YouTube TV is now available in a couple of cities across the country, marking Google’s first push into the live-TV streaming market. Many cord-cutters’ ears perked up when the service was announced; it provides about 40 channels for $35 per month, including all major broadcast networks and a bunch of sports channels. But while the initial reaction was positive, we now have a clearer picture of what YouTube TV offers and the pros and cons of choosing it over another live-TV streaming service.
On mobile devices
The YouTube TV app for iOS and Android is where all the magic happens. It’s available for iOS devices running iOS 9.1 and up and Android phones running Android L (5.0) or newer, and you can get it on a Chromecast, Android TV, and any computer with a browser (YouTube recommends Chrome, of course). There are no Roku, Amazon Fire, or Apple TV apps, and according to a YouTube spokesperson, support for Android tablets is coming “soon.” For now, the app can’t be downloaded on Android tablets at all. For this review, I primarily used the iOS version.
The app itself is thoughtfully laid out. The homepage of the iOS app is a hodgepodge of content, with scrollable carousels filled with different livestreams and suggestions for new shows or sports to watch and record. This is the area that will change if you have more than one person using your YouTube TV membership. One $35-per-month membership allows up to six separate logins (but only three simultaneous streams), so the automated content recommendations will change from user to user based on what they watch. At the bottom of the homepage lies the menu with Library, Home, and Live options, and at the top is a magnifying-glass search button along with your personal Google account avatar.
You’ll spend a lot of time in the search field, as it’s also home to the app’s only browsing features. I wish there was a separate browse tab, but YouTube stuffed everything into the search area. You can search for a specific show, network, sports team, and more, but when you tap the magnifying glass, you also get a bunch of shortcuts to find what you want. The top-most collections are genres and networks, so if you’re in the mood for a comedy or know you want to watch an ABC show, you can easily find it without actually searching using specific keywords.
This also provides a way to discover new content without the help of YouTube’s algorithms, which suggest content for you based on what you’ve already watched. For example, I’ve historically enjoyed ABC comedy shows, but I haven’t watched many in the past few years. Going to the ABC network tab under the search tool shows me a profile page of all the content ABC offers on YouTube TV. Also in the search-browsing page are “trending” and “popular” carousels, along with league categories for sports and other categories that could help you find something to watch.
Although the search page is useful, the main menu holds your recorded shows and all live TV content. The Library tab is where you’ll find all the shows you’ve recorded using YouTube TV’s DVR service. One membership gives you unlimited hours of DVR recording and unlimited storage. Recorded shows will stay in your library for nine months before they’re automatically deleted. Your Library is conveniently organized into recorded shows, movies, sports, and events, and there’s also a tab where you can see scheduled recordings or the newest content that will be recorded in the coming days.
You can organize that content further when you choose a section: I sorted my recorded TV shows alphabetically, but you can also sort by “trending,” “most popular,” and “top rated.” Tapping on a show will let you choose from recorded content and other episodes that are available on-demand. But there’s a caveat: as The Wall Street Journal reported, some networks have an agreement with YouTube TV that forces you to watch ads on DVR content. However, it’s technically not DVR content—these agreements say that if the network offers an on-demand episode of the same episode you’re set to record, you’ll be shown the on-demand version rather than the DVR version. You can’t skip ads when watching on-demand content, so it ends up looking like you’re being served unskippable ads on DVR content.
Ars reached out to YouTube to get more information on this strange rule. “Some of our network agreements require us to show on-demand content over a DVR recording when the on-demand version is available,” a YouTube spokesperson told Ars in an e-mail. “For those network agreements, this usually applies to network series programming, which makes up a small percentage of the programming available on YouTube TV.”
The company also said it has network deals in place that favor DVR content over on-demand content. Every network deal is different, and we don’t have a list of the networks that favor on-demand content and ads. Most of the shows I recorded ended up playing as on-demand content with ads, and because of this, I initially couldn’t see a difference between DVR and on-demand content in my library. YouTube told us that you can tell the difference between the two by a small flag and a description by the episode saying whether it’s “recorded” (DVR) or “released” (on-demand).
Despite the explanation, it’s a frustrating situation, especially when Playstation Vue lets you skip ads on any recorded DVR content. Sling TV lets you do the same, but its DVR service is still in beta. DirecTV Now is the only service that doesn’t have a cloud DVR, although it does have on-demand content. It’s an unusual issue to deal with, but YouTube likely hopes having the best DVR capabilities will offset the on-demand, unskippable ad takeover with some network content.
Recorded and live content loads quickly in the YouTube TV mobile app, and I never had any streaming issues when using it on my iPhone 6S Plus. The video quality is auto-calibrated, but you can choose the quality you want, from 144p to 1080p, while watching live TV. Tapping the video player brings up quality and closed-caption settings, as well as a report button to notify YouTube TV of inappropriate content. The streaming quality on mobile devices is impressive, especially considering how quickly live TV begins playing and how quickly you can resume watching a stream from pause.
The Live tab is nicely laid out as well, showing channels along with the current on-air program. As you scroll down, each network’s livestream fills the top third of the page, letting you essentially watch TV without audio turned on. This gives you a preview of what’s currently on that channel, which is perfect if you’ve seen nearly every episode of Law and Order: SVU and have no problem skipping specific episodes when they’re on TV. You can also minimize the live-TV window into a small bar at the bottom of the page while you’re watching it, letting you browse freely without pausing a show.
As an avid YouTube watcher, I wish the YouTube TV app integrated more with YouTube itself. You can’t search for YouTube videos or creators in the TV app, nor can you watch that free content in the app. There is one carousel called “Shows on YouTube” that came up on my homepage and featured serial shows from outlets like Awesomeness TV, Buzzfeed Video, and Cosmopolitan.com.
On show info pages, there’s also a “related on YouTube” tab where you’ll find short clips from the show itself, interviews with the show actors, and other similar videos that are available on YouTube that you can watch in the YouTube TV app. That’s relevant content, so kudos to YouTube TV for at least including it. However, I got no results when I searched for Markiplier on YouTube TV. The dedicated YouTube mobile app hasn’t changed, and it appears the company wants to keep the two worlds separate for now. Going forward, I hope YouTube marries YouTube and YouTube TV more, particularly to attract younger users by making it as easy as possible for them to watch their favorite YouTube and television content in one place.