Even with the prospects of metered Internet in the air here in Canada I’ve been using streaming media sites at an increasing pace. Using sites like Vimeo for their always excellent independently produced films, YouTube for the the randomness that only it can offer to services like Netflix who offers a ton of content on demand in a superior fashion to Rogers, my cable provider. So it’s only fitting that Crunchyroll would be the next step for me.
Nate Anderson at Ars Technica recently wrote an article about the site and it’s history, much of which I was only vaguely aware of. The article compared FUNimation’s approach to anime piracy and it’s failure to sucessfully combat it with Crunchyrolls inception filled with piracy and later the leap to an authorized same-day release (simulcast) streaming service. Nate hits many of the good points of Crunchyroll and how it manages to compete with the free fansubs that are released so rapidly. However there are a couple of important items he didn’t cover in his article and it is these things that Crunchyroll fails on.
After reading Nate’s article and the testimony of some friends I decided to give Crunchyroll a try. I’d been there before in the past so the site itself wasn’t new to me and was easy to navigate my way to something I was already watching this season. I chose to watch an episode of Steins;Gate as the series had managed to pique my interests. Being that I was now a ‘Premium Subscriber’ I was able to choose the 720p stream that was now available and clicked it immediately. After clicking the page reloaded and I was again presented with a black box with video controls however there was no indication the video was buffering or starting at all, not even a length presented in the control bar. I tried reloading the page, I tried in different browsers (Chrome/Firefox4) but in both I was presented with the same empty box.
I went to my usual IRC channels and asked if they had playback issues with Crunchyroll which none of them did. During this time however suddenly sound started playing over my speakers, so I popped back to the Crunchyroll window and sure enough the video was playing. After some further testing I learned that it takes some 40 seconds before the videos will start, regardless of quality. This is an unusual issue for a streaming service, none of the sites mentioned above, YouTube, Vimeo or Netflix have this issue at all. Their videos all start immediately, even if it’s streaming in 1080p, so it’s not as though I lack the downstream. This isn’t a deal breaker, however it added considerably to my frustration with Crunchyroll overall.
Now that the delayed start issue was understood I started to watch my episode of Steins;Gate. The episode would likely have been entertaining if I could see it but unfortunately all my eyes could focus on was all the banding and poor dithering in the stream. Had these been one of those free illegal streaming sites the quality would have been acceptable, good even. But Crunchyroll is not one of those sites, it used to be, but now it’s a paid service, or an ad supported services at least. With such a service quality is expected, perhaps not in the SD stream but most definitely in the 720p stream I’d chosen. This was severely disappointing, when a free ‘service’ like fansubs can out do the pay alternative in quality there’s a problem with your business model.
The last issue the article failed to address was the quality of Crunchyrolls subtitles. This is something I haven’t noticed in my short time using them but it is something that is continually presented to me by those that do. They are often viewed of in much the same way speed subbers were a couple of years ago, from terribly poor to good enough but never anything more. On more than one occasion Crunchyroll has failed to subtitle an entire line, instead presenting the viewer with a question mark. As if the viewer has any more idea of what’s being said than the translator. The general consensus amongst the anime communities I tend to associate with is that (good) fansub groups localize the language in a much more natural fashion than professional translations and make for a much easier watch. Having only watched a couple of episodes I can’t say for sure where I feel Crunchyroll falls on the spectrum but I do feel it’s important to mention and important for a pay service to get right.
Crunchyroll is a great idea and something fans of anime have wanted for ages, simulcast viewing of series as they’re aired in Japan. As great as this idea is however, Crunchyroll has failed to convince me to take advantage of it. The 40 second wait is completely manageable (though strange) and far shorter than downloading an episode from a fansub group but the quality of their stream is so inferior that the wait for a fansub release is welcomed. Crunchyroll should take a page out of Vimeo or Netflix’s books and offer a higher quality stream, if it costs a little bit more money I’m completely willing to pay it, even if Canada rolls out metered Internet and I end up paying for it twice.