Cricut Explore review: A fun crafting machine, despite some costly extras

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The Good Cricut Explore precisely cuts, draws, and scores on different types of materials, and can work with two tools at once. The machine is very well-designed, easy to use, and has friendly initial pricing.

The Bad The machine can't work offline at all, doesn't include the Basic Tool Set nor the Bluetooth adapter, and requires users to log in with a Cricut account to use it. The potential total cost of ownership is very high.

The Bottom Line If you're willing to invest in some additional accessories and have a fast Internet connection, the Cricut Explore can be a fun and useful machine for passionate arts and crafts do-it-yourselfers.

7.5 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 6
  • Performance 8
  • Support 7

Review Sections

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.

The Cricut Explore looks very much like an inkjet photo printer. Dong Ngo/CNET

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.

The machine comes with a Smart Dial that quickly selects the type of material you want to work with. Dong Ngo/CNET

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.

A simple project like this Thank You card can be done in just a few minutes. Dong Ngo/CNET

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.