YouTube TV Review: Great Interface, But Key Sports Missing

Google’s live TV streaming service launched last week with 40 channels

Google is the latest company to launch a live-TV streaming service, debuting YouTube TV last week with plenty of fanfare, as the internet giant tries to bring in younger viewers who have largely opted out of linear television — ironically, in favor of services like YouTube, in many cases.

YouTube TV costs $35/month (the first month is free), and includes six accounts to prevent family members with different tastes’ recommendations from cross-contaminating. It offers 40 channels to start, focused on the four major broadcast networks, with more on the way, including “The Walking Dead” home AMC Networks. The service is currently available in five markets: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area, and there are no long-term contracts.

TheWrap has been playing with YouTube TV for a few days now, using the service on a phone, tablet, desktop computer and television. And while it’s not yet a replacement for cable (as it’s still missing some of the most popular channels like CNN), YouTube TV gets high marks for its user experience and reliability.

First, the good:

 

Awesome and convenient interface
YouTube TV’s control center might be the most user-friendly one developed yet and has three basic views: “Library,” “Home” and “Live.” Library is pretty self-explanatory, being a place for recorded shows (YouTube’s cloud DVR is easy enough to use — select a show and click a “+” button and all upcoming episodes are recorded and added to the library — and has an effectively limitless capacity).

Home is a Netflix or Hulu-like dashboard that shows popular live programs and suggestions to watch and record, while Live is essentially a much better version of the traditional spreadsheet-like channel guide. It overlays a live feed of the selected channel when toggling through the guide (the Home screen also shows live video in its dashboard), meaning that disappointing feeling of finding something good on and clicking over just in time for a commercial is a thing of the past. The guide is also just plain fun to scroll through

Technology appears ready for prime time
AT&T launched its own streaming service, DirecTV Now, late last year, offering a whopping 100-plus channels for an introductory rate of $35 a month (which seems to be the price many of these services are converging around). And while DirecTV Now came to market with an expansive suite of channels and support across multiple devices, its early rollout was plagued by issues connecting and loading channels — which TheWrap also experienced.

People watch 1 billion hours of video on YouTube every day, so the company has some expertise in building a reliable backend, but the service’s smoothness was still impressive. Watching YouTube TV on an iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air and HDTV via Google’s Chromecast dongle, TheWrap experienced nothing but quick and smooth loading when changing channels and moving between devices, and a crisp picture that looked no different from a cable or satellite feed.

Easy to follow your favorite teams — as long as their games are on the right channels
TheWrap immediately set YouTube TV to record all televised games from the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers. The problem with that is the Lakers’ and Dodgers’ main local TV channels aren’t available (yet) on YouTube TV, but fans of teams that have local broadcast partners in the Fox Sports family, for example, would find this incredibly convenient.

Reliable content recommendations, especially with multiple accounts
TheWrap has only been using YouTube TV for a few days, but YouTube’s incisive video recommendation engine is already making suggestions that have led to exploring — and enjoying — new shows. It has also seemed to figure out which sports TheWrap likes better than others. And with other users having the option to have their own accounts under the same master account, those individualized recommendations should continue to improve.

Now, onto the not so good:

 

Time Warner channels are sorely missed
The lack of Time Warner channels is a gaping hole — especially given the fact that the service launched on the eve of the NBA playoffs, which promise to be as exciting a tournament as ever. YouTube TV doesn’t have CNN — a significant void in the Trump era — but cable news junkies have alternatives like MSNBC and Fox News. However, passionate basketball fans wouldn’t have been able to catch much of March Madness without TNT, TBS and TruTV — and they’ll miss dozens of NBA playoff games, including all first-round matchups not on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays (and half of the weekend games).

Good sports, but not good enough
YouTube TV was built around the major broadcast networks and includes the regional sports networks owned by the big four. TheWrap was able to watch the Los Angeles Kings v. Anaheim Ducks hockey game Saturday on Fox Sports West or Fox Sports Prime Ticket, but Spectrum SportsNet — the home of the Lakers and Galaxy — and Spectrum SportsNet LA, which televises Los Angeles Dodgers games, are not available on YouTube TV.

There’s also no league-affiliated networks, which televise numerous games and highlight shows. The NFL Network, NBA TV, MLB Network and NHL Networks are nowhere to be found YouTube TV.

Limited device support for smart TVs
At this point, YouTube TV can only be watched on an actual TV using a Chromecast device, which worked well enough when TheWrap tried it, but requires a smartphone or tablet to “cast” it. There isn’t a standalone Apple TV or Roku app available yet, despite those being among the most popular smart TV hubs. YouTube TVdoesn’t even have an app on Google’s own Android TV at this point.

You can’t fast-forward shows recorded on the DVR if they’re also available on demand
YouTube TV’s DVR works like most others in that it allows users to fast-forward through commercials when watching recorded shows. But there’s one exception: they can’t do that when there’s an on-demand version of the same program available on the service, and are instead re-directed to that version, which has ads. The company attributed this policy to deals with its programming partners, but it’s an unusual feature. Even traditional pay-TV companies, which aren’t exactly known for being consumer friendly, allow customers to watch recorded shows when there are also available versions on demand.

The verdict:
YouTube TV offers an interface that borders on delightful and a decent selection of channels for $35 a month. The six included accounts and cloud DVR are nice bonuses, and most importantly, unlike plenty of other streaming services marred by buggy debuts, YouTube TV works really well.

But without the Turner channels, Viacom networks (including MTV and Comedy Central) and the most popular prestige channel, Time Warner’s HBO (although Showtime can be added for $11/month), it’s simply not a replacement for the standard suite of channels Americans are used to. Its channel offerings are more along the lines of what one would find in a decent hotel (minus the ubiquitous CNN).

Like the other live-TV streaming services, including DirecTV Now, Dish Network’s Sling TV and Hulu’s upcoming offering, YouTube TV isn’t going to convince people who value — and can afford — the hundreds of channels they get in a traditional cable or satellite package to downsize. But it should attract cord-cutters — although maybe not ones who are huge NBA fans — and its smart interface and recommendations make it seem like there’s always interesting stuff on even with a limited array of channels. At a time when linear TV has never seemed less cool, maybe that’s its true genius.