In this second part of my three part Crunchyroll review I’m going to discuss some of the technology behind the site, the video player, user interface, and site design. This is where Crunchyroll’s shine beings to tarnish and the real difficulties of the using the service come through. I really did sound like a champion for Crunchyroll in the last part because their content offerings and high definition option are extremely good. The site itself… is less than good. Read on.
If you haven’t please read Part one, where I review the premium content offerings Crunchyroll provides with a premium subscription.
The only word I can think of to describe the player is “usable”. It works when watching a video straight through from start to finish but once you try and do anything other than that the technology breaks down. The three resolution options are displayed below the video but when you switch between resolutions the video will always start from the beginning. This is a step backwards from most streaming players. The one interesting feature of the Crunchyroll player is that it scales to the correct native resolution (see the screenshots in Part one) while YouTube and Hulu players will remain the same size no matter what resolution the video is in. I enjoyed this feature but it makes less sense than the YouTube model because of the longer form content that dominates Crunchyroll most users will probably use the fullscreen option anyway.
The video player will also time out when left idle for thirty or so minutes making it impossible to pause in order to leave the computer or accomplish another task for a long period of time. Watching content on a PC is an interactive, passive experience that assumes users will be multitasking. The only way to resume the player after it has timed out is to refresh the page and manually return to where the video had frozen. This isn’t a huge deal but rather a minor inconvenience that I’m sure is not so hard of a fix, since it is an ability YouTube has had for years.
The other thing that bugs me about the player is the user has no knowledge of how much of the video has buffered. There are placing in my home, coffee houses, airports ect, where the wifi isn’t strong enough to stream a 720P video. But waiting for a few minutes for the video to buffer should allow the entire thing to play without problem. Crunchyroll doesn’t allow the user to see how much of the video has buffered. On YouTube or Hulu this is accomplished by a gray bar creeping across the screen. With Cruncyroll the user gets nothing.
The Crunchyroll site design varies between barebones and overly complex. It’s a mess, although a usable mess and nowhere near as terrible as Funimation’s streaming portal. Crunchyroll wants to shove as much information at the viewer from the moment he hits the page and because of this the viewer is assaulted with a massive amount of content, starting with a full page ad flanking the page and top banner ad with, on this day, a video that constantly playing but muted until the user moves their cursor over the icon, moving down we get a flashing banner scrolling through new additions to the site, Shinji’s deal of the day, something called “pulse”, site news, the top nine latest posts from the Forum in six different topics, Spring 2010 Simulcasts, All-New Anime, All-New Drama, what’s coming in the next six days, Popular Anime Titles, Popular Drama Titles, Recent Naruto Episodes, Recent Bleach Episodes, and Popular titles. Yeah. It’s overwhelming and unmanageable. When I load the main page I move to the Simulcasts section and pick my show as fast as possible ignoring everything else. The front page should enable the user to find what they want quickly, or pick up a piece of information Crunchyroll wants them to know. Right now it just terrifies me and makes me want to abandon it as fast as possible.
The video page is more reasonable with all the features expected from a streaming video site; comments, sharing options, and easy links to the next episodes for the series you are currently watching. The new “popular series” entry replaces the Related Videos section which seemed to toss suggestions at the user randomly, sometimes in the middle of long running series for example while on the Bleach 275 page I was suggested Gintama 98 and Speed Racer 30. The newer option makes a lot more sense because Crunchyroll wants to serve Anime series, not individual episodes.
The user profile suffers some of the same over saturation as the main page but with some interesting features. The most impressive site feature is the ability to make a “Watching” list where you can add what shows you are watching and which episode you are currently on. After manually making the list I assumed I’d have to manually edit the list as well, similar to a Myanimelist.net style of organization. But this list updates as I watch new episodes of that show! This is a wonderful automated system for remembering which episode of a show you are on if you haven’t watched it in a few weeks. Not as good as Hulu’s queue system, where the user subscribes to a show and new episodes are added automatically to a list on the profile and then vanish when watched. But it’s a good step in the right direction and, to be honest, more than I was expecting.
Other Problems and Updates
One morning I attempted to watch some Crunchyroll and the video refused to play. Multiple different shows, in different browsers, at different quality settings the video simply refused to play. I got fed up and was attempting to boot up my laptop to see if there was something wrong on my Windows machine when I accidentally clicked the video window, and the show began to play! I assumed the video was already playing because the player only had a pause button. It makes no sense that the UI would assume you’d want a button to pause but only want to play by clicking the video! What makes this system even more confusing is that you can pause by also clicking the video, making that pause button a useless decoration. It turned out this was a onetime error, a bug caused by Crunchyroll making updates to the site. But even if whatever happened happened once those few minutes where I thought I couldn’t watch the content I had paid for might have been enough to turn some users away from the service forever.
One of the most impressive facts I saw while testing Crunchyroll was how quickly the service seemed to be updated. There were many small announces, like the one above, that were fixed within the time of my trial. Even UI tweets were done to improve the user experience. One negative point about the video player I wrote into my first draft of this review was that there was a huge watermark in the upper right hand corner of the player that blinked on and off. Whenever it appeared it drew my eye towards it, distracting me from the show. However, after being annoyed by it for a week it disappeared.
It seems that Crunchyroll is making a serious effort to improve their service and most of the problems with the technology behind the site are holdovers from their less than legitimate past. In the next few months I’m sure we’ll see the majority of the problems noted above disappear as the site modernizes. Most of the issues here can be quickly annoyed once a user gets used to the way the site works but a few of these “minor announces” piled on top of each other and users may quickly be turned away before giving the content a chance.
Look for Part 3 of the review where I will discuss alternate viewing methods, such as the iPhone and iPad applications, and state my conclusion on the Crunchyroll Premium service.