I guess you could call the Cricut Explore a 2.5D printer, even though it doesn't print anything at all. Instead, this crafting machine -- about the size of an inkjet printer -- cuts, scores, and draws on paper or thin materials, and does each of these things impressively well.
In a nutshell, the Cricut Explore spares you from having to use other tools -- such as scissors, shears, pencils, rulers and so on -- when you want to decorate or cut an intricate pattern that would be difficult and time-consuming to make manually. All you have to do is create a design of your own, or use an existing one provided at Cricut Design Space online software/store, and the machine will take care of the hard work.
During my trial the Cricut Explore worked efficiently and quickly for simple jobs. Yet, since the machine can work on only one type of material at a time, a more complex jobs involving multiple materials can be time-consuming and even messy.
All things considered, at the current low cost of $250 or £250 (availability in Australia has not yet been announced; converted from US dollars it would be about AU$267), the Cricut Explore is a fun and useful crafting machine for casual do-it-yourself art projects. Just be careful to consider the whole cost of ownership, and make sure that you have a good Internet connection at home since the machine is useless without one.
Not a printer, but a cutting machine
You can easily mistake the Cricut Explore for a great-looking professional photo inkjet printer. It comes with a smooth-finish surface making it look both expensive and qualitative despite its affordable price.
Open the cover above the machine's middle to see the cutting head with two open slots, A and B. The first is for a drawing pen and the latter is for the cutting blade. You can substitute the drawing pen with a scoring pen (which cost extra), as either tool will operate simultaneously with the cutting blade.
There's also a front opening tray just where you'd insert the paper in a standard printer. With the Cricut Explore, however, that's where you to load the StandardGrip mat, which is a thick plastic sheet 12x12 inches (30.5 by 30.5cm). The mat is where you place your cutting material so that its adhesive surface keeps the material from moving around during a job.
On the left side, the machine has a small pen holder and a cartridge slot. The cartridge, which is basically a memory card for holding designs, is only to make the Cricut Explore backward-compatible with previous Cricut models that required them. Starting with the Explore, you now store all designs on Cricut Design Space Web-based application (more on that later). That said, before you can use the designs stored on a cartridge, you'll first need to first upload them to you Cricut Design Space account. After that, you can forget about the cartridge altogether.
On the right side, the machine comes with a Smart Dial that helps you quickly select the type of material with which you want to work, such as paper, vinyl, card-stock. You also can select the Custom mode where the you select other materials via the software. Currently, the Custom setting includes another 15 preset types of materials, such as Canvas, Duck-tape, Leather, or Aluminum. The machine can handle a wide range of materials as long as the they are not thicker than 2mm.
Friendly base price but consider the extras
For $250, the Cricut Explore comes in a very nice packaging that also includes a StandardGrip cutting mat, a regular cutting blade, a drawing pen (silver), a package of sample materials, a USB cable, and a nice carrying bag.
That's a good start, but to get the most out of the Cricut, you'll want to invest in accessories. And that list can add up quickly. For example:
- If you want to use the printer wirelessly, there's a $50 (£37 online; while not available in Australia it converts to about AU$53) Bluetooth adapter. Note that this adapter is required if you want to use an iPad with the Cricut Explore.
- The scoring stylus is not included and costs $10 (£7; converted to AU$5.34) if you buy it by itself. Alternatively, you can also get a $25 basic tool set (£16.50; converted to about AU$27) which includes this pen and a few other tools for cleaning the surface of the mat after each cut. I highly recommend this set in particular. In my trial, for instance, the sticky cutting mat was a pain to clean up after an intricate cut.
- If you want to draw different colors you'll need to buy more pens, which cost about $13 (£10; converted about AU$14) for a pack of five.
- If you need to cut a thick material, you'll need a Cricut Deep Cut blade and housing which costs $30 (£22; converted about AU$30). There are also other types of blades designed for certain projects.
- Cutting mats of different dimensions and stickiness will run you less than $20 each (converted, about £12, or AU$21). Normally, to save time, you'll need at least two mats if you want to do a project which requires two or more sheets of materials.
- If you want to have access to all 25,000 non-licensed images in the Cricut Image Library, you'll need to pay a $10 per month subscription, or $100 annually (available in the UK annually only, for £75).
On top of that, it's important to note that the drawing pens, mats, and blades will need to be replaced after a certain amount of use. So, before long, you could double the Cricut's initial price. Still, if you enjoy the Cricut Explore, which you likely will, it all may be worth it.
Easy setup: No driver or software installation required
Unlike most any printer I've seen before the the Cricut Explore doesn't require software or driver installation on your computer. Instead, it uses a Web-based application, which rings its own share of conveniences and problems.
The very first time you want to use it, you'll need to go to the Cricut setup page using any browser. Here, you'll be able to see videos on how the machine works and register an account. The browser will ask you to install Cricut Design Space browser add-on, but that's all you'll need to do. From then on, each time you want to use the machine to just go to Cricut.com and log in with your account.
The Cricut Design Space Web-based application will work you through everything, including uploading the project stored on a cartridge, making your own design, picking an existing project, choosing the materials, and the actual cutting and drawing.
Total Internet dependency, diverse craft library
While this Web-based approach is painless to get started, it also means you can't use the Cricut Explore offline at all. That makes the Cricut Explore totally useless without an Internet connection, and nearly useless with a slow connection.
Since everything you do within this software -- from designing your old projects, to customizing a project, to saving and loading a project, to actually cutting the materials -- is done online, the speed of your Internet connection is crucial to how well everything works. But in my trial at CNET, which has a very fast connection, at times there was still a short delay. This is the nature of any Web-based application; you can't avoid the latency.
The Cricut Design Space works as a cutting software, designing software, as well as the online store that contains thousands of existing projects, some free another costing just a few dollars (or pounds), unless you pay for the monthly or annual subscription. You can also create your own designs. In this case, Cricut Design Space, again, has thousands of existing template images, and also allows you to upload your own. Once a project is completed, it'll be saved in your Cricut account and can be called up at any time.
Confined Cricut Design Space software
While I like the shear volume and the diversity of existing designs in Cricut Design Space's library, however, at the same time the way it works is also very confining.
First off, you, as I mentioned, must have a working Internet connection to use it. Secondly, you have to log into your Cricut account before you do anything at all. This means technically Provo Craft & Novelty, the maker of the Cricut Explore, can know all of what you're doing with your machine; and if their service goes down, your Cricut machine becomes useless. It's quite risky to spend money on a product who's usefulness is dependent on the vendor.
And finally, in my trial, I needed to connect the Cricut Explore to the computer before I could use the Cricut Design Space software. In other words, forget about working on your project at any machine other than your home computer. While this is minor, it would be much nicer if you could easily work on your project on any computer you wanted.
Still, if you can deal with these limitations, Cricut Design Space works well and is a very helpful software. It makes each cutting/drawing job painless by walking you through the process step by step.
Note that you can also use the Make It Now iPad app with the Cricut Explore. The app is basically the mobile version of the Cricut Design Space. It also requires the iPad to connect to the Internet in order to work, and you must connect the iPad to the machine via a Bluetooth adapter, which is not included.
Performance: Great precision, potentially messy
I was very impressed with how precisely the Explore cut. It can carve a very intricate shape, even from a thick material, and far more efficiently than any human. For example, when I use the regular paper, which is very thin, the machine controlled the blade so well that it left no marks on the mat underneath at all. And when I used a different material, such as card stock, the blade adjusted accordingly to handle the increased thickness.
Note that it might take a long time to complete a big, complicated project that requires different materials. In this case, it's better to have at least two cutting mats so that you can quickly exchange material. Also, as I said earlier, once a finished cut is peeled off, it might take a long time to clean the mat's surface for reuse. And, since the surface of the mat is sticky, it's a magnet for dirt and dust. Since the machine can perform cuts with very fine detail, if you have a big project the material leftovers can quickly create a mess in your room.
Well-designed and fun to use, the Cricut Explore is best for creative types who dabble regularly in the world of casual crafting. If you've used a similar machine before, just make sure you're aware of its total dependency on the Internet, and that you must log in to an account before you can use the machine at all.
While the initial price is quite affordable, the Explore's total cost of ownership can be very high, considering the cost of materials and items that are not included, yet essential to certain projects. You will need to spend on extra materials almost immediately, since the included sample pack is hardly enough to last you a day.