What’s the Deal With YouTube TV?

The last time I had a cable subscription was a decade ago. Which I bring up only because of the context, not as an attempt to claim any moral superiority. We have a local Netflix-like setup in the house, and over the last decade I’ve wasted just as much time as the average cable customer watching the kind of found footage and monster movies that don’t generally end up in theaters.

So no, I don’t think I’m better than you.

I haven’t missed cable for the most part. As with most cord cutters, live sports has been the biggest problem. I’ve found work arounds for most of it, but they’ve all come with significant limitations. I had to use a paid DNS service that fooled geo-lookups, for one, which was compatible with some but not all of the packages I subscribe to. MLB.tv would work but Netflix wouldn’t, that kind of thing. I was generally limited to watching on a laptop as well, and sometimes a 12″ screen just isn’t the right medium.

All of which helps explain why I’ve been checking in every so often on cord-cutting packages like Playstation Vue or Sling TV. The idea of having an internet only TV package that was cheaper than cable was attractive, but every time I looked there was some critical limitation. As was the case when I first found out about YouTube TV, with its crucial NESN (AKA the station that Red Sox games are on) availability in October. After becoming intrigued by YouTube’s cable-ish package, not least because standard YouTube had become a staple of my viewing habits, it turned out that the service wasn’t available quite yet up here in Maine.

On December 11th, I received notification that the service had launched in Portland.

Cut to a few minutes later.

youtube-tv
We’ve been subscribers ever since. When it’s come up in conversation, the number one question I get is “how is it?”
 
The answer is: it’s great. I like it, but since my judgment with respect to TV is questionable, it’s probably more important to note that Kate likes it as well. She’d prefer it have HGTV I’m sure, but the ability to watch the Olympics for the first time in years has been a big win. As for me, I’ll be able to watch the Red Sox on TV in my house this weekend. Everything else – even the incredible Blue Planet 2 from BBC America, or the amazing recent news that MLB Network will be added to the roster soon – is gravy.

If you’re curious about the details, read on.

Price

At $35 a month, it’s a pretty easy sell. NESN by itself was a $12 extra the last time I subscribed to cable, and as a vehicle to be able to watch sports and series not available on Netflix yet (e.g. Blue Planet 2) it’s a fair value, if not the lowest cost option. Even at $40, which is what the price will go up to in March, we probably wouldn’t think twice about it. It’s likely to pay for itself just in the time I don’t have to spend tinkering with DNS settings to get the sports I want.

Content

At 50+ channels now, YouTube has probably 40 more than I’ll ever need. But more realistically, with the recent addition of Turner Channels such as TNT, Adult Swim, TBS, CNN, and Cartoon Network their last obvious basic cable hole was plugged. Most people will find their basic needs met, whether that’s local channels, live sports or movies – no HBO yet, though Showtime is available as an add-on.

Device Support

Something the service was dinged on early, this has not been an issue for us. We used the native Samsung integration until the Roku client was available, but with support for Android, Chromecast, iOS, LG/Samsung TVs, Xbox and now Apple TV and Roku, most of the common options are covered. I haven’t watched a lot on my Pixel or iPad too much yet, but I can guarantee that those get a workout come baseball season.

Family Sharing

YouTube TV supports 6 accounts but only 3 concurrent streams, so that may or may not work for you given the size of your household. For us, it’s more than enough.

youtube-tv-family-group

Picture Quality

I’ve seen a lot of debate (for example) around the framerate and resolution of YouTube TV streams, but what I can tell you is that we have a brand new 50″ 4K Samsung LCD, and the picture is excellent. Streams are consistent and don’t buffer for us, either.

IMG_20180120_212004 (1)

DVR

The DVR feature is simple to use, and works perfectly. Search for a show, or team in my case, and press the “+” button. That’s it. Whenever and whatever channel the Red Sox play on, this will record it.
youtube-dvr-2
Even better? The cloud-based DVR is unlimited, so you never have to worry about maxing out shows. This makes it easy for me to record things like “The Twilight Zone,” which aren’t a priority but that I’ll watch from time to time.

Usability

While the user interface is a bit different than standard cable, it’s a lot easier for me to navigate. There are just three tabs:

  • Home: This is a mix of recommendations, shows to resume watching and high level categories like News or Sports.
    youtube-tv-live-page
  • Library: This is the DVR, with everything you’ve recorded.
    youtube-tv-recorded-page
  • Live: This is the equivalent of your channel browser on cable, and lists what’s on currently and up next.youtube-live-page-actual
The only real usability issues I’ve had came when we were using the Samsung’s native YouTube TV interface; the base-model TV we got came with a base-model remote, and it wasn’t always intuitive how to pause, rewind or fast forward. But that’s Samsung’s problem, not YouTube’s: once we cut over to the Roku, everything’s been seamless.

Less obvious but no less important than the functional usability, in my opinion, are the aesthetics. From the font to the layout, YouTube’s TV package is attractive and a genuine pleasure to use; whatever they’re paying the designers, it’s not enough.

Wishlist

As much as I like it now, there are ways that YouTube TV could be even better. Note that number one on this list would have been adding MLB Network, but that’s already in the works.

  • PIP on the iPad:
    The YouTube TV app for the iPad is, in general, excellent. Its one primary shortcoming is the lack of support for Picture-in-Picture (PIP). One of the things that makes the latest generations of iPad usable across a wider variety of scenarios is its improved support for multi-tasking. Netflix, for example,
    allows you to play media while using the iPad for something else. Currently,
    the YouTube TV app doesn’t offer this. Would love to see the ability added.
  • Channel Filtering:
    Back when I had DirecTV, you could filter their hundreds of channels down based on the ones you actually watched. Which is how people who came over to my house were presented with a channel lineup that consisted of less than a dozen channels including ESPN, NESN, the Cartoon Network, Discovery and the History channel (this was before the latter turned into the Ancient Aliens channel, mind you). I’d like to be able to do that on YouTube TV. It’s not likely that I’m ever going to watch Fox News, so I’d rather not waste UI space on it.
  • Reviews: Given that YouTube TV is offering me recommendations, it’d be nice to be able to give them explicit rather than implicit signals about what I like versus what I don’t. Even a thumbs up/down button, as on Netflix, would work.
  • Offline Caching: As far as I can tell right now, while the cloud DVR is infinitely capable, there’s no provision for offline storage. Unlike Netflix, where I can store a video ahead of time to watch on a plane, YouTube TV isn’t an option for me offline.
  • Better Integration with Standard YouTube: Given the branding and origins of the service, not to mention the growth, it’s interesting to me that standard YouTube isn’t integrated to the TV service outside of “YouTube Red Originals,” which don’t interest me much. I’ve got a growing number of standard YouTube channels I watch regularly, mostly woodworking and DIY-related, that I’d definitely watch on the service if I could. My guess is that one of the potential concerns is what lower resolution user-filmed content would look like on large screens, but I’d like at least the option to even if the picture quality suffers.
  • More Sophisticated DVR Filters (AKA the Simpsons Filter): This is nit-picking to be sure, but while the existing DVR filters are excellent, as mentioned, I’d love for them to be a bit more granular. In my case, for example, I’m a big Simpsons fan, but I’ll only watch through Season 14. The show lost me after that, so I’d love to be able to tell the DVR to record the show so I had them, but to skip the latter seasons where the quality fell off.

The Net

If you’re looking for an easy-to-use alternative to cable and are willing to pay a slight premium for features like time-shifting via DVR, I’d definitely recommend giving YouTube TV a look.

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