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Cricut History (So Far)

Recently, I got my old Cricut Expression out of storage for a signage project. It got me thinking of all the other things hobbyists could use them for. But when I started to write about them, I realized quickly that most of what I "knew" about Cricuts back when my Expression was new and shiny is no longer true.

And my attempts to figure out what was still valid and what was not led me to discover that hundreds of web pages about Cricuts and related topics include statements that are just plain wrong. Much of the content was true when it was written, but is not true now. And, sadly, some of it was never true.

I did discover that:

  • After a decade of trying to force people to use only their graphics and fonts, Cricut is now allowing users of their newer machines to import files from other sources.

  • Cricut has dropped support for everything but their newer machines (Explore and later). This includes dropping support for all cartridge-based machines, as well as the Cricut Mini, which depended on now-discontinued online software to be useful at all, and which is now essentially a brick.

  • Most of the old cartridge-based machines are still quite functional, as long as you have cartridges or software to drive them. But some of those machines are more useful than others.

So I figured that, some of my articles about using Cricuts for certain projects wouldn't make much sense without context. So this article is a high-level review of the products that Cricut has offered and discontinued over the years.

Caveat - I have only owned a few of the products mentioned here, and I have not ever really put even those "through their paces." So, much of the content about machines after the Expression (1) is based on information from sources I have deemed reliable. Also, I almost certainly have some of the chronology wrong, so I am open to corrections. If you find something that needs correction, please get in touch and straighten me out. :-)

That said, I think the following content provides enough information to help past, current, or potential Cricut owners determine what to try, what to write off, what to keep, and maybe even what to buy.

ProvoCraft's Successful Die-Cutter

The Cuttlebug, a manual die press machine that uses real dies to cut and emboss paper. Click for bigger photo.Before ProvoCraft invented the Cricut, they already had experience converting expensive die-cutting technologies to table-top units that could be sold in craft stores.

For decades, schools, businesses, and print shops had been using big industrial-strength die cutters to cut out letters and images for signs and bulletin boards. These used metal "dies" and pressure to cut out letters and shapes.

ProvoCraft's Cuttlebug was a portable, hand-cranked unit that used plastic dies to do the same thing. They offered other features, including embossing.

A holiday 'sampler pack' of dies for the Cuttlebug.  Click for bigger photo.The Real Income Stream - But what really made them profitable for ProvoCraft was the aftermarket sale of the plastic dies. You needed a rose cutout? You had to buy one. You wanted a valentine shape for a greeting card? You had to buy one.

True, the dies didn't cost THAT much, but each purchase would give you only one or a handful of shapes. So, once you've been doing this a while, you might have a very large collection. And investment.

Don't get me wrong - many users of this "technology" are still great fans, and are still using them alongside later technologies. But the business model worked, and it gave ProvoCraft the inspiration for their "next big thing."

The Cuttlebug's Electronic "Replacement"

ProvoCraft's marketing people were paying attention. Their R&D team really hit it out of the park when they adapted another technology to tabletop craft machines.

The Cricut Personal Cutter, a hallmark of things to come. Click for bigger photo.For decades, print and sign shops had been using massive vinyl-cutters to make their signs and banners. In 2003, ProvoCraft harnessed that technology in a chunky little unit called the Cricut Personal Cutter (CRV001).

It was advertised as a "die cutter," to make it seem like it was just a step up from the Cuttlebug, but in fact it was entirely different. There were no dies at all - just a tiny blade cutting out shapes that were controlled by the Cricut's built-in programming.

Note: The following procedures apply only to cartridge-based machines, not Explore, Mini, Joy, or Maker.

To cut out text or a shape, you would:

  • Attach your material to the mat

  • Choose a cartridge that had the image or font you wanted. (Each Cricut came with one font cartridge that would get you started; you bought images or additional fonts on separate cartridges.)

  • The keyboard overlay for the George and Basic Shapes cartridge, which came with the Personal Cutter.  Click for bigger photo.Lay a rubber "overlay" over the keyboard area. The overlay was a guide to which of the 50 keys you would press to give you the letter or image you wanted. With some cartridges, there were up to 6 shapes per key, and the potential for more.

  • Slide the mat under the blade up to the rubber rollers.

  • Press the Load Paper button.

  • Use the Shift key to determine whether you were cutting the big image (or letter) shown on the key or the little one. (On the "George and Basic Shapes" cartridge, for example, pressing the Z key with the shift on would give you a diamond cut.)

  • Dial in the size you want your letter(s) or image(s) to print using the scrolling knob on the right.

  • The 'shadow' and 'shadow blackout' keys from the George and Basic Shape cartridge.If you want, use the Function keys to determine an alternate version of the shape or letter you wanted to print. Most of the cartridges gave you a "shadow" option, which was an outline of the letter or image with any cutouts - like the middle of "A" - also cut out, as well as a "shadow blackout" option - an outline without the cutouts.

    Note: - As the cartridges got more complex, you needed to rely more and more on the little booklets that came with them. As an example, the Everyday Paper Dolls cartridge included, not only outfits for the "dolls," but countless "accessories" such as monkeys, space ships, trucks, and more. But you would never know that just from the keyboard overlay. So if you ever shop for used cartridges be sure to get the book AND the overlay along with the cartridge.

  • Make certain the correct size of mat was chosen.

  • Set the cutter depth and pressure as recommended for the material you're using.

  • Push the Cut button.

  • When the cutting is over, push the Unload button.

Yes, that sounds very complicated at first. But owners enjoyed watching the thing cut out intricate designs that would have been a real pain to cut out with scissors or Xacto knives. Besides, most people used their Cricuts for only one or two types of projects at first, so the setup stayed basically the same from one job to the next.

The Cricut Personal Cutter was wildly successful. Because it was designed to operate without a computer, you could easily take it to a friend's house or a craft club meeting and cut out doilies, paper dolls, signs, and more to your heart's content. It was especially popular among scrapbookers, a rising movement at the time - those customers were not put off by the limited size of the cutouts - only up to 5.5" on a 6"x6" mat.

The Personal Cutter was soon followed up by the Cricut Create (CRV002), which was the same size, but could cut up to 11.5" on a 6" x 12" mat and was more precise.

Note: If for some reason you feel inclined to pick up a used "legacy" Cricut, and you have to choose between the Personal Cutter and the Create, go for the Create for its additional capability. Or, better yet, the Expression (below).

The Cricut Expression could use mats up to 12 inch by 24 inch, which made it useful for making signs and other larger projects. It is also the last Cricut known to operate with third-party software, although lawsuits have made such uses 'complicated.' Click for bigger photo. The Cricut Expression (CREX001) would cut even larger images - up to 12"x24". This is usually the first choice of anyone trying to keep obsolete software like Cricut DesignStudio working with their Cricuts.

Another Cricut that was contemporary with the Expression was the Cricut Cake, which was essentially an Expression that was optimized for cutting fondant for cake decorations. The Cake Mini was essentially a Create optimized for the same thing. Though Cricut made cartridges that were specifically designed for decorating cakes, the Cake series could use all of the cartridges that had been developed to date for the other machines. And vice versa.

Cricut physical cartridges provided fonts and images for the first and second generation machines.  These are no longer made, but have been replaced by 'digital cartridges' used by more recent machines.  Unfortunately, 'digital cartridges' also cost money and have substantial restrictions. Click for bigger photo.The Real Income Stream - The little machines represented a huge investment in custom machining and firmware, but ProvoCraft (rightfully) envisioned huge returns on the aftermarket sales of fonts and images. These were stored, not in plastic dies, but in oddly-shaped little cartridges that you would plug in like the old Atari games.

Each machine came with one font cartridge. But if you wanted more fonts or images, you would have to buy other cartridges. To be fair, many of the cartridges contained scores of clever or attractive images, some by named designers. So if you shopped carefully, you could accomplish a lot with just a few of them. But they weren't cheap.

All five of the machines mentioned so far used the same cartridges and similar firmware (the programs built into the machines' permanent memory). So if you started with a Personal cutter and later upgraded to an Expression or added a Cake, you could just use your previously purchased cartridges in your new machine.

Cricut Design Studio allowed you to lay out your images on the page in such a way that you could save paper and see how they would look before printing. It only allowed you to use images from cartridges you already owned.  NOTE: This software is discontinued and ProvoCraft won't even allow you to move your own licensed copy from your old machine to a new one.  Click for bigger photo.Cricut DesignStudio (Now Discontinued and Unsupported) - But those machines were even more useful when coupled with a personal computer and the Cricut Design Studio software. This allowed you to lay out your images to save paper and optimize size, but it only worked with cartridges you already owned. Of course, that wasn't a big problem for folks who already owned a shoebox full of the things.

However, Design Studio would not let you use content from cartridges that were made after Cricut stopped updating the software. So, if you have an old working copy and are cartridge shopping, scroll through the box in the upper left and see if the cartridge your interested in is supported. You can use it, regardless, just not with Design Studio.

Note: Cricut Design Studio Software has been discontinued and you can't activate even new, sealed copies any more, so buying any copy of that right now will be a waste of money. A bigger complaint for longtime Cricut users is that you can't move YOUR OWN LICENSED COPY of Cricut Design from your old computer to a new one.

Personally, I am a little concerned about what will happen when the old computer that has my only working copy of the software dies.

Short-Term Hacks

For a time, time software companies like Craft Edge (Sure Cuts-a-Lot) and Make-the-Cut made it possible to drive the Cricut's cutting engine directly from a computer, without the need for add-on cartridges.

As it turned out, the Cricut folks frowned on that sort of thing, probably because it enabled enterprising folks to cut images and fonts they downloaded or created instead of paying for cartridges.

ProvoCraft responded by suing Sure-Cuts-A-Lot (SCAL) and Make-the-Cut. They forced those companies to redesign their software so it wouldn't support Cricuts any more. Yes, for a time there was a way around that, which required a simple hack and bootleg SCAL2 software. But, to be honest, SCAL2 was a pretty simplistic program that folks seldom designed anything on after a few years.

If you have a a Cricut Personal Cutter, Create, Expression (1), Cake, or Cake mini in good operating condition, you may be able to use the much-improved current SCAL software to drive it. An overview of this potential solution is described in this article.

Personal Advice - If you don't already own an early Cricut, please don't waste your time trying to track down a hardware and software combination that will do this. A used Silhouette Cameo (even a Cameo 1) will be much more useful and far less hassle. And Silhouette is far better about supporting owners of their early machines than Cricut.

Accommodating Cartridge Hoarders

Inevitably, folks who had a lot of cartridges started complaining about having to swap them in and out all of the time. Cricut accommodated them in two ways:The Cricut 'Jukebox' allowed you to have 6 cartridges loaded into your cartridge-driven Cricut at the same time.  You could even 'daisy-chain' them to allow for up to 18 cartridges.  Click for bigger photo.

  • The Cricut "Jukebox" allowed you to have multiple cartridges plugged in at the same time. As far as I can tell, it worked with several releases of Cricut Design Studio, so you could seamlessly include content from multiple cartridges in the same cut. You could even 'daisy-chain' them to allow for up to 18 cartridges.

  • The Cricut 'Gypsy,' included a digital repository of the user's 'linked' (registered) cartridges and a small screen so you could actually design 'on the fly.'  Click for bigger photo.The Cricut "Gypsy" was an electronic device that allowed cartridge owners to "link" (register) their cartridges, so they didn't have to drag them around all the time. Made like a small tablet, it also had a screen you could use to plan your projects on while you were away from your machine. To folks with a lot of cartridges, this seemed to be a godsend.

    As I understand it, Gypsy also interacted well with Craft Room (below), an online program similar to DesignStudio that, for a time, supported old and new Cricuts both.

    I'm also told that, when the Explore came along, and Cricut began discontinuing physical cartridges, Gypsy owners had a "window" of opportunity to make certain that their "linked" cartridges stayed linked (registered) to their account as they went forward. But once the Gypsy and the software that supported it were discontinued, each Gypsy became locked, as it were. Yes, it kept record of the cartridges that were authorized through the thing, but no new cartridges could be added. So, buying a used Gypsy is not only technically a violation of copyright, but also a "crapshoot," unless you know exactly which cartridge the original owner linked. (And none of the "linked" cartridges it supposedly includes will work on anything newer than an Expression 2.)

    Personal Recommendation - If you have a working cartridge-based machine, you may find the Jukebox helpful, especially if you have a working version of DesignStudio that supports it (try cutting images from two different cartridges in the same cut - the software will ask you to switch cartridges or plug in your Jukebox).

    Also, be very wary of buying used Gypsies. Some ads claim a hundred "linked" cartridges but only have ones you'd never use on a dare. Some don't work at all. At least be sure you have return privileges.

Advent of "Cartridge Linking"

Technically, when you "bought" a cartridge, you were really buying a non-transferable license to use the embedded fonts and images on your own machine. Legally, this is analogous to buying a software program for your computer. When the Gypsy and the first Explore made it possible to "link" your cartridges to your account, what Cricut was really doing was acknowledging that you had a license to use all of those images and fonts indefinitely, whether or not you ever got your cartridges out of the shoebox again. (Yes, there have been hiccups.)

As far as the Cricut folks (and the law) are concerned, "linking" your cartridge to your account, then selling the physical cartridge because you don't need it any more is analogous to purchasing a DVD, making a copy, and selling the original. Or buying software, installing it on your hard drive, and selling the installation disk to someone else.

Despite the legal issues, the ability to give away or sell off a physical cartridge collection without losing access to the images and fonts you love has opened the door for a sort of black market of "linked cartridge sales." Savvy buyers know that virtually all "previously owned" cartridges for sale on the auction sites at any given time have been linked, and will therefore be useless with anything newer than an Expression 2 (though - to Cricut's dismay - "linked" cartridges still work with the older, cartridge-driven devices).

Nowadays, "digital cartridges" have replaced physical cartridges, so there's nothing for owners to resell. On the other hand, with the ability of Explores, Joys, and Makers to use images from the internet, Cricut knows they have to make their "digital" cartridges exceptional, so I expect them to keep up the quality.

Craft Room and Expression 2

The Expression 2 was impervious to hacks but depended on internet-based software for anything than simple cartridge-based cutting. Click for bigger photo.The Expression 2 (CREX002) was the last cartridge-based machine. It had a touch screen that many users found more intuitive than the Expression 1's buttons and tiny LCD. It also had two cartridges' worth of content already embedded in the machine.

Cricut also probably liked the fact that it was less hackable than the Expression 1 and its predecessors. (Which explains why some tech-savvy users prefer the Expression 1 over the Expression 2.)

The Expression 2 also wound up being the last Cricut that would use physical cartridges. The good and bad lessons Cricut had learned from the Gypsy, as well as the rise of popular competitors, were making it clear that the company needed to move on.

Cricut Craft Room replaced DesignStudio for a time, but was shut down because of Adobe Flash issues. Click for bigger photo.The hard-drive-based DesignStudio software stopped getting updated, and a new online system, "Craft Room" came into play. As I understood it, Craft Room would work with the cartridge-based machines as well as newer machines like the Cricut Mini and Explore, which did not use cartridges.

I never used Craft Room. Though I tested it, it didn't give me any new features I needed, and - believe it or not - my original copy of DesignStudio was still working (it still is, knock on wood).

The Cricut Mini was designed to work with Craft Room, and when that software was discontinued, it turned into a doorstop. Click to see bigger picture.Craft Room software enabled Cricut to release a cartridge-less cutter based, nevertheless, on the cartridge-cutters' internal ("legacy") engine - the Cricut Mini (right).

In the meantime, Cricut was developing a new online-based program to drive their new cutters, starting with the Explore. These would never use cartridges (though the Explore had a port that you could use to link your cartridges). Cricut was also phasing out physical cartridges, moving to "digital cartridges."

The Unexpected "Death" of Craft Room - Unfortunately, the underlying Flash technology that Craft Room depended on was discontinued by its owner, Adobe, because of unresolved security issues. Consequently, Cricut had no real alternative than to discontinue the program. Because it was internet-based, rather than located on people's hard drives, once Cricut took it off the servers, there was no way to keep using it.

At that moment, Cricut could have chosen to resurrect Design Studio or something like it to keep supporting the cartridge-driven machines. But Design Studio was years out of date, and would have needed to be heavily modififed to work with the newer Cricuts. They chose instead to focus on software that would support their newer machines only.

Rise of Design Space

Design Space abandoned the look-and-feel of the earlier programs to make room for more professional design features.  Click for bigger photo.Design Space was designed to mimic professional graphic programs and to work only with "digital cartridges" and "links" (which were also digital by now).

The software also permitted importing .SVG files, so you could download other people's images or design your own graphics in some other program and port them into Design Space. So it was Cricut's attempt to drive their technology into the future. Note: The current version of Design Space resides on your hard drive, though it still depends on internet access for many features. So you can, technically use Design Space for certain things without being online, but some things get awkward.

When Craft Room was discontinued, users of newer cutters like the Explore could transition over to Design Space. Their "linked" cartridges stayed linked in the new system as well.

However. Design Space was never designed to support the old cartridge-based machines (or even the Mini). So, when the demise of Flash technology forced the premature demise of Craft Room, the Expression 2 - turned into a "cartridge-only" machine. All of the other cartridge-based machines were also, technically, "cartridge only," but some folks still had working copies of the original DesignStudio software.

The Cricut Mini could not take cartridges, but could not run on Design Space either. It turned into a boat anchor. (Cricut told Mini owners that if they had a complaint, they should check their warranty documentation - ouch!)

Personally, I think it would have been nice for Cricut to start allowing new authorizations for the old Design Studio software, even without updates. But Cricut personnel had already spent thousands of hours supporting users of that program in the past, and they were wanted to focus on new products.

A "Wrong Turn"

Cricut's biggest failure, the Cricut Imagine (CRIM0001), combined a cutter and an inkjet.  It should have been a great success, but it was overpriced for what it gave you, and Cricut lovers stayed away in droves.  Click for bigger photo.Here's one you don't hear about often. The Cricut Imagine (CRIM0001) was Cricut's biggest single failure. It combined a cutter and an inkjet into the same machine, so you could print anything you wanted and cut it out easily. It should have been a great success, but it was overpriced for what it gave you, and Cricut lovers stayed away in droves. The only software that ever worked with it was the now-discontinued Craft Room, so if you buy one now, you are entirely at the mercy of the cartridges you have available.

On top of that, the cartridges that were made for that specific machine are "iffy" with other machines, so consider avoiding them if you're shopping for used cartridges.

Several modern cutters replicate the intended function of this machine by using registration marks you print on your graphics. The craftcutters can then cut out just the part you want.

Recent and Current Machines

What replaced the cartridge-driven machines was the Explore line and its successors. I am going to gloss over descriptions of current machines, as those are widely available, and - for the most part - accurate.

The Explore, Explore Aire, and later models like the Joy and Maker rely on "digital image sets," (originally called "digital cartridges"). The Explore (1) machines included a cartridge port, not so you could use your old cartridges, but so Cricut could register ("link") your cartridges to your account and give you access to their contents for the foreseeable future. That is the oldest Cricut that will run on current software.

Customers who already spent hundreds of dollars on cartridges and "linked them" to their accounts are buying the new machines because it's the only way to keep using their favorites with a machine that the current software supports. Again, once your cartridge is linked to your account, it can never be used by anyone else.

Note: I bought a used Explore (1) cheap to test out some of the advertised features and frequent complaints about modern Cricuts and Design Space software. I learned, among other things that, like modern Silhouettes, modern Cricuts stay linked to the original owner no matter what you do. So if you buy a used Explore (1), you won't be able to use the cartridge port to link your cartridge with it. Any cartridges you try to link will either not link at all, or they will link to the original owner's account, rendering them useless to you going forward!

The Explore Aire added BlueTooth technology, so you could drive it from your computer without pluggin in a USB cord.

The Joy is sort of a modern replacement for the dinky, but highly portable Personal Cutter and Create.

The Maker is the current top of the line. One of its biggest advantages is the ability to cut more, thicker material.

All three of the machines run only on Cricut's Design Space, which Cricut has now converted to a hard-drive system so you can run it even if you're not connected to the internet.

Where Cricut product development goes from here is hard to say, although I'll always be a little suspicious of a company that has abandoned support for once-best-selling products again and again.

At the moment I have my eye on a first-generation Explore machine, mostly just to see how well the Design Space software really works. (I can afford that experiment.)

If they want me to consider, say, a Maker, say, they'll have to let 3rd-party developers drive the thing without reliance on Cricut software, the way Sure-Cuts-A-Lot did back in the early days.

Hey, Cricut, Sure-Cuts-A-Lot is still in business. What about mending fences, at least for your current models?

Conclusion

I apologize for the length of this article, but there was a lot of content I needed to put somewhere. Also, I wanted to "set the record straight" on a number of issues. Unless you've spent hours on the internet or waiting on responses from Cricut's "customer service" trying to find simple answers about machines or software that Cricut refuses to support, you may have no idea how much misinformation is "out there."

I hope this has helped answer any questions you have about any Cricuts you already own. Or if you don't already own a Cricut, I hope it helps you decide on any future purchases.

Watch this page: more articles are in the works.

As always, we want to hear your suggestions, criticisms, additions, etc. Enjoy your hobbies, and especially any time you can spend with your family in the coming months!

Paul


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