YouTube TV Quick Look: Local Channels Come to IPTV
Google has just entered the IPTV market with YouTube TV and if you live in New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, or Philadelphia you can sign up today. The reason for the limited availability is that YouTube TV aims to address one of the biggest shortcomings of existing IPTV services: local channels.
Services such as Sling TV and DirecTV Now primarily focus on nationally-available cable networks (although some local channels are available in certain markets), but YouTube TV also offers a wide range of local channels including ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and the CW. The complexity of licensing access to these local channels means that only people physically located in the above-mentioned cities can currently subscribe to the service, although Google is still working on expanding access to additional markets.
Channels and Pricing
If you live in one of these markets, however, you’ll find YouTube TV offers a compelling value compared to its competitors. Like the other IPTV services, YouTube TV has an upfront monthly cost (currently $35 per month) that you join or cancel at any time without contracts or other commitments. Unlike most other IPTV services, however, YouTube TV has just a single plan with about 40 live channels and access to YouTube Red Originals. In addition to the included channels, users can optionally subscribe to either Showtime or Fox Soccer Plus for $11 or $15 per month, respectively.
There are still some limitations, however. Some markets like ours in Los Angeles are missing the CW, so you’ll want to verify channel availability for your market. There are also some big omissions from the broader channel package, including popular channels like HGTV, AMC, TBS, and Nickelodeon, all of which can be found in other services although generally as part of a higher priced monthly package.
Despite the channel caveats, YouTube TV offers another big feature that sets it apart from many competitors: a free and quite functional DVR. When using the DVR with TV Shows, you just click the little plus icon next to its listing and then every airing of every episode of that show will be “recorded” and added to your DVR library.
We were at first concerned about the lack of control over DVR settings like you might find with a TiVo or your cable company’s DVR (e.g., “season pass,” or “record only new episodes”), but we quickly realized that it doesn’t matter. With YouTube TV, you have unlimited recording space, and unlimited “tuners” so there are no recording conflicts or storage limitations. So you can freely add shows to your DVR queue and have everything saved to watch later without worrying about wasting space. This method works great both for keeping up with current shows as well as discovering older shows. For example, if you add a frequently syndicated show like How I Met Your Mother to your DVR queue, you’ll have several seasons ready to watch after just a few weeks.
In addition to “recording” all live airings of a particular show, Google has teamed up with the networks to offer instant access to streamed content as well. Most networks offer streaming versions of their popular shows via their websites and apps. If you choose to “record” a show that is also available via one of these official streaming platforms, you’ll be served up the streaming version instead. The benefit of this approach is that you get instant access to high-quality versions of every episode that is available for streaming. The downside, however, is that these streaming versions are the same as you’d get if you went directly to the network’s website or app, which means unskippable commercials.
When watching your recorded shows via the YouTube TV DVR, you’ll have most of the benefits of a typical cable company DVR or TiVo, including pause, skip, and fast forward. Fast forward is achieved via a slider that you drag, but you can’t fast forward through shows you didn’t record (i.e., the streaming versions discussed above). So if you think you might be interested in a show, just set it to record. You have unlimited space and recordings will remain in your DVR library for 9 months. It took a bit of getting used to but we felt liberated to the point where we just started recording everything and then decided what to watch later.
Finally, despite the benefits of YouTube TV compared to its competitors, it has one huge downside: device support. YouTube TV is of course available on Android and iOS, and you can also watch via the Web on your laptop or desktop, but the only way to currently watch it on your actual living room TV is via the Chromecast, Google’s set-top media device. There’s no support for other set-top boxes like the Apple TV, Roku, or Amazon Fire TV.
Sure, you could always connect your laptop to your TV via HDMI, or use a dedicated HTPC, but those solutions generally aren’t as user-friendly as the aforementioned dedicated media devices, and aren’t as likely to pass the “spousal acceptance test.” This makes YouTube TV a great choice for users who watch the majority of their video content on their phones, tablets, and laptops, but not necessarily ideal for those who still enjoy a traditional living room viewing experience.
Overall, we find YouTube TV to be a good start for Google. It introduces some novel features to the growing IPTV industry and offers the same low-cost, cancel anytime model that we like. But YouTube TV also has some big downsides in terms of channel selection and device support. While we hope and expect these two issues will be addressed going forward, YouTube TV’s benefits are irrelevant to those who want to watch via Apple TV, or those who are addicted to HGTV, for example.
But, like other IPTV services, YouTube TV has a no-risk free trial, so you can sign up and try it free for 30 days to see if the benefits of the service outweigh its downsides. For our complete discussion of YouTube TV, check out Episode 787 of The HDTV and Home Theater Podcast.