Now YouTube is in the live TV game with YouTube TV. For $35 a month, customers in five cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco) get access to about 50 channels.
Yet the channel selection leaves something to be desired. Having access to local channels is excellent, and the various cable networks owned by NBC (USA, Syfy, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo), ABC (Disney, ESPN, Freeform), and Fox (Fox News, FX, FXX, Nat Geo) are great, but not having any of the Time Warner/Turner networks (CNN, Cartoon Network, TBS) or Viacom networks (Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon) is a huge bummer. AMC Networks is joining soon, meaning subscribers will have access to AMC, Sundance, IFC, and We TV.
The YouTube TV lineup right now. Note that AMC, BBC America, IFC, etc. aren’t available now. YouTube says they’ll be available “soon.” (Image: YouTube)
Despite YouTube TV’s relatively weak channel selection, the rest of the service is refreshingly well built. The app is available on desktop via a web browser, as well as on iOS and Android. The desktop experience and the mobile apps are excellent. The interface is very similar to the existing YouTube app, with three tabs for Library, Home, and Live TV.
The YouTube TV interface on iOS (Screenshot: Christina Warren/Gizmodo)
When it comes to watching live programming, playback is exceptional. It makes sense since YouTube has a lot of experience serving video at scale. Whether I was watching while waiting for the subway, in a cab, on the crappy wi-fi in the office, or in my apartment, I never had dropouts, and the app was automatically able to adjust content quality based on my connection strength. I tested the service on its first day of full operation, so it’s unlikely many people were using it at the same time, but YouTube TV did not have any of the buffering or stream quality problems we’ve experienced on other services.
YouTube TV running in a web browser (Screenshot: Christina Warren/Gizmodo)
In addition to live TV, one of the hallmark features of YouTube TV is its unlimited cloud DVR. Simply browse shows or upcoming programs and tap a “+” button to record the program when it airs. Recordings show up in a library for playback later and episodes can be stored for up to nine months. When a show is available for playback, it does so without any ad breaks. YouTube TV doesn’t put any limits on how many shows can be recorded at once or how many shows can be saved in the library, which makes this a great way to access content.
It’s a huge bummer for the millions of people who have set-top boxes that aren’t Chromecasts. Google will give users who pay for one month of service a free Chromecast (they start at $35 otherwise), but if you already have a set top box, that’s just another device to clog up an HDMI port. Does Google seriously expect me to keep a Chromecast plugged in for a single app? Not going to happen.
YouTube’s channel selection isn’t as robust as what you get from DirecTV Now—but the critical component, video playback, works extremely well. The apps are well-designed, and the price of $35 a month is reasonable for people that are happy with local channels, some cable favorites, and lots of sports. If YouTube TV can manage to sign-up more major cable networks and broaden its playback options, this has real potential.