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YouTube TV has promise, but needs to grow before it's worth $35 (hands-on)

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Looking to watch live TV without a cable bill? YouTube TV is now avail​able for $35 per month.

Unlike the free YouTube you know so well, populated by cat videos, how-tos and myriad independent channels and shows, YouTube TV is a direct competitor to cable TV -- and you'll have to pay for it. In return you get live local TV channels like ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC as well as cable stalwarts like ESPN, the Disney Channel, Fox News and Bravo. (Disclosure: CBS is the parent company of CNET and Showtime.)

One catch? It's only available in five US metropolitan areas for now: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area. YouTube says more cities will be added in the coming months.

I've been playing with a demo account on a phone for the last couple days and it's mostly worked well. Unfortunately the experience on an actual TV is less satisfying. Unless you have a PC connected to your TV, you'll have to use a Chromecast or other cast-compatible device to get YouTube TV on the big screen, and until Google develops actual apps for devices like Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV -- like its competitors already have -- it feels half-baked for living-room use.

And then there's the channel issue. Compared to cable, and even to other live streaming TV services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, the selection has some obvious holes. There's no CNN or TNT, no Comedy Central or HGTV, no Lifetime or MTV. YouTube gets credit for local channels, sports and Bravo, but for many people that's just not enough for the price.

YouTube TV has some promising advantages, including a great cloud DVR and tight integration with YouTube itself, but it needs to add cities, channels and TV devices before it can compete against cable or other live TV services, particularly PlayStation Vue, my current favorite.

Hey, don't take my word for it -- try it for yourself. There's a free 30-day trial before you'll have to pony up, and Google is throwing in a free Chromecast (worth $35) after the first month's payment, "while supplies last."

How YouTube TV's features compare

If you've never had cable TV service, you've already cut the cord or you're on the fence considering whether to do so, YouTube TV offers yet another way to stream live TV channels over the internet. Here's the basics:

  • It's a subscription service, separate from regular YouTube, with more than 40 live TV channels
  • $35 per month, seven-day free trial, cancel anytime
  • Available only in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area
  • Available only on iPhones, Android phones, tablets and computers
  • To watch it on an actual TV, you'll need to use Chromecast, another cast-compatible device, or a PC connected to the TV.
  • Cloud DVR with unlimited free storage (shows expire after 9 months)
  • Up to six accounts included per household, with up to three simultaneous streams

Three similar services exist already, namely Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now, and Hulu has said it will debut yet another entry in this field before the end of the year, too. All offer various channel packages and features for a range of prices, starting at $20 per month for Sling TV, $30 for Vue and $35 for DirecTV Now. YouTube TV, conversely, has one set price and channel lineup.

Unlike YouTube TV, each of its competitors is available nationwide, although channel lineups (and with Vue, pricing) vary per city, and you only get access to local channels in a few major cities. Each service also supports more TV devices than just YouTube, which is restricted to the Chromecast family of streamers for big-screen watching.

PlayStation Vue also has a cloud DVR, however, but it's more limited than YouTube's (Vue's DVR shows expire after 28 days). Sling TV also offers a 50-hour cloud DVR for Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV for an extra $5 per month, and as long as you pay its shows don't expire.

YouTube TV vs. the competition

YouTube TV Sling TV PlayStation Vue DirecTV Now
Base price $35/month for 44 channels $20/month for 20+ channels $30/month for 55+ channels $35/month for 60+ channels
Free trial Yes Yes Yes Yes
Availability Select major cities (5 so far) Nationwide Nationwide* Nationwide
Live local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels Select cities only ABC only in select cities for an extra $5/month Select cities only (for an extra $10/month) Select cities only for ABC, Fox and NBC (no CBS)
Step-up packages No PLUS $5/month each (5 or more Sports, LifeStyle, Movie, News, etc. channels per package) PLUS $10/month (some regional sports), $20/month (26 additional channels) $70/month for 120+ channels
Simultaneous streams per account 3 1 or 3 5 2
Family member/user profiles Yes No Yes No
Video on demand from local channels Yes No Yes Yes
Compatible authentication/TV Everywhere apps Yes (number TBD) 7 60 8
Pause, rewind, fast-forward Yes Only select channels Yes Pause only
Record shows for later (cloud DVR) Yes (keep for 9 months) Yes ($5 per month, only Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV) Yes (keep for 28 days) No
3 day replay Select channels and shows Select channels and shows Select channels and shows Select channels and shows
Video on demand Select channels and shows Select channels and shows Select channels and shows Select channels and shows
Parental controls No Yes No No
Bandwidth limiter No Yes No No
Audio format 2-channel stereo 2-channel stereo 2-channel stereo; 5.1 surround for some on-demand content 2-channel stereo; 5.1 surround for some on-demand content
youtube-tv-22.jpg

Currently you can only watch YouTube TV on an actual TV with Chromecast or an Android TV device like Nvidia Shield.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Compatible devices compared

YouTube TV Sling TV PlayStation Vue DirecTV Now
Android Yes Yes Yes Yes
iOS Yes Yes Yes Yes
Windows Yes Yes Yes Yes
Mac Yes Yes Yes Yes
Chromecast Yes Yes Yes Android only
Android TV Cast only Yes Yes No
PS3/PS4 No No Yes No
Xbox One No Yes No No
Roku No Yes Yes No
Apple TV No Yes Yes Yes
Fire TV No Yes Yes Yes
Fire tablets No Yes Yes No
Channel Master DVR No Yes No No

Channels: Yes to locals, no to CNN and HGTV

Like its competitors, YouTube TV costs less than a typical cable or satellite TV package -- and has fewer channels, particularly for sports.

YouTube TV's total number of "more than 40" channels falls short of the base packages offered by DirecTV Now ($35 a month) and PlayStation Vue ($30 or $40). It's more, however, than Sling offers in its base package ($20 a month).

Local channel availability -- the local broadcasts of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox -- is YouTube TV's biggest advantage over DirecTV Now, which lacks CBS, and Sling TV, which offers ABC or Fox in some places for extra money, but no other locals. Only PlayStation Vue offers all four locals in select cities like YouTube does, and Vue covers more cities than YouTube TV. It also offers on-demand access to shows on local networks nationwide.

YouTube TV vs. Sling TV vs. DirecTV Now vs. PlayStation Vue: Full channel lineups compared

YouTube TV lacks Turner channels (CNN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network) and Scripps channels (HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel), which are both available on all three of its competitors. It also lacks Viacom channels (Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central), many of which are available on Sling TV and DirecTV Now, but not PlayStation Vue. YouTube TV says AMC channels (AMC, IFC, BBC America) are coming soon.

YouTube TV's sports selection is decent, with ESPN channels and Fox Sports, including some regional sports networks. In the New York area where I tested, for example, I got YES (the channel for Yankees baseball), but not MSG (Knicks basketball) or SNY (Mets baseball). As usual, most sports die-hards will have to subscribe to cable or satellite TV to watch their teams.

Here's the full list of YouTube TV's regional sports networks: NBC Sports Bay Area, NBC Sports California, NBC Sports Bay Area Plus, NBC Sports California Plus, CSN Chicago, CSN Chicago Plus, CSN Philadelphia, CSN Mid-Atlantic, FOX Sports West, FOX Sports Prime Ticket, YES. They're only available in their home markets.

youtube-tv-41.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

First impressions of the mobile app

Overall I liked the app in the brief time I've had to play with it. The design is clean and easy to use. It's grouped into four main areas.

  • Home: Lists popular live TV shows, suggests new TV shows and movies, lets you resume previous shows and links to YouTube Red Originals -- you can watch any of them without paying extra for Red. You don't, however, get ad-free regular YouTube, which you do with the $10 a month Red subscription.
  • Live: YouTube's version of a program guide is very cool. It shows a list of four or five channels and what's on currently playing on each channel, with a live-motion preview of what's playing on the top channel. Scrolling through the list changes the live preview quickly, starting moving video from the channel in less than a second. It's a new take on "channel flipping" and pretty satisfying to use.
  • Library: The home of the DVR, it lists recorded TV shows and movies, as well as sports teams you elect to "follow" and a list of upcoming scheduled recordings.
  • Search: A strength, as you'd expect from Google, this page allows text and voice searches. If a show isn't available you'll be told so, and presented with the option to "Get it on YouTube" (the free version), which often leads to a per-episode pay option. There's also a lot of browse options here, including genres, channels and groups of shows such as "trending" and "popular."
youtube-tv-19.jpg

The Search page also has plenty to browse.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I watched a few hours of live and recorded TV in total and it mostly worked well. Video quality looked good after an initial few seconds of lower-quality (par for the streaming course), and buffering and interruptions were minimal. The same goes for casting to a TV -- quality was very good on all of the devices I tested (Chromecast, Nvidia Shield, Sony Android TV). The exception was a Vizio Smart Cast TV, which I couldn't get to work with the cast system.

The quality of the cast was fine, but it's not very convenient. Since YouTube TV lacks (for now) dedicated apps for Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, game consoles and smart TVs, the only way to watch it on a TV (unless you connect a computer to your TV) is with a $35 Chromecast or other device that uses the cast system. That means you'll have to click the cast icon on the app and select that device to begin the process, and you'll need your phone to control playback and select new videos.

youtube-tv-26.jpg

The only way to watch on the big screen is using a Chromecast or similar device.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Cast method works, but I prefer using an on-screen menu system and a standard remote in the living room. I like using physical buttons by feel, and prefer not to have to divide my attention between two screens. Google says it will introduce full-fledged apps for non-cast devices later this year, but declined to get more specific. If I was a betting man I'd say the Android TV app will come first.

The design of YouTube's phone app is very good. Live motion videos started playing after minimal delay, responses were fast and the groupings made sense. I loved that I could easily create a "season pass" of any show by just clicking the "+" button, which sets up a DVR recording of any upcoming episodes. YouTube says you can watch those recordings anywhere in the US, but there's no ability to download them locally to watch offline. Playback controls -- pause, skip, scrubbing the timeline (including to skip ads on recorded shows) -- look just like the standard YouTube app, but in addition you also get buttons for 15-second forward and reverse skip.

youtube-tv-36.jpg

You can use the scrub timeline or skip buttons to skip commercials on DVR'd shows.

Sarah Tew/CNET


There are plenty of features and extras I wasn't able to test, including multiple streams, user profiles and how YouTube TV works on a cellular (as opposed to Wi-Fi) data connection, but so far I have no major complaints about using it on a mobile device. I'm looking forward to seeing full-fledged apps for other devices such as Roku.

Lots of growing up to do

With its limited geographic availability, Swiss-cheese channel lineup and Chromecast-centric TV support, YouTube TV is a boy among live TV streaming men. Its adult-sized monthly price, however, means that many people probably won't keep paying after the free trial period, at least for now. I fully expect the service to put on a few more inches, pounds, cities, channels and devices in the coming months, however, and once that happens it could be a worthy place to spend your cord-cutting savings.

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