feedback as you swipe through the home screen cards. Tapping on any show will immediately begin playing it. You can instead press and hold on a card (or tap the three-dot icon) for a pop-up menu that lets you see more info / episodes, follow that show, download it, or share it.

The next tab over is Browse, where you can search through Quibi’s programming by show title, genre, or cast. No surprises here. To the right of that is the Following tab, where your favorite shows get their own section so you can easily track the latest episodes. You can also enable notifications to be alerted as soon as there’s something new for any program you’re following.

During playback, you get a minimal assortment of on-screen controls: play / pause, rewind / fast-forward, share, and closed captions. The video player’s controls also switch depending on which way you’re holding your phone. When in portrait mode, the progress bar runs vertically down the right side of the screen, where it’s easy to reach with your thumb. (Don’t worry, lefties: there’s a “Left-Handed Mode” in settings to move this over to the left side.)

In landscape, it’s in the traditional (and horizontal) spot at the bottom. When watching something, you can double-tap on either side of the screen to fast-forward (right) or rewind (left) in 10-second intervals. Quibi also has a shortcut for quickly muting audio and switching over to subtitles in case you don’t want to annoy anyone in earshot. Just press and hold on the display and slide up to activate closed captioning.

The technical details of how Quibi actually works are interesting. Anytime you’re watching a show, the app serves you two video streams simultaneously and “stitches them together” with a single audio track. Whichever one you’re not watching is delivered at a lower resolution. But once you rotate your phone, the Turnstyle switch from portrait to landscape and vice versa is instantaneous. There’s no pause, buffering, or any noticeable video quality degradation.

In my testing, Turnstyle has worked well even with a weak cellular connection or slow Wi-Fi. But the company does acknowledge that this dual-stream approach uses more data (around 20 percent) than your typical YouTube or Netflix video stream.

Quibi offers a few options for bandwidth management. In the “video quality and downloads” section of settings, you can set streaming quality to auto (the default) or data saver mode. For download quality, you pick between standard or high; the app maxes out at 1080p. One layer above these on the main settings screen is a separate toggle for “minimize data use,” which reduces both video and download quality to their lowest options when enabled. Flip it back off, and your regular settings are restored. It’s a bit redundant, but think of it as a shortcut for limiting data usage when you need it.

If you’ve got an enormous phone like the Galaxy S20 Ultra, Quibi might not use all of that screen real estate. It does expand to include the iPhone’s notch, but I couldn’t find any way to crop in and cover the S20 Ultra’s entire display.

But while Quibi mostly executes just fine on its core premise, the app stumbles hard on a lot of other basics, and it’s launching with significant omissions. For example, currently, there’s no option to set up profiles for the other people in your family on a single account. The company said on a recent media call that it views the app as intended for individual users. In some ways, this makes sense for a thing you’ll only be watching on your phone. But on the other hand, this is a paid service (even for the ad-supported tier), and Quibi’s failure to account for multiple people in a household wanting to share access is a bit stubborn. Also frustrating is that the app is limited to a single concurrent stream, so password sharing is out altogether.

But beyond all else, the lack of a TV experience is difficult to get over. Quibi’s entire selling point is that it’s perfect for on-the-go viewing. When episodes are this short, it’s easy to watch an episode on the bus / train or during your lunch break. That brief, no-commitment entertainment is what all the commercials have underlined. But the app is launching at a time when millions of people are isolating at home and trying to escape from the stressful news crunch whenever possible. I can’t speak for you, but my instinct is always to go for the biggest screen at my disposal to take a break from the world — whether that’s a TV, laptop, or tablet. Until some normalcy is restored, Quibi’s phone-only philosophy is going to hand an easy win to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, and other multiplatform services. The app truly couldn’t be launching at a moment more antithetical to its purpose.

Put the content aside, and part of your enjoyment from Quibi will always depend on how nice your phone is — and how large of a display it has. Testing the app on an iPhone 11 Pro Max and Galaxy S20 Ultra has been wonderful, but I’m someone who can comfortably wield those mammoth phones. If you’re not, you might find yourself a little disappointed that Quibi is forever limited to the screen dimensions of your iPhone X or another device for normal-sized hands. This is a constraint that no other major streaming service forces us to contend with. You can always open Netflix or even Instagram on your computer to up the sense of immersion.

Unlike all of its streaming alternatives, Quibi lacks any kind of TV experience.

Quibi’s executives have hinted that the company will deliver on a TV experience if customer feedback and data warrant it. Frankly, I’ll be surprised (and disappointed) if the platform goes six months without taking that step. Maybe you’ll lose out on some of the Turnstyle presentation tricks, but it’s a necessary trade-off. Quibi can continue saying that the phone is the best way to stream its programming, but having it be the only way is a fundamental flaw. The service simply costs too much to be this handcuffed in how you can use it.

At launch, the Quibi app is by no means bad, and Turnstyle is fun to experiment with. It just feels very much like a version 1.0. Maybe that’s by design to complement the “quick bite” nature of the content. New customers get 90 days to try the service, so starting today, you can try Quibi for yourself and see if Turnstyle and the launch shows make it a package worth adding to your ever-growing list of monthly subscriptions.