You already go to YouTube to watch funny cat videos, the latest music videos, and movie trailers, so why wouldn’t you go there to watch live TV?
For $35 a month, YouTube TV bundles together over 40 live broadcast and cable channels, YouTube Red Originals content, and, perhaps best of all, gives you cloud DVR with unlimited storage.
It’s a hell of a bundle compared to similar live TV streaming services like Sling TV, DirecTV Now or PlayStation Vue. But does YouTube TV offer enough to convince you to switch from one of those or cancel your cable subscription?
I’ve been testing YouTube TV and its Android app on a Google Pixel phone (it’s also available for iOS) to find out if I should switch from my $20 monthly Sling TV subscription, and my early verdict is yes.
YouTube TV launches today in five major U.S. cities (New York, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia). YouTube’s offering a free 30-day trial, and you can also score a free Chromecast after your first month’s payment (while supplies last).
The channels you get
Deciding whether YouTube TV is right for you ultimately comes down to which channels you care about.
At launch, YouTube TV includes five major broadcast channels: ABC, NBC, CBS, The CW, and Fox.
You also get 35 cable channels: ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNews, SEC Network, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Freeform, Bravo, Chiller, CNBC, E!, Golf Channel, MSNBC, NBCSN, Oxygen, Sprout, Syfy, Universal HD, USA, Comcast Regional Sports Networks, NECN, CBS Sports Network, FS1, FS2, BTN, FX, FXX, FXM, Nat Geo, Nat Geo Wild, Fox News, Fox Business, and Fox Regional Sports Networks.
Ten additional channels (ESPN3, Telemundo Universo, AMC, BBC America, BBC World News, WE tv, IFC, Sundance TV, and The Weather Channel’s Local Now) will be added later (YouTube didn’t say when) at no extra cost.
Additionally, there will be “add-on” channels. For instance, Showtime will cost you an extra $11 and Fox Soccer Plus will cost $15 per month. Other add-on channels are coming, including Shudder and Sundance Now, but they have yet to announce pricing.
It’s a good mix of channels that form a “basic” TV package, but it might not be enough for everyone.
For Sling TV subscribers like me, it sucks that I’d have to give up go-to channels like CNN, Comedy Central, TBS and Adult Swim, but at least I’d get Syfy and the five major broadcast channels.
At the end of the day, only you can decide which service has the content you’ll actually watch.
One super-slick app
If you need any proof that cable TV needs to be reinvented, look no further than a cable box’s confusing remote control and its spreadsheet-like programming guide.
These two components of cable TV haven’t changed in decades, and it’s embarrassing. I’m a tech guy and I get frustrated just looking at all the buttons on a cable remote control. How is this still acceptable in 2017?
It’s not, which is why YouTube throws both of these archaic interfaces right into the trash and replaces it all with an elegant app for iOS or Android. (You can also go to tv.youtube.com on a computer, but I didn’t get to test it.)
The YouTube TV app is split into three main sections: Library, Home, and Live. Your Library displays all of your recorded video content, neatly organized into sub-sections like Shows, Movies, Sports and Events. It also displays content you’ve scheduled to record.
The Home section is where you can discover personalized content based on your own interests and watching patterns. You’ll find things like what’s popular on live TV, new shows and movies you might be interested in recording, YouTube Red Originals programming, and trending videos from YouTube.
Lastly, the Library section is where you’ll go to channel surf; to switch between channels, just swipe up or down. It’s fast and ridiculously smooth, and definitely the fastest experience I’ve ever used to flip between 40 live channels.
Not only is content organized logically, but the app’s also smartly designed in other ways. Recording content is as simple as pressing the “+” button, and tapping the “…” menu icon opens up options to go to specific content or channel pages that contain more info like a synopsis, cast details, related YouTube videos, and similar content.
It’s all very YouTube-like. But the thing that really puts the YouTube in YouTube TV is search. It’s powerful and will get better over time. You can search by the usual title, genre, actor/actress, or fine-tune things to show content for things likes “puppies” or “coffee.”
Even on a strong Wi-Fi connection, I still have buffering and connection issues every now and then with Sling TV. I had no such problems while trying out YouTube TV over Wi-Fi and LTE at work and at home, but that could have been because of YouTube’s superior video infrastructure or the fact that I was testing the service before it was live, so it was presumably less congested.
Live TV channels load instantly and scale up quickly to whatever their native broadcast resolution is (you can adjust the resolution to save on data just like in the regular YouTube app). Best of all, you can connect up to six accounts (so everyone in your family can have their own personalized YouTube TV experience) and stream three concurrent sessions simultaneously.
Live TV channels load instantly and scale up quickly to whatever their native broadcast resolution is.
By now you’ve probably noticed that YouTube TV is designed for mobile (phones and tablets and computers through the browser). But what about watching YouTube TV on an actual TV? You can still do that by casting content from the app to a Chromecast dongle that’s connected to your TV or a TV with Google Cast support, but YouTube TV’s target demographic (millennials and younger) will likely stick to watching stuff on their own personal devices because that’s where they’re already spending most of their time consuming video content.
A 2015 Nielsen study revealed the obvious: smartphones and tablets have begun eating into traditional TV viewing. In other words, more people are now watching video content on their mobile devices than on TVs.
The TV’s still important and Google’s aware that many people still watch live content on big black rectangles in their living rooms (a YouTube TV app tailored for TV is said to be in the works), but the larger portion of the pie is increasingly elsewhere on other screens.
To borrow an overused Wayne Gretzky quote, Google’s skating to where the puck is going (mobile) instead of where it has been (TV).
One size doesn’t fit all
As a service, YouTube TV is as robust as live TV streaming gets. The app is modern-looking and very easy to use.
But like Sling TV and any of the other live TV streaming options available, YouTube TV isn’t a one-size-fits all streaming service. Whether you decide to sign up will come down to the channels and content offered.
For most customers, however, it offers more than enough content spread across its 40-something channels, YouTube Red Originals, and trending YouTube content.
Personally, I think the most attractive thing about YouTube TV is its unlimited cloud DVR feature. Watching live TV on your phone, or tablet or laptop from anywhere you want is great, but that’s just not how I watch TV anymore; I prefer binging on content after work or on weekends. And for me, that’s worth the $15 extra over the basic $20 Sling TV subscription I currently pay for.
The only other thing that I can think of that would have made YouTube TV an easy recommendation would be if Google rolled in YouTube (all of it) — including YouTube Music — into the monthly cost as well. But that might be expecting a little too much for $35 a month.
Over 40 channels, including the five major broadcast networks • Unlimited cloud DVR • Smart, simple UI • YouTube Red Originals content included
Only available in five U.S. cities at launch • Kinda pricey compared to other basic channel bundles from competitors
The Bottom Line
YouTube TV offers a robust and modern way to watch live TV, but like all live TV streaming services, whether it’s right for you comes down to the content offered.