CuriosityStream Review 2017 – Streaming Service for Science Shows

0
122
CuriosityStream
Source: CuriosityStream
8.5
GREAT

Tired of bottom-feeding “reality” TV shows? Do you want high-quality fact-based content? Then check out this review of CuriosityStream’s deep offering of science, nature, and history programming.

We will start with a quick summary of my review to get you the information you want quickly. Then we will dive deeper into CuriosityStream’s availability, affordability, and content. Let’s get started.

What Is CuriosityStream All About?

CuriosityStream is a two-year-old streaming video service aimed at people who want something more educational than reality TV and superhero shared universes. It offers fact-based content in subject areas related to science, technology, history and nature – the kind of programming once provided by the Discovery, History and other cable channels.

Interested in meaty, feature-length, award-winning nature documentaries? Want to binge on series about ancient civilizations or astrophysics? Want to kill a few minutes learning about steam engines or art? The CuriosityStream catalog has such a wide variety of content that it will meet most needs.

With more than 1,500 videos available to stream in HD, the $5.99 monthly subscription could be a great deal for the science, nature, or history fan. Annual subscriptions are available at a discount as are plans that upgrade you to UltraHD content.

Almost the entire CuriosityStream catalog is available worldwide through most of the major streaming platforms. The only exception is PlayStation, but CuriosityStream has an app in the works.

Overall, CuriosityStream is a great deal if the scope of its fact-based content appeals to you. Still not sure? Then read on for more details.

How Do I Get CuriosityStream?

CuriosityStream is available worldwide through its website as well as apps on most streaming platforms. Part of its growing appeal is the lack of advertising that its subscription-based model supports.

Subscription Plans

CuriosityStream Subscriptions
Source: CuriosityStream

CuriosityStream offers three subscription levels based solely on the quality of its video streams: a standard definition Basic plan, a high definition Standard plan, and an UltraHD Premium plan. Annual plans provide a 16% savings.

You can purchase the subscription directly from CuriosityStream’s website or through the billing service at Apple, Google, Roku, and Amazon. Keep in mind that CuriosityStream’s Amazon Channel subscriptions are only valid through Amazon Video, and not through the CuriosityStream site or apps.

Global Availability

CuriosityStream's global availability
Source: CuriosityStream

Audiences in 196 countries can stream CuriosityStream’s catalog subject to geo-blocking imposed by licensing restrictions. Most of the content is available globally as the following breakdown from the CuriosityStream support site indicates:

  • 98% of titles will be available in the U.S.
  • 88% of titles will be available outside of the U.S.
  • 84% of titles will be available in Thailand, Poland, Germany or Canada.
  • 81% of titles will be available in France.

Another factor for viewers outside the US: CuriosityStream is very much an American company that happens to be available everywhere. “We intend for the vast majority of our library to be in the English language for the foreseeable future,” the company explains on its website. Viewers who prefer content in their own language will need to consider other services.

Platform Support

New platforms for CuriosityStream
Source: CuriosityStream

CuriosityStream is available on most of the major platforms. Computers running MacOS and Windows get browser-based access. Native apps support devices running iOS and Android (including Amazon’s) as well as Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast streaming boxes. The Xbox One only got a CuriosityStream app earlier this year while PlayStation support is still in development.

Premium level subscribers need 25Mbps minimum download speeds according to CuriosityStream’s 4K support site which lists support for the following platforms:

  • Amazon Fire TV
  • 4K-Capable Android TV models
  • 4K-Capable Roku Devices
  • Any PC, Mac, Laptop, or Desktop with a 4K display attached.

A call to CuriosityStream’s toll-free number, will get most streaming up-and-running to many smart TVs – a stop-gap measure as apps for LG, Samsung, and Sony TVs are developed.

Where Did CuriosityStream Come From?

A recent press release celebrating CuriosityStream’s second anniversary said that the company is “on track” to reach its near-term one million subscriber target as well as a 2026 target of thirty million subscribers. What is driving those growth projections?

When John Hendricks founded Discovery Communications more than thirty years ago, he wanted to provide a reliable source of factual content lacking on other cable channels. He stepped down from his position as Chairman of the Board in 2014 to launch his new streaming video service.

Hendricks does not bad-mouth Discovery Communications in interviews – he is still a major shareholder – but it is not hard to imagine his frustrations with what the Discovery Channel has become. As reality TV and pseudo-science displace the factual programming he pioneered, Discovery and its sister channels are not what they once were.

Hendricks explained in a TBI Vision interview that cable channel’ “ratings need to increase and the need for ad revenues drives you to amusement and entertainment content. The ad-play is a great model…. The downside is it is hard to keep a pure factual channel going.”

Quick Walkthrough

Source: CuriosityStream

Thanks to its narrow focus, CuriosityStream makes the discovery process much more effective than in more general services like Netflix or Hulu.  Navigation on the site and within the apps follow the same structure: the landing page provides quick access to popular, new, and recommended titles while the menu lets you search for shows to watch.

Browsing by Themes and Sub-themes

Curiosity Stream browse by theme
Source: CuriosityStream

CuriosityStream organizes its catalog around the themes of History, Science, Technology, Nature, Wildlife, Civilization, and the Human Spirit.

Within each of these themes, the catalog further divides into nearly fifty sub-themes. The Nature theme, for example, lets you drill down into content for Earth, Oceans, Natural Habitat, Animals, Plants, Birds, Insects, and Prehistoric Creatures.

Browsing by Collections

CuriosityStream browse by collection
Source: CuriosityStream

The Collections section organizes content by popular topics. The Leading Ladies collection, for example, includes shows that feature pioneering women. Mars: The Red Planet gathers together all of the documentaries about… Mars, the red planet.

Search

Searching CuriosityStream
Source: CuriosityStream

At first glance the search function is simple – you just type a search term. Beneath the surface, however, CuriosityStream gives you a better shot at discovering interesting content than you will at Netflix.

CuriosityStream president Elizabeth Hendricks North explained in a Sydney Morning Herald interview that “With other big streaming services you need to know the exact name of the documentary or find a good keyword to get to it. We’ve added additional metadata to all of our titles so it’s easier to find by topic.”

Profile

CuriosityStream Profile Drop Down
Source: CuriosityStream

You can save shows to a Watchlist which you access through the website’s profile dropdown. You also get quick access to videos that you started watching but never finished as well as your entire viewing history.

Related Content

Related content on CuriosityStream
Source: CuriosityStream

The page for each video gives you a chance to find related content in a section below the player. You will find a description of the title, its rating from other CuriosityStream subscribers, searchable tags, and a gallery of similar programs.

The Video Player

CuriosityStream video controls
Source: CuriosityStream

Selecting a program takes you to the show page where the video autoplays. You get two basic controls for video playback: play and pause. A skip button takes you to the next episode in a TV series or, in the case of a stand-alone video, to a similar show. Other icons let you switch to full screen mode and control the audio.

Clicking the gear option lets you set your subtitle preference for that video. More than 80% of the videos on the site have English subtitles for those times when you have to keep the volume down.

It also reveals a toggle that is supposed to disable autoplay, but it does not work. If you go to another video’s page, it will autoplay. If you return to the original video’s page, it also autoplays.

What is the Content Like?

Whatever your mood of format preference, CuriosityStream offers a mix of licensed and original content; short, medium, and long-form content; as well as TV series and stand-alone videos. Let’s take a quick look at some of that content.

Originals

CuriosityStream bioluminescence documentary
This glow-in-the-dark dog was playing in a tide of bioluminescent microbes. Source: CuriosityStream

CuriosityStream produces its own content to differentiate itself from its competitors and to guarantee it can stream worldwide. David Attenborough’s Light on Earth is an Emmy-nominated exploration of our bioluminescent world – the amazing range of animals that produce light to mate, hunt, or deter predators. The producers developed an entirely new camera to capture the animals and their glow at the same time – something scientists studying bioluminescence could never do before. Be sure to watch this one at night on a big screen. It’s like watching the movie Pandora set on Earth – and it’s real.

Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places also got an Emmy nomination this year. It uses CGI to carry the physicist across the Universe to explain the latest in astrophysics research.

Documentary Series

Street artists on CuriosityStream
Toronto street artists conduct guerrilla landscaping in episode one of Great Minds of Design. Source: CuriosityStream

Great Minds of Design is a multi-episode series that examines ways design can change culture and society. The first episode “Urban Redesign” follows street artists in Toronto who create small installations in surprising places.

CuriosityStream’s series include the BBC’s long-running general science show Horizon as well as more focused programming like Plane Resurrection which follows historical aviation buffs restoring classic aircraft.

Short-form Content

Short CuriosityStream doc about ESA Rosetta Mission
As Europe’s mission planners search for the lost Philae lander, notice the unopened bottle of champagne from a celebration cut short by the lander’s disappearance. Source: CuriosityStream

CuriosityStream has more than fourteen hours of fact-based snacks for the times when you can only spare a few minutes to learn something new. The quality of these short pieces can vary. “Bad Teeth, Bad Heart” explains how brushing your teeth prevents heart disease in a way that recalls seventies-era filmstrips.

One of the better options, “Rosetta’s Final Mission”, is an eight-minute mini-doc that relates the European cometary mission’s triumphs and disappointments. Although the first half relies too heavily on European Space Agency animations, it recovers in the second half with commentary from mission scientists.

Overall Review: 8.5

As Discovery, History, and other cable channels descended in a ratings-driven spiral to the bottom of the edutainment barrel, CuriosityStream’s solid catalog of documentaries gives people who want fact-based programming a home.

Content Quality: 8

Some app store reviews complain that CuriosityStream’s catalog does not match the gold standard set by PBS and the BBC. But should every one of CuriosityStream’s 1,500 titles meet that standard? Of course not. Plenty of programs like David Attenborough’s Light on Earth provide gravitas while others provide lighter fare.

A legitimate critique is CuriosityStream’s decision to focus on Science, Nature, and History over socially-conscious investigative documentaries. Certainly you won’t find documentaries like recent IDA Documentary Award winners I Am Not Your Negro or Do Not Track. Yet programs like Bombing War: From Guernica to Hiroshima show that, even within its limited scope, CuriosityStream has room for challenging subjects.

Streaming Quality: 9

I have rarely experienced issues with the quality of the HD streams on my laptop or my Apple TV. After the first second or two of blurred video during buffering, the player snaps quickly to HD with no interruption or glitches. My broadband service’s consistent 50-55 Mbps download speed certainly helps, but CuriosityStream has made significant investments in its infrastructure.

CuriosityStream COO Peter North recently explained that the company has “layered our API into a [Content Distribution Network] that serves content much more quickly and efficiently, enabling CuriosityStream to deliver some of the world’s best HD and 4K documentaries cost-effectively.”

Device Support: 8

I have already mentioned some limitations for viewers internationally. Geo-blocking is a facet of the film distribution business CuriosityStream addresses by producing its own content.

The only weakness in CuriosityStream’s app strategy is in gaming consoles. Its initial focus on streaming set top boxes may have made sense when CuriosityStream launched as Sony and Microsoft both emphasized gaming over streaming on their next-gen consoles. The new Xbox One app and the PlayStation 4 app in development will close this gap.

Value: 9

The standard plan’s $5.99 monthly rate is more than fair – and even better when you throw in the discounted annual plan. The absence of advertising increases the value even more.

You do need to think things through, however. CuriosityStream calls its annual plan a “non-refundable bulk purchase of a full year service.” If you change your mind a month or two into the subscription, you will not get a pro-rated refund when you cancel.

My advice is to stick with the monthly plan until you are sure that the annual approach is right for you.

Another ding against CuriosityStream: only twenty-seven programs are in 4K UltraHD. Content availability is not a new concern for UltraHD television owners. Much of CuriosityStream’s original content gets shot in 4K by default so options for Premium subscribers should grow steadily.

Final Comments

While it does mean yet another subscription, CuriosityStream’s content has the breadth and depth that fans of science and history will appreciate. I hope that John Hendricks’ vision for CuriosityStream proves true because it will mean even more high-quality factual content for years to come.

CuriousityStream Review
Content Quality8
Streaming Quality9
Device Support8
Value9
8.5
GREAT
Summary
CuriosityStream delivers a wide range of fact-based content from award-winning documentary features to quick, three-minute mini-docs. The absence of investigative, socially-conscious exposés prevents CuriosityStream from being a one-stop documentary shop, but its nature, science, and history content makes CuriosityStream a good antidote for people sick of "reality" TV.