Joining the likes of Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now and YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV lets you watch some of your favorite cable channels live, as well as a lot of your favorite cable shows on demand. Unlike other cable replacements, though, Hulu’s $40-a-month live TV service integrates seamlessly into its already-robust subscription streaming service (which is included in the cost).
At a glance, Hulu with Live TV is colorful, easy to navigate, effective at recommending new content and priced fairly. However, a multitude of ads, a jittery interface and a bevy of overpriced extras prevent Hulu with Live TV from being the best cable replacement on the market right now. But for a product that’s still technically in beta, it’s off to a surprisingly strong start. Hulu’s live TV service isn’t a must-have for cord cutters (at least not yet), but it does deserve their careful consideration.
Unlike YouTube TV, Hulu’s live TV service doesn’t come in a separate app; it’s part of the Hulu experience you already know and love, or at least tolerate, depending on your level of patience with advertisements.
Hulu redesigned its app from the ground up for Apple TV, Chromecast, iOS, Android and Xbox One — although it's now available on most platforms. Instead of the old green-and-white menus, Hulu’s interface now makes use of the whole color spectrum, centering on an easygoing blue-green-pink pastel scheme. It’s colorful, but not distracting.
Hulu also deserves some praise for an interface that’s remarkably consistent across every platform. If you know how to control the Android app, you won’t need to learn anything new to make it run on the Xbox One. The controls, visuals, menus and even the general sense of space are all the same, which is impressive, considering the various screen sizes.
In particular, the service does a good job of quantifying user tastes and recommending relevant new content. You can take a deep dive into some of your favorite categories, rather than just telling the service that you like vague descriptors such as “comedy” or “horror.”
Getting around is pretty simple. In addition to a home screen full of recommended content, you can access My Stuff (favorite programs and channels), Browse, Search and Settings from either the top or bottom of the screen, depending on which menu you’re using.
Each main menu leads to a slew of submenus. The home screen can recommend new stuff to watch or help you pick up where you left off in the Keep Watching section. The Browse menu lets you choose content by genre, as well as explore by network, live, on-demand, Hulu Originals and other options. It’s a robust, intuitive system that strikes a usable balance between simplicity and functionality.
The only downside to Hulu’s approach is that once you get deep into the menus, there’s no easy way to return to the main screen. You’ll have to click the back button a bunch of times. Although that doesn’t take too long, it does make me wonder whether there could be an easier way to access the main menu,especially on touch-screen-enabled devices, where buttons aren’t a limiting factor. The menus also lagged a bit on the Xbox One, which is surprising for such a powerful system.
Hulu’s live TV service has one glaring omission: a full channel guide. Unlike with PlayStation Vue or a traditional cable/satellite service, you can’t simply call up a guide and scroll through everything that will be on for the next few hours, on every channel. You can look at a daily schedule on a channel-by-channel basis, or scroll through a list of what’s playing live at the moment, but there’s no quick and easy way to do both. If you know what you want to watch, it’s not a problem, but if you’re channel surfing, it will slow you down considerably.
Availability and Pricing
Currently, Hulu with Live TV is available on Apple TV, Chromecast, iOS, Android and Xbox One. The company plans to roll out apps for Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Samsung smart TVs and computers over the next few months.
Considering the program is still in beta, I can’t fault Hulu for choosing to release the service for certain platforms first. But the release order feels a bit strange: Why does the Xbox One get an app, when the PS4 — a much more popular system — doesn’t even have one on the horizon? Perhaps it was because the Xbox One’s architecture is so similar to Windows 10, but then why is there no Windows app yet? (Or perhaps it’s because Sony wants to keep its own PlayStation Vue front and center.) The lack of web-browser compatibility is particularly odd because it leaves laptop users out in the cold.
Hulu with Live TV offers a variety of add-on services that users can purchase on top of the base $40-per-month cost. Cutting out commercials from Hulu content will add $5 to your monthly rate. Expanding your DVR to 200 hours from the default 50 will cost $15, and allowing unlimited simultaneous streams rather than the default two will also cost $15, although you can save $10 if you buy both the expanded DVR and unlimited streams together. Showtime costs an extra $9 per month, bringing your potential total to $74 per month. Add in all those extras, and you could find some pretty decent full-fledged cable packages for less, obliterating cord cutting’s cost-saving appeal.
A note on that $5 commercial-free surcharge: It won’t cut commercials out of on-demand shows from individual networks, nor will it even cut every Hulu ad; some networks require ads to be shown before and after shows rather than in the middle. Paying for content and still having to sit through ads has always been my least favorite part of Hulu’s service, and unfortunately, it’s as obtrusive as ever here.
Content and Channels
Hulu offers more than 50 channels for $40 per month, which is a fair price for a cable replacement. For the most part, Hulu even includes channels that you’ll want to watch. Hulu’s live TV lineup includes A&E, Bravo, CNN, Disney Channel, ESPN, FX, Food Network, Fox News, Fox Sports, History, National Geographic, Syfy, TBS, TNT, USA and plenty of other worthwhile programming, including sports and kids’ content. Depending on your region, you’ll even get a generous assortment of local channels, such as ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
But some channels are missing. The Viacom channels are a glaring omission, particularly Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon. (Sling TV and DirecTV Now offer these, but other competitors don’t.) In comparison, most other cable-replacement services even offer BBC America. And there are not many options for premium channels, such as Cinemax, HBO or Starz. For whatever reason, you also can’t get PBS as a local station, which could prove problematic if you come down with a terrible bout of insomnia.
The absence of some networks is somewhat forgivable, because you also have access to Hulu’s full lineup of streaming shows, movies and original programs. Some of Hulu's original series, such as The Handmaid's Tale, have made a big splash in the streaming scene. You can also stream episodes of Star Trek and Family Guy to your heart’s content, as well as view a surprisingly decent selection of movies, which changes from month to month.
Hulu’s library isn’t quite as robust as what Netflix or Amazon Video offer, and you’ll have to sit through ads on a lot of the programs, even if you pay extra to skip commercials. On the other hand, the service costs $8 per month by itself anyway, so an additional $32 for a full-fledged cable-replacement service isn’t bad. Furthermore, Hulu helped bring Season 4 of the British satirical comedy The Thick of It to the United States, which is a perk.
Cable replacements have a pretty mixed record when it comes to recording shows for later playback. Generally, they either they do it well (YouTube TV) or leave it out entirely (DirecTV Now). Hulu has one of the better DVR setups among these services, but to get the most out of it, you’ll have to shell out some additional money.
Setting up your DVR options is extremely simple: If you see a show or movie you want to watch, just add it to My Stuff, and Hulu will automatically record it when it comes on. Movies will record once; shows will record all episodes that Hulu can find. You get 50 hours of storage, and newer programs automatically push older ones out. There don’t appear to be any time limits on how long you can keep content. (YouTube TV lets you keep content for nine months; PlayStation Vue’s limit is one month.)
The system works just fine, but it’s not as generous as YouTube TV’s unlimited DVR capabilities. For 200 hours of DVR content, you have to pay an additional $15 per month. That may sound like a lot, but considering you can share a Hulu with Live TV account between two people, 50 hours could go fast. Ultimately, it depends on how much you record and how long you want to keep those shows around.
Hulu has made great strides with its video quality over the past year. Like its competitors Amazon and Netflix, the streaming service now offers 4K video for its original series and selected movies. Granted, 4K resolution is available only on Xbox One S and PS4 Pro systems, but it’s at least a start.
Most TV stations broadcast at 720p; most on-demand movies reach 1080p. This is true whether they come through Hulu’s on-demand service, networks’ on-demand libraries or live broadcasts. Although Hulu doesn’t provide any simple method to gauge a video’s resolution, you can set caps in case you’re watching on a metered connection.
From what I observed, videos achieved HD quality within 5 to 10 seconds on an unencumbered home Wi-Fi network. Live feeds and DVR took a little bit longer than Hulu and network on-demand content. It would be nice if Hulu could pre-cache some of this content — maybe whatever’s on the top of your list in My Feed? — but as it stands, it’s no worse than any other streaming service out there, and indeed better than some.
Hulu with Live TV may still be in beta, but it’s already a reasonable contender. The streaming service’s redesigned interface is gorgeous and pretty easy to navigate. You get plenty of interesting channels for a reasonable price. You get access to Hulu’s robust streaming library, as well as some fairly generous DVR and sharing options.
But the advertisement situation still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and the interface could be a little snappier. A comprehensive guide would make it even faster to find something entertaining to watch. The extras cost a lot of money, and I question their utility for most people.
While these aren’t negligible concerns, they don’t take away too much from what is ultimately a very solid effort on Hulu’s part. If you’re hesitant to drop $40 per month on a beta product, at least keep this service on your radar. One must wonder when the beta will conclude, given that it's been going on since May. Give it some time, though, and it could accomplish great things.