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HTPC Perspective: YouTube TV First Impressions

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Subject: General Tech
Manufacturer: YouTube TV

YouTube Tries Everything

Back in March, Google-owned YouTube announced a new live TV streaming service called YouTube TV to compete with the likes of Sling, DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue, and upcoming offerings from Hulu, Amazon, and others. All these services aim to deliver curated bundles of channels aimed at cord cutters that run over the top of customer’s internet only connections as replacements for or in addition to cable television subscriptions.  YouTube TV is the latest entrant to this market with the service only available in seven test markets currently, but it is off to a good start with a decent selection of content and features including both broadcast and cable channels, on demand media, and live and DVR viewing options. A responsive user interface and generous number of family sharing options (six account logins and three simultaneous streams) will need to be balanced by the requirement to watch ads (even on some DVR’ed shows) and the $35 per month cost.

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YouTube TV was launched in 5 cities with more on the way. Fortunately, I am lucky enough to live close enough to Chicago to be in-market and could test out Google’s streaming TV service. While not a full review, the following are my first impressions of YouTube TV.

Setup / Sign Up

YouTube TV is available with a one month free trail, after which you will be charged $35 a month. Sign up is a simple affair and can be started by going to tv.youtube.com or clicking the YouTube TV link from “hamburger” menu on YouTube. If you are on a mobile device, YouTube TV uses a separate app than the default YouTube app and weighs in at 9.11 MB for the Android version. The sign up process is very simple. After verifying your location, the following screens show you the channels available in your market and gives you the option of adding Showtime ($11) and/or Fox Soccer ($15) for additional monthly fees. After that, you are prompted for a payment method that can be the one already linked to your Google account and used for app purchases and other subscriptions. As far as the free trial, I was not charged anything and there was no hold on my account for the $35. I like that Google makes it easy to see exactly how many days you have left on your trial and when you will be charged if you do not cancel. Further, the cancel link is not buried away and is intuitively found by clicking your account photo in the upper right > Personal > Membership. Google is doing things right here. After signup, a tour is offered to show you the various features, but you can skip this if you want to get right to it.

In my specific market, I have the following channels. When I first started testing some of the channels were not available, and were just added today. I hope to see more networks added, and if Google can manage that YouTube TV and it’s $35/month price are going to shape up to be a great deal.

  • ABC 7, CBS 2, Fox 32, NBC 5, ESPN, CSN, CSN Plus, FS1, CW, USA, FX, Free Form, NBC SN, ESPN 2, FS2, Disney, E!, Bravo, Oxygen, BTN, SEC ESPN Network, ESPN News, CBS Sports, FXX, Syfy, Disney Junior, Disney XD, MSNBC, Fox News, CNBC, Fox Business, National Geographic, FXM, Sprout, Universal, Nat Geo Wild, Chiller, NBC Golf, YouTube Red Originals
  • Plus: AMC, BBC America, IFC, Sundance TV, We TV, Telemundo, and NBC Universal (just added).
  • Optional Add-Ons: Showtime and Fox Soccer.

I tested YouTube TV out on my Windows PCs and an Android phone. You can also watch YouTube TV on iOS devices, and on your TV using an Android TVs and Chromecasts (At time of writing, Google will send you a free Chromecast after your first month). (See here for a full list of supported devices.) There are currently no Roku or Apple TV apps.

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Each YouTube TV account can share out the subscription to 6 total logins where each household member gets their own login and DVR library. Up to three people can be streaming TV at the same time. While out and about, I noticed that YouTube TV required me to turn on location services in order to use the app. Looking further into it, the YouTube TV FAQ states that you will need to verify your location in order to stream live TV and will only be able to stream live TV if you are physically in the markets where YouTube TV has launched. You can watch your DVR shows anywhere in the US. However, if you are traveling internationally you will not be able to use YouTube TV at all (I’m not sure if VPNs will get around this or if YouTube TV blocks this like Netflix does). Users will need to login from their home market at least once every 3 months to keep their account active and able to stream content (every month for MLB content).

YouTube TV verifying location in Chrome (left) and on the android app (right).

On one hand, I can understand this was probably necessary in order for YouTube TV to negotiate a licensing deal, and their terms do seem pretty fair. I will have to do more testing on this as I wasn’t able to stream from the DVR without turning on location services on my Android – I can chalk this up to growing pains though and it may already be fixed.

Features & First Impressions

YouTube TV has an interface that is perhaps best described as a slimmed down YouTube that takes cues from Netflix (things like the horizontal scrolling of shows in categories). The main interface is broken down into three sections: Library, Home, and Live with the first screen you see when logging in being Home. You navigate by scrolling and clicking, and by pulling the menus up from the bottom while streaming TV like YouTube.

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Continue reading for my first impressions of YouTube TV!

The Home screen shows you what live and on demand TV shows are currently popular, suggested movies, suggested shows to watch and suggested shows to add to your DVR, YouTube Red Originals, what is trending on YouTube, and more. As you scroll further, various categories and suggestions are offered up. Every show is represented by a still image or video (in the case of Live TV) icon with text beneath it. YouTube TV makes it really easy to see what episodes are available and to add the show to your DVR. The list of new shows to record even has a small plus sign in the lower right corner of each show that allows you to add the show to your DVR list with a single click which I really like.

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As more networks and other content is added this might get a bit cluttered but they could easily break things down into additional categories and sub-categories to curate things a bit better whether it’s an AI algorithm or humans doing it so long as it works it works (heh). Google has the resources and experience to handle this so I am not too worried here.

The Live tab is more like a traditional TV Guide with a scrollable list of what is playing now on what channel. You can easily run through and see what’s on now, what’s coming up next, and click on whatever channel you find interesting or put on your favorite background noise of choice while working.

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The Library tab is your DVR where Google / YouTube TV allows you to keep an unlimited amount of shows and episodes for up to 9 months (and each family member can have their own DVR library which is an awesome feature).

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The Library tab is broken up into three sections that list your upcoming scheduled recordings, recently recorded episodes, and a list of all the series / show recordings you have set. There does not appear to be any limits in the number of shows you can simultaneously be saving to your DVR either.

Going back to the home tab for a bit, in addition to recording shows and watching live TV there is also some content that you can watch without having to record it or watch live, mainly the movies and some limited number of past episodes of shows. I was able to fire up Transformers: Age of Extinction without issue, for example, and it defaulted to a 720p stream. I did notice that some television shows I was able to bump that up to 1080p which is great, but most things seem to be 720p. I will have to look into this a bit more though.

YouTube TV On-demand movie (left), YouTube TV Sports (center), and YouTube TV overlay (right).

There is also a search function that works well and allows you to search for your favorite shows. Obviously, YouTube TV does not have everything, but for the things it does have the search works as you would expect a Google-backed service to work. It would be nice to see it recommend where you could watch shows or movies it does not have but I can understand why they wouldn’t do that (heh). It does pull up results from YouTube for trailers and clips at least.

When streaming content, there are ads but they are not any worse than traditional television ads and so far, do not appear to be over the top and so far seems better than other streaming services like Xfinity’s own streaming site or especially Hulu where I have never had much luck with their ads (watching the same ad over and over gets old really fast and from memory they have so many dang ad breaks!). Honestly, for the most part I don't even notice them. I am used to them with Xfinity though when watching their On Demand when they have fast forward disabled.

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One slightly annoying thing is sometimes the content information and white menu bar would get stuck when watching it in a window and working on other stuff. I would have to mouse over so the YouTube TV window was back in focus, wait for the overlay to disappear and then switch applications. This may be a bug though as it only happens every now and then and usually works as expected.

Overall, the user experience is very positive with YouTube TV with an interface that is very snappy with smooth transitions. There can be a bit of audio stuttering when playing content in the background while navigating around the menus looking of other shows, but not too bad. For me there was very little buffering even when skipping around, and even on mobile using T-Mobile’s 4G network once the stream was loaded it was usually good to go after a bit of initial buffering. Of all the services I’ve tried, it is very good and a solid experience especially considering it’s a new service. I use Comcast (“Xfinity”) as my provider for cable TV and internet, and while my wife usually uses their cable boxes and the TVs I like to use their website to stream shows to my computer and Comcast could certainly take up a few pointers from Google! If YouTube TV had the same channel lineup as Comcast I would probably have already been ready to cut the cord hehe.

Mobile User Experience

The YouTube TV android app works well on my LG G3 and I was able to stream live TV and DVR content without problems. After a bit of buffering as it loaded the show, it would usually stream without issue from then on. This will depend you’re your signal and cellular network of course, but at worst you will just need to pause it at the beginning and let it buffer more. One odd quirk I ran into is that YouTube TV prevents you from taking screenshots of the shows and even just the list of shows you have in your DVR. Don’t worry though, it is perfectly fine with letting you take a screenshot when an ad is playing. The UI is basically the same as the desktop version, just responsively design scaled down to a fewer number of icons per row and the like.

The YouTube TV mobile app showing the Home (left), Live (center), and Library (right) tabs.

I’ve only watched about a half hour of TV using the YouTube TV mobile app, but I can tell you that it is kid tested and approved as my nephew watched quite a few episodes of PJ Masks on my phone! Having Disney, Disney Junior, and Disney XD will certainly be a boon for parents and kids alike, and just FYI they have the whole first season of PJ Masks and other shows up for streaming on demand (haha)! It should be noted he did not like the ads between episodes, but once the next one started up he was happy (hehe).

The YouTube TV mobile app showing an On Demand TV series and the TV overlay and playback controls when streaming a show.

Conclusion

In all, YouTube TV is shaping up to be a great TV streaming service and as long as Google continues to add more networks and content it has a chance as becoming the leader in this market and well worth the $35 monthly fee.

Below is a TL;DR-style breakdown of the preview

  • What I loved: The interface is solid, the selection of channels for a new streaming service is good, streaming works well, and the family sharing and unlimited DVR is a much needed feature.
  • Issues and/or what I’d Like to see improved: There are some minor UI quirks, but I expect them to be worked out as the service rolls out. Primarily, I would like to see YouTube TV add more networks. A build-your-own bundle setup would be awesome but, unfortunately, will likely never be possible under the current content creators and licensing business models or at least not cheaply at all (that is a different article though as I have a lot to say about that heh). Instead, I would just like to see more cable networks show up on YouTube TV to help round out the offering and be a true one-stop-shop replacement for cable TV rather than having to go to all the other streaming sites for individual networks and other streaming services to get the channels I want.
    • Aside: Especially if YouTube TV can add new networks and be competition for the cable providers and things like DirecTV Now at $35 a month and be a force of competition in this market. If anyone has the muscle and resources to do it, it’s going to be Google. Looking at Comcast where their bundle (internet + TV) prices are usually a lot lower or very close to the internet only price for the same internet speed, it can be hard to justify cutting the cord and then having to go out and pick one (or more!) internet streaming TV services to get their content through while still saving money. Note that this is not a problem with the YouTube TV service or other internet streaming TV services themselves, but it is something that the providers will have to consider when pricing their service and marketing it if they want to people cut the cord and switch. It’s not that YouTube TV is a bad value at all, just that Comcast likes to make it hard to switch with the goal of saving money!
  • The verdict: If you are interested in cutting the cord or supplementing your existing OTA or cable subscription, YouTube TV is definitely worth a look especially if you have a family who watches a lot of TV. If you are in one of their test markets you should give their free trial a test drive.

Thank you for reading, and stay tuned to PC Perspective for more! Have you tried YouTube TV yet? What are your thoughts on it and other streaming TV providers that are popping up recently?

If you are interested in cord cutting and streaming services, check out these other articles:


May 16, 2017 | 09:42 AM - Posted by brisa117

Great preview article! As an HTPC owner, I find Window's abandonment of WMC disheartening because I use WMC for my CABLEcard tuner (only practical program for several reasons). So I am stuck on Windows 7 or 8.1. This isn't so bad for now, but eventually these OSes will become a liability.

Google TV and its competitors sound like interesting alternatives. I wish that a platform like Google TV would support some kind of "theater mode". Full screen, remote controller support, etc. Did you by chance get to try a remote to see if you can navigate the menus?

May 16, 2017 | 02:26 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

Well, using the Chromecast your phome and the touchscreen would be the remote. On the PC though it would certainly work with those media center remotes that have the keyboard on one side and a thumb nub or trackpad. With a more traditional remote you could probably map the remote keys to things like the spacenar to pause and maybe any other keyboard shortcuts for the other playback controls but otherwise i think withojt native support or at least someone coming up with a Chrome Extension or something... I dont think it would work well with a traditional remote as is. You can already make YouTube TV go full screen and it works as expected. I would hope that support for traditional style TV or wmc remotes would be next. Or at least a way to control it from your phone like you can an Xbox with the smartglass app.

Unfortunately I dont have any remotes to play around with it.

May 16, 2017 | 03:02 PM - Posted by brisa117

I appreciate your reply. I love the "TV" feel of actually having a WMC remote. You're probably right though. I'm sure if I tried hard enough I could write a small script to launch something like Google TV into full screen and map those remote inputs to appropriate buttons.

As for controlling things with your phone, it's handy and cheap, but it lacks that old school livingroom feeling. The remote has the tactile feeling of buttons and my phone always seems to be low on battery. Or switching between apps to control the system can be clunky. All things that can be worked out.

PS Anyone looking for the best remote alternative should look into the Logitech K400. Great, small keyboard with dedicated trackpad. Wife and I have been using it for years now and wouldn't know what to do without it.

May 16, 2017 | 04:13 PM - Posted by Tim Verry

heh i think that was the keyboard i was thinking of, couldnt remember the name of it though.

May 16, 2017 | 04:35 PM - Posted by Penterax

The problem with all of these services are that they don't supply Discovery channels. Since Mom requires these channels I can't use any of them.

$35 is significantly more than any other service, so as well as not wanting to give Google any more business than it already has, the price is just too high to make sense to me.

May 16, 2017 | 10:33 PM - Posted by brisa117

I think it would be more palatable if YouTube TV included full YouTube Red instead of just access to YouTube Red originals.