YouTube’s steady expansion beyond cat videos took a new direction in early 2017 when it launched YouTube TV. The live TV streaming service promised to deliver Millennials a new television experience, but its benefits matter to all generations. Our YouTube TV review will show you how its focus on local TV and unique features combine into a sold option for cord-cutters.
YouTube’s live TV streaming service launched in early 2017. The streaming giant insisted at the time that being an internet version of cable wasn’t YouTube TV’s goal. As YouTube executive Kelly Merriman explained to CNET, YouTube’s goal was to “reimagine the television experience for the new generation.”
YouTube decided it would give Millennials the TV content in a way that wouldn’t tie this new generation to a big screen TV. That led the company to build a strategy based on two requirements:
- Get local station streaming rights before offering YouTube TV in a market.
- Go to market with mobile apps rather than apps for televisions.
Taking this approach meant a slower rollout for YouTube TV than some of its competitors. Hulu with Live TV launched a month later. By the end of 2017, CNBC reported, Hulu had fifty percent more subscribers than YouTube TV.
At first, you could only get YouTube TV if you lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia or the San Francisco Bay Area. The major networks own the local affiliates in those markets which made it easy for YouTube to negotiate streaming rights.
Over the following months, YouTube cut deals with station owner after station owner. An announcement in early 2018 celebrated the rapid expansion to reach the top one hundred TV markets in America – more than four-fifths of Americans. You can check the YouTube TV support site for a list of available markets to find out if the service is available in your town.
At its launch, YouTube TV only had apps for Android and iOS mobile devices. You could also stream live TV on a computer. The only way you could watch YouTube TV on a television, though, was through Google’s Chromecast system. That may not have been the best idea.
There’s a myth that Millennials aren’t interested in television because they do all their video watching on their smartphones. It took YouTube almost seven months to realize that isn’t true. “Over half the time spent watching YouTube TV is consumed through Chromecast on the big screen,” YouTube TV product manager Okalo Ikhena admitted in a blog post.
YouTube TV’s app support now includes the Roku and Apple TV streaming boxes as well as Xbox One game consoles. Smart TV’s made by Hisense, LG, Samsung and Sharp also have YouTube TV apps.
Still, you may never see YouTube TV’s device support match Hulu’s or Sling TV’s. Google’s Chrome browser is the only way to watch YouTube TV on a computer or laptop. The horrible relationship between Google and Amazon means a YouTube TV app for Fire TV is not an option.
Plans and Add-ons
Subscribing to YouTube TV costs $40 per month. Besides the core lineup of nearly sixty networks, you can choose from a handful of add-on subscriptions. For premium movies, you can add subscriptions to AMC Premiere, Showtime or Starz. You can also get the documentary-focused CuriosityStream, horror-focused Shudder or the indie film-focused Sundance Now. Sports fans can add Fox Soccer Plus or the NBA League Pass.
Free Trial, Features and Channels
You activate the seven-day free trial by giving YouTube your zip code and credit card number. The zip code sets your lineup of local and regional TV stations.
Cosmetically, the browser and mobile versions look different from the Apple TV and Roku versions.
The Chrome experience and mobile apps, both Android and iOS, share a look and feel similar to the main YouTube site. Thumbnails for each show appear on a white background. For TV shows airing right now, those thumbnails are live videos.
The Apple TV and Roku apps, on the other hand, have static images on a dark grey background. Personally, I think the YouTube-like interface you get in Chrome and mobile seems more elegant.
Despite the difference in appearance, YouTube TV’s layout is the same across all platforms.
The main landing screen displays recommendations and shows that are airing right now. As you scroll through the Home section, you’ll see live thumbnails of news, sports and other content.
Unsurprisingly, YouTube TV devotes a lot of screen space — three out of the ten categories — to content from YouTube. One is the obligatory “Trending on YouTube” where you can see videos you’ll never want to watch. Another features original programming from the YouTube Red subscription service. The third probably changes based on your viewing habits. For me, it shows a bunch of YouTube food shows.
At first glance, you’d think the Live section was a traditional programming guide. There’s a column of networks. Each row displays current and upcoming shows for that network. Upcoming, however, only means the next show. You can’t see any further than an hour into the future.
The Live section’s channel listing is not alphabetical. YouTube TV places your local TV stations, TBS and TNT at the top of the list. The remaining channels are grouped in categories: sports, kids, movies, entertainment, lifestyle and news. Science fiction channel Comet sits at the bottom of the list.
Tapping on a network’s icon will take you to a dedicated screen for that network. This is where you’ll find a scrollable timeline of the network’s programs for the next twenty-four hours.
Some of the network screens have even more information. The Syfy screen, for example, has a featured section for The Magicians as well as lists of movies and TV shows.
Tapping on the icon for a TV series will take you to a dedicated screen for that show. On-demand episodes, if available, will be listed as will similar TV shows. The interface also surfaces related official content from YouTube like previews and clips.
Library and Cloud DVR
The Library section displays any content you’ve recorded using YouTube TV’s cloud DVR. Recordings are categorized by shows, movies and sports. You can also get a list of new episodes as well as recently recorded content.
YouTube has one of the more generous recording policies. Rather than cap the number of hours you can record, everyone on your account can record as much as they want. YouTube TV will delete the recordings after nine months.
The cloud DVR does not let you adjust how it records TV shows. Any time a show airs on any network, the cloud DVR adds it to your library. That’s not such a big deal when you’re recording a new TV series like The Resident.
The only way to record the latest episode of NCIS or Law & Order, on the other hand, is to record every single episode.
Profiles and simultaneous streaming
You can create up to six profiles within a single account. That lets family members or roommates have their own favorites, viewing history, cloud DVR space and recommendations.
Even if six people share the account, licensing issues limit your household to three simultaneous video streams. That limit is fairly typical of streaming TV services, but not best-in-class. PlayStation Vue, for example, allows five devices at a time.
YouTube TV focused its launch efforts on the national broadcast networks. Those deals gave YouTube access to many of the network-owned channels, but don’t cover the full range of TV-watching interests.
The sports lineup, for example, is particularly strong. You get all of the ESPN channels, the relatively new CBS Sports Network, and NBC-owned sports channels like the Olympic Channel and the Golf Channel.
Network-owned channels dominate other categories. You’ll get channels like ABC-owned Freeform, NBC-owned Syfy, Fox-owned National Geographic, and CBS-owned The CW.
YouTube’s deal with media giant Time Warner adds channels like CNN, TBS, TNT and the Cartoon Network. More and more, YouTube TV is looking like a traditional cable replacement service.
With one exception. Lifestyle channels remain a weakness in YouTube TV’s lineup. You won’t find popular channels like the Food Network, HGTV, the Science Channel and Discovery.
Watching YouTube TV
The streaming quality throughout my evaluation was consistently smooth. I never ran into buffering issues when streaming through my Ethernet-connected Apple TV. The experience over Wi-Fi on an iPad and Roku wasn’t any different.
Most of the networks provide full high definition video streams running at 1080p. Many of the Disney-owned channels, like ESPN and Freeform, stream in 720p high definition. Disney makes up for that lower resolution by streaming at 60 frames per second. That high frame rate makes the fast-paced action in sports and movies play much smoother.
While watching TV, you can add the TV show or live event to your Library. You can also set up notifications to get alerts about new episodes. The settings option lets you adjust video quality and toggle closed captioning.
When watching live TV, you can pause an episode and then jump through the broadcast commercials. The same holds true for recordings of live broadcasts.
If you’re watching an on-demand episode, however, YouTube TV makes you watch the commercial breaks. Skipping is not an option.
Depending on the network, YouTube TV will replace a recorded broadcast episode with the on-demand version. If that happens, you’re stuck watching the commercials.
Overall Review: 7.8
YouTube TV offers a solid, if incomplete, channel lineup for a reasonable price. Setting a priority on streaming local TV stations slowed the service’s rollout but its coverage now approaches 85% of the American population.
That best-in-class support for local TV gets weighed down by gaps in YouTube TV’s channel lineup and support for streaming devices.
As long as those limitations aren’t important for you, YouTube TV is well worth taking for a test drive.
Channel quality: 8
YouTube TV excels at providing traditional broadcast networks and their cable channels. That extends to its best-in-class support for local affiliates of those national networks. If you can get YouTube TV in your town, then it probably has more local stations than any other internet TV service.
At the same time, YouTube TV isn’t a something-for-everybody kind of service. Sports fans and news junkies will be pleased with the channel selection.
If your tastes run to cooking competitions and home makeovers, however, you’re out of luck. The most popular lifestyle channels are not on YouTube TV.
Streaming quality: 9
Most of the content YouTube TV offers is either in 1080p resolution or runs high frame rate 720p. As you’d expect from the world’s largest video streaming service, server capacity and bandwidth is not an issue for Google. YouTube TV’s streaming performance was consistently excellent. Odds are any issues you run into will be due to your internet connection.
Device support: 6
Support for streaming devices remains a weakness for YouTube TV, although recent releases of Roku and Apple TV apps partially bridge the gap. Still, YouTube TV may always lag behind competitors like Hulu or Sling TV.
That’s because your personal streaming preferences take a back seat to Google’s corporate politics. YouTube TV only works in Google’s Chrome browser. And if the YouTube-Amazon relationship never improves, fans of Amazon’s Fire TV will never get YouTube TV.
YouTube TV offers a good value — even after the price hike to $40 per month. Features like account profiles and unlimited cloud DVR storage space go above and beyond what many other services offer.
That value, however, depends on your TV-watching needs aligning with YouTube TV’s approach. If you’re looking for a full replacement for cable, YouTube TV’s value doesn’t look as good.
If you like everything else about YouTube TV, but can’t do without HGTV or the Travel Channel, then there is a solution. Subscribing to both YouTube TV and Philo gives you the best of both worlds.
Philo is an internet streaming service that only costs $16 per month. It gets to that low price by not offering local channels or sports networks. Instead, Philo focuses on the very lifestyle channels YouTube TV doesn’t have.
Although it means dealing with two separate apps for watching TV, the combination of Philo and YouTube TV becomes a true cable replacement package.