YouTube TV Review – State of Streaming 3.0

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There are more streaming networks than ever before, so if you have questions about the future of streaming, then you’ve come to the right place. All week long, IGN’s State of Streaming 3.0 initiative is featuring reviews and in-depth analysis about current streaming providers like Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and more! Be sure to check out our reviews of other popular streaming services: Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Apple TV+, HBO Max, Peacock, Discovery+, and Paramount+.

To review YouTube TV is to actually review two things: first, how it works as a platform, and second, the service that it’s selling in 2021’s very crowded streaming market. In one half of this, there is very little to complain about. The other half? Well, it’s complicated.

I’ve been a subscriber and daily active user of YouTube TV for nearly two years (officially making the switch shortly before the annoyingly buggy PlayStation Vue was unceremoniously shuttered), and there is a lot to like about it, particularly its clean and polished interface. On the flip side, there is an argument to be made that what YouTube TV offers, and Vue before it, is outdated and less appealing in 2021, as pretty much every major network has launched its own online service. YouTube TV, with all that it does right — which is a lot — often feels redundant.

YouTube TV’s Platform

YouTube TV excels at, well, simply streaming live television. Back when I first picked a streaming horse to bet on, I was also considering Sling. At the time, Sling felt overly complicated, with too many options and add-ons to manage. In contrast, YouTube TV (and Playstation Vue before it) were very straightforward.

Today, YouTube TV has one base plan and a ton of add-on options, far more than when I first picked up the service. The base plan is $65 a month for a host of popular channels and an unlimited DVR (up from what was $50 leading into the second half of 2020). What you get for that is an unlimited DVR, up to three simultaneous streams, and access from pretty much every platform you can imagine: smart TVs of all names, mobile devices, Roku, and even consoles.

YouTube’s unlimited DVR lets you save as much as you want, but it “dumps” your recordings after nine months. So it’s unlimited, with limits. That said, the DVR lives in the cloud, so you can access any of your saved content at any time from anywhere.

One thing I’ve noticed about YouTube’s cloud DVR is that sometimes it doesn’t save the live broadcast, but just notes that you wanted to see something and offers it as an on-demand stream. The benefit to this is that you get it in 1080p Full HD as opposed to 720p standard HD, but the downside is you’re sometimes forced to watch commercials. The higher resolution stream is generally worth the few minutes of commercials, but obviously, this could be a dealbreaker for those who can’t stand ads. I can’t seem to figure out when YouTube TV forces this, but intermittent episodes of Bravo’s Below Deck don’t seem to record the live broadcast, and only offer me the streamed version.

On that note, it’s worth pointing out that the visual quality of live broadcasts is inconsistent. YouTube TV claims that it can stream at up to 1080p Full HD, and sometimes I believe it. Other times, however, it looks markedly worse than what I know Full HD can actually look like, especially when commercials can look extremely high quality, and then there is a noticeable dip in quality once a show returns.

That isn’t necessarily YouTube TV’s fault, as the quality of an “HD” stream really depends on the network. Some still only broadcast in 720p while others go as high as 1080p.

YouTube TV does offer a 4K Plus package that adds 4K streams to Discovery, ESPN, Fox Sports, FX, National Geographic, NBC Sports, and Tastemade, but it’s only available for “select” live and on-demand content from those specific networks. That’s a small portion of YouTube TV’s full lineup, and YouTube TV’s 4K Plus upgrade costs an additional $20 a month and that limited selection just doesn’t seem worth it.

Speaking of upgrades, Google offers a bunch of ways to upgrade YouTube TV. You can bundle in Hulu, Philo, fuboTV, HBO Max, or Netflix, for example, for varying costs. You can also add the NBA for all out-of-market games, Sports Plus for a bunch of other sports networks, Showtime, Starz, and a ton of other options.

Bear in mind that if you already have subscriptions to any of those popular services, you can’t link them to YouTube TV. YouTube TV only supports them inside of its app if you purchase them through its interface. This seems unnecessary and inconvenient. Having more than one app to access content is all I need, even if I don’t get HBO’s live TV offerings. More on why I would even want this later.

Frankly, the total number of package options can be mind-numbing. That simplicity I once said YouTube TV offered? It’s mostly gone now and is instead replaced with countless ways to spend more money to expand your watching experience. This feels almost like the a la carte channel lineup Playstation Vue once promised but never delivered on, but you still have to buy the $65 base plan before you can add other selected channels. Not the best option, but it at least feels easier to deal with than trying to do this through a cable provider.

Frankly, the total number of add-on packages options can be mind-numbing.

One last thing worth mentioning before we get into the interface: the limitation around resolution is not the only holdover from classic cable television. YouTube TV differs from other streaming services in that it offers local channels. That’s great for those who like live sports from their region or even enjoy the local news, but that means you can’t really bring YouTube TV with you everywhere. If you move, you have to change your area and you can only do this twice per year. If you spend extended time streaming shows to a device to an area you don’t currently live in, you run the risk of YouTube changing your area in order to let you keep watching.

YouTube says you need to be careful about this, and to avoid any problems, you need to make sure to watch YouTube TV at least once every three months from your desired “home” location. As many of the things that hamper this service have shown, you may be able to cut the physical cable cord here, but its phantom pain still lingers.

YouTube TV’s Outstanding Interface

YouTube TV gets many things right, but paramount is just how easy the platform is to use. On Roku, gaming consoles, iPad, iPhone, or even your computer browser, the system is consistent in how it shows content. This makes it really pleasant to use.

YouTube TV knows that it has to find some way to offer new things to watch, but it never forces those suggestions to you if you aren’t specifically looking for them. What I mean is when you fire up the app, it takes you to the home screen where it immediately offers “top picks” based on your watching habits and what is living in your DVR. Below that, it offers several choices of “resume watching,” which is everything from a Food Network show I had on by chance a couple of days ago, to an episode of Bones I didn’t finish on TNT two months ago.

Only after these two very useful options are presented and you choose to scroll down will you see other suggestions for content. The problem I have with many streaming platforms is that they immediately hit you with suggestions that you just don’t care about — I’m looking at you, HBO Max, and Discovery+. YouTube TV doesn’t clutter your experience and keeps it trimmed to what matters most to someone who wants to watch TV.

Beyond the Home Screen, YouTube TV only has two other main menus: “Library” and “Live.” The Library is your stored DVR shows and Live is exactly what it sounds like: live TV.

The Library is always simple, at least for me, because I usually keep up with my DVR’d shows within a week or so of them being recorded. As such, the top section, “New in your Library,” rarely has more than a couple of shows in it. If you don’t select any of the options here after a few months, YouTube gets the hint and doesn’t force them upon you anymore. But that’s ok, you can always find it in your “Recordings and Purchases” section. That is also where you will be able to find movies and shows that you have rented or bought from YouTube’s rather large library of options.

The Live section is most reminiscent of the classic days of the cable box.

The Live section is most reminiscent of the classic days of the cable box. It is here that the entire lineup of channels is available to peruse in a TV Guide-like format, except better because you can organize it to show channels in any order you like, so you don’t have to hunt for the network you like to watch.

On browser and iOS devices, you are given a live thumbnail of what is on a channel at any given time. This, for some reason, is not part of the Roku experience, though (you just get a still-frame thumbnail). While writing this review, I noticed TNT was playing The Last Jedi and while that’s not my favorite movie, it did reveal it was the Ben Solo scene, so I dove in for a few minutes to enjoy that.

YouTube TV: Perfectly Streamed

YouTube TV has a very good track record of staying online over the last nearly two years. I can recall one or maybe two times when there was an outage, and it never lasted for very long. I can confidently say that it is one of the more pleasant viewing experiences I’ve had with any streaming service. The app works flawlessly, has no bugs, is pretty much always working, and is available on a host of devices with the same interface.

It’s not a hodgepodge experience of different-looking screens or options like HBO Max is, for example. It also doesn’t autoplay something when you’re just trying to read more about it, like Netflix. Additionally, it doesn’t waste a ton of space with big thumbnails that make it hard to read more about a show, like Hulu. As far as user experience goes, YouTube TV is pretty much everything anyone could ask for.

It’s a real shame that I really don’t know if I can rationalize paying for it much longer.

YouTube TV is Starting to Feel Redundant

Earlier I mentioned that I would explain why someone might want to watch HBO’s live television channel anyway, and I don’t think many would. Why would you want to watch “whatever is on” instead of picking your own movie and getting to start it from the beginning? Most of us wouldn’t.

Movies, though, are slightly different than television like Food Network or HGTV. Sometimes, after a long day of making decisions at work, the last thing I want to do is make a decision on what to watch. Sometimes, like on Fridays, I can’t wait for Food Network to air its marathon of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Could I stream that? Of course I could, but I don’t want to pick what episode to watch. I want Food Network to make that decision for me.

Before moving to Portland, YouTube TV was my way to watch the San Francisco Giants baseball team, which aired on the local NBC sports network that is included with YouTube TV. But up here, I get no such access and was forced to buy MLB TV, further diminishing YouTube TV’s value to us.

Since the launch of Discovery+, outside of the NFL’s football season, my time in YouTube TV has fallen to an all-time low. If Amazon is able to gain the rights to stream more NFL games through Prime (the two organizations have already agreed to stream 15 games per season on the platform for the next 10 years) or if another way to always have access to 49er games becomes available, YouTube will be hanging on by a thread in my household.

If Discovery+ wakes up and offers the ability to stream its live networks in addition to anything on demand — commercials included, I don’t care — I’ll really feel tempted to cancel my YouTube TV subscription. Disney+ hasn’t quite gotten its act together with simultaneously adding Nat Geo shows to its library as they air either, but it’s only a matter of time. This coming from the guy who vehemently defended Google for raising the price from $50 a month to $65.

Unfortunately, with nearly every major network joining the streaming game and so many doing it well, the varying-resolution, live TV model offered by YouTube TV is simply less compelling and, unfortunately, becoming increasingly redundant.

YouTube TV Is a Great Platform Offering a Dying Service

YouTube TV is without a doubt a fantastic streaming platform. It is very well designed, streamlined, fast, without bugs, and offers unlimited DVR. Google knows what it’s doing and it shows. From that standpoint, YouTube TV is easily a 10 out of 10. But it’s not that simple.

What streaming services actually have to stream is a major part of what is their value. It’s why a platform with an absolutely trash interface can do so well — again, I’m looking at you HBO Max. As long as the content to watch is worth watching, most will be willing to put up with frustrations in getting there.

But a fabulous interface with limited options and varying-resolution streams somehow feels worse. While YouTube TV’s on-demand options from every network in its lineup is pretty fantastic, they come bundled with commercials. Why would I watch Buddy vs. Duff on YouTube TV with commercials when I can get it on Discovery+ at a higher resolution without commercials? I wouldn’t, and I don’t.

YouTube TV basically serves as a reminder that a new episode has aired and I just switch over to Discovery+. Why Discovery+ doesn’t do a better job at telling me there are new episodes is a conversation for another day.

As it has aged and streaming has advanced, YouTube TV feels like it isn’t adapting, and that’s not entirely its own fault. It’s saddled with the same problems that are dooming standard cable television: it is expensive, you are forced to pay for channels you don’t want, the resolution is bad, and the viewing experience is intertwined with advertising. YouTube TV as a streaming platform is great, but I just wish the quality of stuff to watch matched.

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