For a long time, streaming services were a complement to a cable or satellite subscription. Sure, you could watch all the Star Trek reruns your heart desired, but you’d never be able to get the latest and greatest shows, news and sports delivered live. Then came the cable- replacement service: Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now and, most recently, YouTube TV.
YouTube TV offers about 40 live channels for $35 per month. You can watch it on a computer, a mobile device or a Chromecast. The service also offers unlimited DVR capabilities and a whole host of local broadcast channels, depending on your location. On paper, it all sounds good, but inquiring minds want to know: Does it work, and if so, is it considerably better than its competitors?
Yes and no, respectively.
Interface: Best on Mobile
Whether you’re on a PC or a mobile device, the interface for YouTube TV is both straightforward and good-looking. There are only three tabs to grapple with, and each one is exactly what it sounds like. Library is where you can access all of your recorded shows and movies. Home shows you tailored content you might enjoy, from popular live channels to shows you were watching that you can resume on-demand. Live lets you scroll through all of the available channels. That’s really all you need to know. Even having never used a cable-replacement service before, you could feasibly go from signing up for an account to watching your favorite show in less than a minute.
On the other hand, YouTube TV is missing one huge tab: a Browse feature. You can indeed browse through content, but it took me a while to find out how. When you click on the search button, you’ll be transported to an entirely new page, where you can search for specific keywords on top, or browse by genre, channel and popularity below. As I pointed out in my initial YouTube TV hands-on, the browsing feature works fine, but putting it under search is counterintuitive. Search usually helps direct users to specific content, while Browse helps them start with more general queries. Combining these two may be space-efficient, but it’s burying one of the service’s most helpful features.
Otherwise, getting around YouTube TV is a snappy and intuitive process. The service does a great job concatenating live, upcoming and on-demand content. The service will show you not just what’s on right now, but what you might want to record later. It’s not exactly the instant gratification we’ve come to expect from streaming services, but you can record as many shows as you like and keep them in your library, so patience is very much a virtue with YouTube TV. Channels have live previews as you scroll past them, so you can not only pick something interesting, but also avoid tuning in during a commercial break.
Finding content to watch is very simple as well. If you know what channel you want, you can simply scroll down to it (or find it via the Browse menu). If not, YouTube TV will show you what’s popular with other users, what it recommends for viewers with your tastes, or narrower categories, such as Sitcoms, Peabody Award Winners or Political News.
Your options for watching YouTube TV on a TV screen are severely limited.
(There’s even a category called Try Something New, which shows you content you might not otherwise watch. I can’t say any of the shows sounded interesting, but it’s a nice contrast to other services that seem terrified to offer you something even slightly unfamiliar.)
My only big complaint about YouTube TV’s interface is that it has poor integration with the rest of YouTube. You can watch YouTube Red content, and Trending on YouTube will let you watch trailers, news clips and whatever else is of interest on Google’s ubiquitous video platform. You’ll only ever be able to access 20 or so of these clips, however; the rest of YouTube is off-limits unless you open its dedicated app. While having all of YouTube at your fingertips could be distracting, the piecemeal approach feels confusing.
Availability: Too Few Platforms
One problem with YouTube TV is that, ironically, your options for watching it on a TV screen are severely limited. While most cable-replacement services work with a variety of streaming players and game consoles, YouTube TV works with Google Chromecast, and the Chromecast feature on the Android TV operating system. That’s it, and there’s no word on when the service might be available for more platforms.
I like both the Chromecast and Android TV, and YouTube TV worked admirably on both of them during my tests. (However, the YouTube TV site points out that first-generation Chromecasts and Vizio TVs may not play nice with the app just yet.) Still, I can’t recommend the service in good conscience for anyone who has, say, a Roku box or an Apple TV — unless, of course, you’re willing to hook up your computer or mobile device to your TV and cut out the middleman altogether.
On the bright side, YouTube TV allows six simultaneous streams, so you can share the service with a large household — or a bunch of friends and family — and never worry about who gets to watch.
Content: Good Local Stuff, But...
For the price, YouTube TV simply doesn’t have as many channels as its competitors. In New York (one of five metro areas where the service is available; others are Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Philadelphia), I had access to 37 channels. You can expect between 35 and 40, regardless of location. It’s simply not that many, since its competitors tend to offer either more channels or lower prices. (Sling TV offers almost 50 channels for $25; PlayStation Vue almost 50 channels for $40; and DirecTV Now offers almost 70 channels for $35.)
Still, the channel selection is generally good. Sports fans will be happy to know that they get five different ESPN stations, as well as CBS Sports and Fox Sports. FX and its related networks provide lots of movies and beloved TV shows. MSNBC and Fox News provide lots of talking heads with very loud political opinions, and Disney provides three channels for kids.
What sets YouTube TV apart from the rest of the cable-replacement pack is its extensive DVR function.
What helps YouTube TV stand out is that it offers a full suite of local broadcast options. In New York, that means CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC and, for some reason (although I am absolutely not complaining), the YES Network. (Oddly enough, there’s no PBS.) No other cable replacement- service offers so many local options. It’s a useful feature, although you can get the same content for free with an HD antenna, which makes YouTube TV useful only if you need to record local content for later consumption.
MORE: The Best Roku Channels
On the other hand, YouTube TV is missing a great deal of channels that usually make a cable or satellite subscription worthwhile. There’s no Comedy Central, no Cartoon Network, no CNN, no Discovery, no Food Network, no History Channel, no Nickelodeon, no Spike, no TBS and no TNT. Optional channels include Showtime ($11 per month) and Fox Soccer Plus ($15 per month). That means no HBO, no Starz and no Cinemax, which other cable replacement- services do offer.
YouTube TV’s channel selection is competent, but it’s not nearly broad enough, especially given its stiff competition. You get a fair amount of content for $35, but it may not be the content you want to watch.
DVR: Unlimited Goodness
What sets YouTube TV apart from the rest of the cable-replacement pack is its extensive DVR function. While PlayStation Vue can record videos for a month, Sling TV has a DVR feature in beta and DirecTV Now has no recording features at all, YouTube TV gives users unlimited space to store as many programs as they like, then keep them for nine months. It’s not quite as good as having the recordings forever, but it’s this writer’s opinion that if you don’t watch a show within nine months of recording it, you probably weren’t that interested in watching it in the first place.
YouTube TV also makes it trivially easy to record shows you want. The Home screen directs you to popular shows you can add to your DVR list, and choosing a show will record every available instance of it, indefinitely, until you tell YouTube TV to stop. Navigating shows you’ve already recorded in the Library tab is similarly straightforward. There’s actually not much more to say about the DVR functionality, because it’s really as simple as it looks. Record as much as you want; watch it whenever you want. Other cable-replacement services could stand to learn a thing or two from YouTube TV in this regard.
YouTube TV is still nailing down the video quality on a lot of its streams. When I first logged into the service, all live channels capped out at 480p; a few days later, some streams claimed to go up to 1080p (even though no broadcast or cable provider actually streams of regular channels at 1080p, to my knowledge).
It’s difficult to tell what resolution videos are actually coming through at, but for most channels, 720p seems to be the order of the day. That’s fine, and on a par with every other cable-replacement service, but I wish I had a more accurate way to gauge resolution.
To damn YouTube TV with faint praise, I can say that it didn’t elicit any strong feelings from me. It didn’t impress me like PlayStation Vue, or disappoint me like DirecTV Now. The service has a few noticeable drawbacks (channel selection, platform availability) and a few novel features (slick interface, unlimited recording), but nothing that makes it considerably better or worse than its three biggest competitors.
If YouTube TV’s channel selection appeals to you, and you need to record a plethora of content on said channels, no other cable-replacement service can do it as well. On the other hand, if you want a big channel selection on a platform other than Chromecast, you’re going to have to give YouTube TV a pass, at least for the time being.
Photo credit: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide