Robin Hood (the outlaw) was the talk of the town. Sherwood Forest was blanketed with reward posters for his capture.

That's nothing, though, compared to the amount of coverage Robinhood (the app-based brokerage) has gotten over the past three months. A search of recent news stories for the term "Robinhood investors" returns more than 13,000 hits. 

I was intrigued by all the hype -- and criticism. So, armed with $100 and an iPhone, I decided to experience Robinhood for myself.

Here's what I found out.

A hooded archer with a bow and quiver walks through a forest.

Image source: Getty Images.

The mystique

Until this summer, all I knew about Robinhood was that it was an app-based trading platform that charged zero trading fees and was attracting young people to the world of investing. 

Great! Here at The Motley Fool, we're longtime proponents of starting your investment journey while you're young. We also believe that, with the right tools, you can probably do just as good a job managing your own money as a so-called "professional" money manager. 

But tales of Robinhood investors buying stock in bankrupt companies and other risky investments made me wonder if maybe there were a bit too few barriers to investing with Robinhood. Well, at least downloading the app was quick and painless. So I got it on my phone and began to explore.

Welcome to the wonderful world of paperwork

I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting (animated confetti, maybe?), but what I found when I opened the app was... a pretty typical account setup process. It took me about 45 minutes, but I felt obligated to read every single word of the fine print. (Every. Single. Word. I did that for you. You're welcome.)

If I had skimmed everything (which you should never do... but which you probably do anyway), it would have taken about ten minutes to complete the setup process from start to finish. It was virtually identical to the process of setting up a brokerage account with TD Ameritade or Vanguard: I entered my personal info, linked my bank account, and affirmed I wasn't a terrorist or money launderer.

The one thing that was a bit different was that Robinhood offered of a free share of stock for setting up an account. Bonus!!! (Actually, not so much: more on that in a future article)

You're on your own

One disclaimer that kept coming up in the fine print was that Robinhood "does not recommend stocks." Sure, that's standard for a self-directed brokerage account. But Robinhood really wanted to make sure I understood that Robinhood does not recommend stocks. I mean, seriously, it must have been stated at least a dozen times. 

Not only does Robinhood not recommend stocks, but it doesn't really give you any instructions at all when it comes time to actually invest. I poked around that app for five solid minutes before breaking down and Googling how to buy a stock, because there was no "Buy Stocks" or "Trade" button on the dashboard.

Turns out, you have to visit the page of the stock you want, and then you'll get the option to buy. Once you know that, you'll have no problems. But there's a lot of stuff that beginning investors don't know, which Robinhood does not go out of its way to explain. 

The verdict

My first impression: Robinhood is... fine. 

As a trading platform, it does what it needs to: allows you to trade stocks (also cryptocurrency, ETFs, and options!). But it's not the most intuitive app design. And it doesn't have the robust suite of analytical tools that some brokerages offer. 

And it definitely does not offer much guidance for the beginner investor. There's a very well-written primer on "Investing Basics"... if you can find it (in the app, tap the person icon at the bottom right, then the menu bars at the top right, then tap "Help," then "Help Center," then tap the menu bars at the top right again, then tap "Learn" and scroll down. Did I mention it's not very intuitive?).

That's why resources like The Motley Fool are so important. Knowing what stocks to buy -- and which ones not to buy -- is just as important as being able to buy them. Robinhood provides the latter, but investors need to do their research before buying, and having a trusted knowledge source like The Fool is critical to making that research count. 

Check back next time to find out what happens when you do not do your research before buying stocks on Robinhood.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.