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Cricut Explore 3 review: Smarter, faster and potentially costly

Cricut's latest machine opens up a lot of opportunities for makers, but the reliance on its Smart Materials to get some of these new features could get expensive fast.

Have you ever browsed Etsy and wondered how so many creators are able to quickly create decals for your car or stickers for your laptop? There's a good chance many of those small businesses rely heavily on a Cricut. These machines cut vinyl, paper, cardstock and more in whatever shape you send without needing a lot of technical skill. These machines have become explosively popular over the last couple of years, largely due to how easy they are to use.

In theory, creating with a Cricut machine is limited only by your imagination. In practice, the greatest limitation is time and patience. If you want to make a big project, you need to be able to piece together smaller sheets of cut material. If you want to make a lot of designs all at once, you have to operate within the limitations of how fast your machine can cut. Cricut's new Explore 3 aims to address those limitations through the expansion of its Smart Materials products and some new sensors, but creates a system where you are entirely reliant on Cricut to make anything. 

8.0

Cricut Explore 3

Like

  • Using Smart Materials is so much faster, and being able to create larger projects in this bigger machine is a delight.

Don't Like

  • Very little was done to improve the Cricut experience outside of Smart Materials.

A significant upgrade

Like the smaller Cricut Joy before it, the Cricut Explore 3 is all about using Smart Materials. Unlike the Premium Materials Cricut sells currently, Smart Materials can be put in the Cricut without a cutting mat. You just take the vinyl and feed it into the machine, and it cuts perfectly every time without piercing the adhesive shield on the back. Because you're not limited to the size of the cutting mat like with other Cricut materials, you can cut an entire 12-foot roll of vinyl in a single project. And since the Cricut machine know exactly what's happening with Smart Materials, the blade can travel significantly faster than it would with traditional vinyl. 

Cricut's whole deal is that you can do more than just vinyl cutting. While the Maker 3 is the one with all the bells and whistles, the less expensive Explore 3 still has a lot going on. The primary cutting tool is one of seven different options for the Explore series. You can draw with pens, score fold lines in cardstock, cut fabric and transfer foil into other objects, among other things. To do most things that aren't cutting, you need to buy other tools to slot into the machine. The Explore 3 can support two tools being held at the same time, so it's possible to swap between things without pulling anything out of the machine.

Cricut Explore 3

Each of these huge vinyl prints was done at once, which is incredible. 

Russell Holly

In my testing of the Cricut Explore 3, I found it very much lived up to the claims of its creator. I cut out vinyl silhouettes of five swords from The Lord of the Rings, each to the exact length of real blades from the movies, in a single cut. That was 7 feet of vinyl in a single cut, something I'd never been able to do before. And my total time from pressing Go on the printer to the cut being finished was 2 minutes and 40 seconds, which is the same amount of time it would have taken me to make a detailed cut on a single 1-foot sheet of Cricut Premium Vinyl. The same can be said of the other Smart Materials I've tested from this collection -- including sticker cardstock and iron-on samples -- with impressive results. 

Cutting Smart Materials is great, but there's a whole lot more to be done with a Cricut. Even if all you use is official Cricut materials, there's a lot of options that don't have the Smart Materials logo on the back right now. And if you were hoping Cricut had fixed some of the little quirks you may have experienced in previous machines, I am here to disappoint you. In very much the same way my Explore One fails to perfectly cut things like glitter vinyl, the Explore 3 requires a lot of tweaking to get it right with certain materials. The good news is it's never been easier to make those tweaks within the software, but it's a little strange that Cricut still has incorrect instructions in its system for its own materials. 

The Smart Materials takeover

My biggest issue with Cricut Smart Materials right now is that it'll be a while before I can replace all of my existing vinyl and paper. The list of options on the Cricut website at launch is thin compared to the riot of color you'll find walking into any craft store right now. In a conversation with Cricut's Anna Rose Johnson, it wasn't clear how long it would take for that to change. 

What Anna Rose did make clear was Cricut knows paper, iron-ons, and vinyl are the most popular things to put in its machines by a wide margin, and offering Smart Materials versions of everything is a goal. Which is great, because when I went back to some of the Cricut Premium Vinyl I already owned the experience was exactly the same as my years-old Cricut Explore One. The new machine even struggled with metallic vinyl like my old Cricut, until I found a tip from someone in the community on how to fix it. 

Cricut Explore 3

Two cuts I was able to make within minutes of one another, because Smart Materials are so fast. 

Russell Holly

Knowing the company plans to make a long-term push into Smart Materials may not be the best news for some of Cricut's thriftier fans. The cost per foot of Smart Materials is noticeably higher than what is on shelves right now, which is already pricier than what you can get from a third-party supplier. According to Cricut, the goal with Smart Materials was to make something of a high enough quality that the machine can be extremely precise in cutting it, thus enabling a faster and more reliable cut. It's hard to argue with that: I now have vinyl designs I can put on glass jars and have them be dishwasher-safe, which I absolutely did not have before. 

Finally, the rumor that Cricut was somehow scanning the vinyl to confirm it was actually Smart Materials is just plain untrue. Smart Materials is a setting: You can put anything in the machine and it will attempt to cut as though it is Smart Materials. If the vinyl is not actually from Cricut there's a good chance your blade will punch through and damage the machine, but there's nothing stopping you if you find a roll of third-party vinyl and are willing to take that chance. 

Familiar Software

As important as the Cricut Explore's flexibility is, being able to design something no matter where you are is just as important. In that respect, Cricut has been doing incredible things. Design Space, Cricut's software, lets you take in images from anywhere, edit to your specifications, and turn them into designs from your phone, tablet, or laptop.

Cricut Explore 3

Cricut Design Space makes it very easy to create from anywhere. 

Russell Holly

I took a screenshot a friend sent me of Bender from Futurama and turned it into a sticker for his coffee mug within minutes. I saw a logo I really liked on the most recent episode of Loki, so I took a photo of it and used Design Space to make it a sticker. And through the subscription service Cricut Access, I can add thousands of fonts and shapes and design ideas to my arsenal with ease. None of this software is exclusive to the Cricut Explore 3, save for the ability to create projects 12 feet long, but it makes going from concept to creation that much faster. 

Conclusion

There's a lot to like about the Explore 3. Aside from it being just plain cool to see how fast this machine under ideal conditions, and how great it is to be able to literally cover the walls with a design I've made myself, it's a solid machine. And ultimately that's how you have to look at it, I think. 

People who rely on Cricut machines to power a small business on Etsy are going to love being able to do specific things much faster or to be able to make things bigger without having to manually line things up perfectly. People like me, who really just enjoy making fun things for cosplay or to make things for friends, are likely to see Smart Materials as an added expense that is somewhat more complicated to internally justify. 

Either way, you're getting one of the best machines of its kind at a great price and it's going to be a lot of fun to have one in your home.