YouTube TV review: a DVR to rule them all

Young people in the United States have already made the switch from traditional television to streaming services. The amount of time these folks spend watching TV has been dropping steadily for at least six years, while consumption of streaming video has been growing at a torrid pace. And this group is increasingly unlikely to pay for television or own a TV set.

Into this world comes YouTube TV, an attempt to marry the world’s most popular platform for streaming video with the programming of traditional television. For $35 a month, subscribers will get access to the four major broadcast networks and a bundle of over 40 cable channels, including key sports properties like ESPN and Fox Sports 1.

Of course, there are plenty of big gaps in YouTube TV’s current offering. While the goal is to capture the attention of fickle youth, the service won’t carry Viacom channels like MTV or Comedy Central, at least not for the time being. Showtime is available for an additional charge, but HBO isn’t yet. At launch, the service will only be offered in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area, with the promise of more to come soon; YouTube is still working out deals with local affiliates in cities across the US.

Like all the options in the world of streaming television, YouTube TV is a compromise. But if you’re in the market for an alternative to cable and need to have the big four networks and live sports, this is definitely one of the strongest options available.

Setting aside the exact selection of channels, which is likely to change quickly, the experience of YouTube TV on a smartphone is impressive. When you open the app, the home tab automatically displays a carousel of live programming. You swipe through to find something you like and click to start watching. If you’ve favorited a particular show, say SportsCenter or NCIS, it will automatically record to your cloud DVR. That means you can easily scrub back to the beginning of an episode if you don’t start watching until it’s halfway through.

Christian Oestlien, product management director at YouTube TV.

If you prefer a more traditional channel guide approach to browsing, you can swipe over the “live” tab. This gives you a menu of channels to scroll through; click on any channel to start watching and you get a menu of related programming below as well as recently watched content. Flip your phone from vertical to horizontal to go fullscreen. If you decide to cast the stream to your TV, your phone will shift from a viewer to a controller. “One of the great things about casting, now your phone can transform itself into a remote,” says Christian Oestlien, YouTube TV’s product management director. “While you’re casting you can minimize the player and start browsing again.”

Youtube TV’s DVR function offers an unlimited amount of cloud storage and will save recordings for nine months at a time. This is a compelling offer when stacked up against some of the other streaming services in the market. Sling TV charges $5 per month for 50 hours of cloud DVR storage and Sony’s Vue service offers unlimited storage, but only for 28 days. DirecTV Now currently has no cloud DVR option, although it’s said something will be announced in the near future. Hulu has said it will offer a cloud DVR with its streaming service, but still hasn’t set a firm date for the launch. Since there is no reason to limit yourself, adding items to your DVR becomes kind of addictive; I found myself adding almost everything that seemed remotely interesting, just in case.

“A lot of people talk about it being the golden age of TV programming, and I would agree with that,” said Kelly Merryman, YouTube’s VP of content partnership. People of all ages love TV, but when folks between the ages of 18 and 34 look at television today “by and large the distribution of it doesn’t meet their needs. The result of that is we see more ‘cord nevers’ and a few more cord cutters.”

Kelly Merryman, VP of content partnership, YouTube.

Building a solid mobile app solves one part of that problem, and the unlimited DVR tries to shift TV to a more on-demand experience. The other big selling point for YouTube TV is its powerful search capabilities. This is a technology that Google and YouTube have been perfecting for over a decade — and it shows. You can do your typical search for a TV series, film, actor, or genre, but you can also do a broader query, like “time travel,” and the service is smart enough to show you all the programming it has access to that features that theme.

Sports is one of the big draws of traditional television, and YouTube TV has placed a special emphasis on organizing this content. You can select your favorite teams or leagues and the service will bundle these into folders so you can easily hop in and find recent matches. Once you let YouTube TV know your favorite league or team, it will also save all games to your DVR, no matter what channel it appears on. Since a lot of the experience is personalized around what you save and search for, YouTube TV offers six individually personalized accounts and three concurrent streams with your monthly subscription. That’s about the middle of the pack: Sony Vue offers five concurrent streams, DirecTV Now offers two, and Sling offers between one and four streams depending on the package you purchase.

Like all streaming services, YouTube TV is hobbled a bit by blackout restrictions that keep you from watching live programming if you’re not in the area. You have to set your home address when you sign up and you can’t use the service without GPS enabled. You can watch your favorite sports teams live when you’re home, but not when you’re on the road. Luckily, the service will still save everything to your DVR, and once it’s stored in the cloud, you can watch the programming no matter where you are.

You can watch stuff on mobile, but the app is really designed to work with a Chromecast or Cast-enabled television. As with any other Cast-enabled app, once you push stuff to the big screen, your smartphone or tablet becomes your remote. That lets you do simple things like search with your voice instead of typing things out. You can also scroll through other programming without changing the channel from what you’re watching. This works best with stuff on the TV, but if you’re mobile, the app offers a picture-in-picture mode so you can browse for something better without leaving the show you’re on. I have a first-generation Chromecast, and the app warned me of performance issues. But over 48 hours of use, I didn’t experience any beyond a bit of a delay when starting a stream.

It’s easy, from that perspective, to understand why the television studios signed on for this partnership. They get paid to license content they are already run ads against and a chance to connect with young people who are addicted to YouTube and mobile. But why is YouTube getting into this business? It’s hard to imagine that it sees it as a big money-making opportunity. It has to pay to license all the content and probably won’t make money from the ads that have already been sold against TV shows. True, it might introduce some new people to its own original programming, but those shows definitely don’t get top billing in the app.

The best answer I can think of is that YouTube sees this as a chance to establish a paying relationship with users who have always thought of the service as a place to get free entertainment. YouTube gets to own the data about usage and viewing patterns that can be leveraged to better attract and target future customers. Not to mention, it becomes the primary interface for your living room — a powerful position to occupy.

Photography by James Bareham

Video by Phil Esposito and Matty Greene

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Comments

As a recent cord cutter who hates cable boxes, this is really attractive to me. Especially if it doesn’t require any long term contract.

Without YouTube Red’s perks this is a no go for me. There’s no reason, in my eyes, why Ad-less YouTube & Google Play Music shouldn’t be part of the package. 95% of YouTube’s Originals are garbage.. pure manure.

Also, this joint isn’t directly integrated into the YouTube experience. I have to go to a separate place to watch TV. Search is gimped for regular YouTube videos so I’m better off searching on the standard YouTube site. This should all coexist together in one experience. Plus even when I’m signed up & can view YouTube Originals on YouTube TV, I can’t go to standard YouTube & view those same YouTube Originals if I don’t have YouTube Red… that doesn’t make sense. It’s all under the same account. It should know I’m signed up for YouTube TV & grant me access to the Red Originals. Also no Safari support. Can’t see myself taking this past the free trial. I’ll revisit in a year.

I recently took over billing responsibility from someone who signed up with DirecTV NOW’s grandfathered rateplan and as long as your outside of NYC, its worth looking for…

From what I understand, Verizon’s last-mile network in NY really blows. The guy on eBay, had Verizon FiOS in NYC at home and Fios service could not keep up— constantly buffering. He complained and DirecTV provided a year’s worth of HBO at no additional cost for the connection problems in Verizon’s FiOS area. I kept that benefit when I took over the account.

So with two simeoutaneous streams on multiple TVs, the throughput required doesnt come anywhere near capacity; using 30Mbit on my cheap $79.99/month GPON-to-the-house-line. Picture quality over cellular is also just fine.

I hesitated getting my own DTV*NOW account was because of the lack of DVR functionality. However, the on-demand catalog makes up for that shortcoming. I cancelled my two TiVOs, 100 channels, DTV-Now looks fine on a 85-inch projector screen.

If you aren’t attached to the hip to Verizon for FiOS or DSL, you may want to keep an eye on eBay for the ‘grandfathered’ 100-channel DirecTV deal on eBay. As more people in NYC look for options, like this YouTube schtick, you may be able to score that grandfathered rateplan.

Does the $35/month include YouTube Red? Or is that still an additional $10?

It does not include Youtube Red.

Interestingly, one of the channels listed is called "Youtube Red Originals".

Right. But paying $35 will not remove ADs from regular YouTube or give you offline capabilities in YouTube apps. You’ll still need to pay $10 for that.

So you get the content, just not the perks.

Not to mention Google Play Music.

Q. What’s the difference between YouTube TV and YouTube Red?
A. YouTube TV is a live TV streaming service with major broadcast and popular cable networks. YouTube Red gives you a premium music experience and uninterrupted YouTube—ad free, offline, and in the background.
Both memberships give you access to YouTube Red Originals, but YouTube Red isn’t included in your YouTube TV membership. However, if you are a YouTube Red member, you can watch the YouTube content on YouTube TV without ads

Source.

I see Google applied the same clarity to this as they did to their messaging apps.

Another service for Google to kill after few cities roll out similar to Google fiber.

You can’t really compare the two. Google Fiber has seen a massive backlash from their competitors like ATT and Comcast, and they are changing their approach. I think YouTube TV has potential.
I do note that Google has a habit of having everything in beta and then cancelling or changing, so that’s still a risk.

The thing is, YouTube TV is already in an increasingly crowded market of its niche when it was first announced. Especially with Sling TV and PS Vue already offering more channels and tiers.

Google Fiber literally changed AT&T and Comcast because neither companies were doing what Google was doing.

On the contrary, while it isn’t quite the same as Fiber it actually faces some similar hurdles. For example Youtube TV is only launching in 5 cities because those are the places they could negotiate for the local rights. If at any point Google decides that market-by-market deals are more trouble than they are worth they could fundamentally alter the service (including complete discontinuation) at the drop of a hat.

Just like they killed similar services like Youtube Red and GPMAA

Er….

This ridiculous trope needs to die. Google should kill things that don’t make sense. Hot take: Google Reader wasn’t good. Google Buzz wasn’t good (and arguably isn’t dead because of Google+).

Zero reason to waste resources on a product that has a niche audience.

Good job selectively ignoring the good services that Google has set out to pasture, or replaced with an inferior version.

You aren’t doing anyone any favors by denying Google’s focus problem. Investing in google products comes with a high risk that the service will be terminated early.

Google Reader was fantastic, and had a loyal userbase.

It was killed because Google couldn’t figure out how to monetize it.

Kindly stop bashing products you do not use or understand the usefulness of.

I agree 100%. Google Reader was amazing. I used Google Reader nearly everyday. It was basically the only RSS reader on the market worth it’s salt. I still mourn its death. The value of Reader was just too small compared to the rest of Google’s business. I left Google’s services for yahoo! before bitterly crawling back a month later. The death of Reader was traumatic and anguish inducing.

Not sarcasm. Sincerely held belief.

Google Fiber isn’t dead

No TNT is a dealbreaker for sports fans. Comedy Central also is a must-have, especially now with its shows gone from Hulu and The President Show launching.

Completely agree about TNT; I need my NBA. But Netflix is becoming more and more my go-to for comedy.

Also, HGTV. That’s not a defense of the channel’s quality, but rather how certain a hard NO my girlfriend will give this if I pitch it to her.

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