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YouTube TV review: It's a cable replacement, but it's not for budget hunters anymore

YouTube TV offers an excellent live TV streaming experience with a healthy selection of channels, but it may not save cord-cutters much money over standard cable.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

We're four years into the existence of live TV streaming as an option for cable TV cord cutters, and it feels like we're entering the awkward teen phase. While the technology is generally more stable now than ever, the pricing model is still working itself out. Most services are constantly ratcheting up their prices, including YouTube TV's recent jump from $40 to $50 per month.

YouTube TV is definitely one of the best live TV streaming experiences you can buy. The interface is easy to use, slick and fast on a variety of devices, and supports up to six separate family member profiles. Its cloud DVR is the best in the business, with unlimited storage and pretty much all the capabilities of a hardware DVR like TiVo. And its channel selection is top-notch, including numerous cable stables and coverage of all four local networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) in most markets nationwide (note that CBS is the parent company of CNET and Showtime). 

The catch? Given the $50 price tag, it may not actually save you much money over cable TV. Let's dive in.

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What do you get?

YouTube TV is completely separate from YouTube, the free video service with more than two billion users a month. YouTube TV offers a cable-TV-like experience through a variety of devices including Apple TV, Roku, Android TV, Chromecast, numerous smart TVsphones, tablets and web browsers. The only major streaming platform that doesn't have a YouTube TV app is Amazon Fire TV, which will get YouTube and YouTube TV apps later this year.

The service operates in much the same way as competitors -- there's a program guide, a DVR and dozens of channels. But what really separates YouTube TV from other premium (over $40/month) services like DirecTV Now, Hulu with Live TV and Fubo TV?

Services compared

Premium services YouTube TV DirecTV Now Hulu with Live TV FuboTV
Base price $50/month for 70+ channels $50/month for 45+ channels $45/month for 60+ channels $55/month for 100+ channels
Total number of popular (top 100) channels 63 45 58 62
ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels Yes Yes markets Yes Only CBS, Fox and NBC (no ABC)
Record shows for later (cloud DVR) Yes (keep for 9 months) Yes (20GB, keep for 30 days) Yes Yes (30GB, 500GB for $10 a month
Step-up packages with more channels No Yes No Yes
Simultaneous streams per account 3 2 ($5 option for 3) 2 ($15 option for unlimited) 2 ($6 option for 3)
Fast-forward through or skip commercials with cloud DVR Yes Yes No (Yes with $15 option) Yes

YouTube TV's channel selection is excellent, with more from our list of 100 top channels than any other competitor. I've said this before, but more channels doesn't mean better: some services such as Fubo lean heavily on sports while others are more wide-ranging. It's best to check the list at the end of this article to make sure you're getting the channels you want.

Like Hulu, YouTube TV doesn't offer any add-on channel packages, although it does have a handful of single-channel add-ons like Showtime and Epix. Significantly, HBO is not offered, though now that we're in a post-Game of Thrones world this may not be as important. And of course you could always stream HBO from somewhere else, like the HBO Now app, the Apple TV app or Amazon Prime Video Channels.

What's it like to use?

YouTube TV's user interface is fairly simple. There are three top-level tabs broken into Library, Home and Live. Library is where your DVR content lives. Home is where featured and live thumbnails appear. The Live tab is a familiar-looking program grid which shows currently-playing and upcoming shows. Users are able to search from the top of any page, which makes it relatively easy to jump straight to the content you want.

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Users can watch YouTube clips related to many programs

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The service's tie in to YouTube proper is welcome -- with YouTube originals included -- though it could be more tightly integrated, especially on set top boxes. For example, a content page appears when you press the "Go To" button on a show, and Related on YouTube item appears at the bottom. It would be helpful to have thumbnails of related interviews and trailers appear more prominently on this page without having to delve into menus.

The DVR works very well, including the ability to rewind and fast-forward freely through recordings, even ones that aren't yet completed. The Roku interface offers a 15-second skip by default while the Apple TV's control system is even better. Utilizing the touch pad, the ability to scroll through content is glorious -- it's so much fun and thumbnails make it relatively easy to hone into the part you want.

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The DVR enables you to fast-forward and rewind, while Apple TV enables you to scrub through the timeline

Sarah Tew/CNET

On the downside, YouTube TV replaces DVR content with the on-demand version if it's available, so you'll lose the ability to skip commercials on shows when that happens. Additionally, YouTube TV's DVR is not truly unlimited as there is still a time limit, though it is a lot longer than the 30 days of most rivals at 9 months.

Will YouTube TV actually save you money?

At $40 YouTube TV was a much better value, but the $50 monthly price makes it that much tougher to save compared to cable. If you pay around $50 for just Internet service, that's a total of $100 per month. Many cable TV providers will give you a TV+Internet bundle for around the same price.

Prices vary widely of course, and with cable you probably have to pay rental equipment fees, taxes and other extras. And cable providers usually reserve the best bundle pricing for people who sign a contract. YouTube TV (and other streaming services) are contract-free so you can cancel anytime, and have other advantages over cable, for example being easier to watch on phones and tablets. At $50 per month, however, you'll have to be coming from a relatively expensive cable bill to realize substantial savings with YouTube TV.

Should you get it?

Price no object, YouTube TV is one of my favorite live streaming services, but the value proposition will be tough for a lot of people. If you don't want to be beholden to a traditional cable company -- and can get a good broadband-only Internet package on the cheap -- YouTube TV is very attractive. For serious cord cutters on a budget, however, an option like AT&T Watch TV or Sling TV is a better bet, especially when paired with an antenna.

Channel lineups compared

Channel Hulu with Live TV ($45) PS Vue ($45) YouTube TV ($50) DirecTV Now ($50)
Total channels: 58 47 63 45
ABC Yes Yes Yes Yes
CBS Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Yes Yes Yes Yes
NBC Yes Yes Yes Yes
PBS No No No No
CW Yes No Yes Yes
MyNetworkTV Yes Yes Yes Yes
A&E Yes No No No
AMC No Yes Yes No
Animal Planet Yes Yes Yes No
BBC America No Yes Yes No
BBC World News No $ Yes No
BET No No No Yes
Big Ten Network Yes $ Yes $
Bloomberg TV No No No No
Boomerang Yes $ No Yes
Bravo Yes Yes Yes Yes
Cartoon Network Yes Yes Yes Yes
CBS Sports Network Yes $ Yes $
Cheddar Yes Yes Yes No
Cinemax $ $ No $
CMT No No No $
CNBC Yes Yes Yes Yes
CNN Yes Yes Yes Yes
Comedy Central No No No Yes
Cooking Channel No $ No No
C-SPAN No No No No
Destination America No Yes No No
Discovery Channel Yes Yes Yes No
Disney Channel Yes Yes Yes Yes
Disney Junior Yes Yes Yes Yes
Disney XD Yes Yes Yes Yes
DIY No $ No No
E! Yes Yes Yes Yes
EPIX No $ $ No
ESPN Yes Yes Yes Yes
ESPN 2 Yes Yes Yes Yes
ESPNEWS Yes $ Yes $
ESPNU Yes $ Yes $
Food Network Yes Yes Yes No
Fox Business Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox News Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Sports 1 Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Sports 2 Yes Yes Yes $
Freeform Yes Yes Yes Yes
FX Yes Yes Yes Yes
FX Movie Channel Yes $ Yes Yes
FXX Yes Yes Yes Yes
Golf Channel Yes $ Yes $
Hallmark No $ No Yes
HBO $ $ No Yes
HGTV Yes Yes Yes No
History Yes No No No
HLN Yes Yes Yes Yes
IFC No $ Yes No
Investigation Discovery Yes Yes Yes No
Lifetime Yes No No No
Lifetime Movie Network No No No No
Motor Trend Yes $ Yes No
MLB Network No $ Yes No
MSNBC Yes Yes Yes Yes
MTV No No No Yes
MTV2 No No No No
National Geographic Yes Yes Yes Yes
Nat Geo Wild Yes $ Yes Yes
NBA TV No $ Yes No
NBC Sports Network Yes Yes Yes Yes
Newsy No No Yes No
NFL Network No $ No No
NFL Red Zone No $ No No
NHL Network No No No No
Nick Jr. No No No Yes
Nickelodeon No No No Yes
Nicktoons No No No No
OWN No Yes No No
Oxygen Yes Yes Yes Yes
Paramount Network No No No $
Science No Yes No No
SEC Network Yes $ No $
Showtime $ $ $ $
Smithsonian Yes No Yes No
Starz No No $ $
Sundance TV No $ Yes No
Syfy Yes Yes Yes Yes
Tastemade No $ Yes No
TBS Yes Yes Yes Yes
Telemundo Yes Yes Yes Yes
Tennis Channel No $ Yes No
TLC Yes Yes Yes No
TNT Yes Yes Yes Yes
Travel Channel Yes Yes Yes No
TruTV Yes Yes Yes Yes
Turner Classic Movies Yes $ Yes Yes
TV Land No No No $
Univision No No No No
USA Network Yes Yes Yes Yes
VH1 No No No Yes
Viceland Yes No No No
WE tv No Yes Yes No
Weather Channel No No No No