Crackle: Everything you need to know about Sony's free Netflix competitor

There's no shortage of streaming video services out there, but most of them have something in common: they'll either cost you a chunk of money via a monthly subscription fee, or you'll have to plug in a cable or satellite login – which costs even more money – to access some or all of the content.

Crackle is the rare exception to that rule: Sony's service is 100% free, and it's been that way for a decade now. No, Crackle doesn't have the vast selection of Netflix or the speedy TV episode turnarounds of Hulu, but it's fully ad-supported and it won't cost you a thing.

So why don't more people use Crackle? Why isn't "Crackle and chill" a thing? 

Well, the old adage "you get what you pay for" is largely true here: you'll get more than nothing, which is what you'll pay for Crackle, but its thin offerings are relatively light on quality content. Still, if you're in a pinch and looking for something free and fun, it might suffice.

Here's how to get started with Crackle on all of your devices.

How much does Crackle cost?

In case you missed the multiple mentions above, let's make it abundantly clear: Crackle won't cost you a thing. It's an entirely free streaming video service that is fully supported by video ads that run before and in the middle of content. 

Crackle doesn't even have a premium option that lets you opt out of commercial by tossing in a few bucks a month. Seriously, it's free.

Crackle doesn't even have a premium option that lets you opt out of commercial by tossing in a few bucks a month. Seriously, it's free.

What kinds of ads can you expect on Crackle? When watching a TV episode, for example, you'll usually see 30 seconds of ads upfront, and then normal commercial breaks in between. It'll show something like "Ad 1 of 8," which might scare you away from Crackle forever, but they're often short – you'll usually only see 2-3 minutes' worth of commercials.

When watching a film, on the other hand, you'll get the same 30-second kicker up front and then occasional artificial commercial breaks along the way. 

When watching Shaun of the Dead, for example, Crackle showed seven upcoming commercial breaks on the timeline, and they typically lasted the same 2-3 minutes each time. Unfortunately, however, they sometimes came at awkward moments: unlike watching a movie on TV, there's no smooth fade-out for ads. They just interrupt the movie – and sometimes during the most pivotal scenes.

While Crackle has no subscription, it does reward you for creating an account or logging in with Facebook: you'll purportedly see fewer commercials overall.

How can I access Crackle?

Crackle is pretty much everywhere. It's in your web browser, so you can watch it easily on a computer. It's also on your phones and tablets, whether you have an iOS or Android device, a Kindle tablet, or even a Windows Phone.

It's also on streaming devices like Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast, as well as smart TVs from Samsung, Sony, LG and Vizio. 

Recent non-Nintendo consoles have it as well, including the PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PlayStation Vita and the discontinued PlayStation TV. It's no surprise to see so much PlayStation support, given that Sony owns the service.

Crackle used to have a very underwhelming interface on some of its devices, especially mobile, but the service has recently rolled out a more modern aesthetic across the board. It's stylish and sleek, although when I used it on PlayStation 4, the navigation felt a bit clumsy compared to something that feels as second nature as Netflix. But you'll get used to it.

What are Crackle's key features?

Really, those last two features really sell Crackle's main appeal: it's totally free to use, and you can access it from almost any modern device with rare exceptions. 

Crackle therefore functions best as a no-cost alternative to pricier subscription services, and is an ideal way to take in some extra on-demand entertainment without paying for it, or help fill some gaps if you've decided to cut the cord from cable or satellite.

Crackle seems to puts its biggest focus on comedy and action content, with an array of shows and movies that fall into either category, and only bits and pieces of other genres alongside. If you're looking for something that'll make you laugh or get your blood pumping a bit, then you might find it here. It certainly won't cost you anything to have a look.

Why choose it over Netflix?

Why choose Crackle over Netflix? To be honest, most people probably wouldn't. Netflix has a dramatically larger pool of content that is increasingly made up of some of the best original shows today. 

Crackle has a couple of original shows and the occasional original movie, but it's like B-level cable fare at best – stuff you'd find on TBS, not AMC, FX or Netflix.

Also, when Netflix does feature classic TV series, it usually has all of the seasons – or at least all of the non-current seasons. 

Crackle has some gems in its library, but it has oddly incomplete selections. For example, there are about a dozen episodes of Seinfeld, and you'll find two middle seasons of The Shield and only the first season of Happy Endings. It's not exactly built for binge-watching an old favorite or catching up on a current hit.

Crackle does offer some standout movies, but you'll usually find a handful of acclaimed hits within a larger pool of forgettable junk. 

For example, Crackle has hosted movies like Shaun of the Dead and Drive, but it also has Blankman, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and straight-to-video sequels to Stomp the Yard and Urban Legends. Also, a surprising number of Pauly Shore comedy specials (i.e. more than zero).

Crackle appears to make updates monthly, pulling out some TV shows and movies while lightly refreshing the lineup, although the service's original series always stick around. And if something is about to be removed, you'll see a countdown note on its listing page.

Watch these shows

Seinfeld: NBC's legendary "show about nothing" was a big get for Crackle, providing users with Jerry Seinfeld's comedy classic for instant viewing. It's not all of the seasons… or even any single complete seasons … but there's still a good few hours' worth of laughs here.

Happy Endings: Never fully appreciated when it aired on ABC some years back, Happy Endings has since become a cult favorite. It has a very Friends-esque plot, with six pals living in a big city, but it's a lot zanier and consistently, fantastically hilarious. Crackle has the full first season, but you'll have to hunt down the others elsewhere.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: Crackle's first breakout original series is still its best, as Jerry Seinfeld—yes, the same one as above—melds his love for cars and comedy in this chatty and seriously funny series. He'll pick up a fellow comic, like David Letterman or Sarah Silverman, and they'll drive around and then get coffee, all while shooting the breeze.

Watch these movies

Shaun of the Dead: This modern comedy classic is a must-see, as Simon Pegg and Nick Frost navigate the zombie apocalypse in a send-up of the horror genre. It's utterly brilliant, and if you somehow haven't seen this 2004 masterpiece, head to Crackle right this second.

Point Break: The iconic early '90s action flick is one of the rare older highlights on Crackle, which has a heap of junk from the decade. But Point Break is hardly junk: this story of an undercover cop infiltrating a gang of surfing robbers has awesome stunts and moments, plus memorable performances from both Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves.

Stranger Than Fiction: Will Farrell is mostly known for his over-the-top performances, but Stranger Than Fiction shows another side of him: restrained, yet still delightfully charming. This inventive flick finds him suddenly hearing a narrator describing his life and portending his demise, as he finds love while trying to avoid a seemingly grim fate.