Hands on with YouTube Red: Is Google's ad-free media-streaming service worth the price of admission?
We spent the weekend with Google's new $10-per-month service and discovered that it's too early to answer that question.
Going down the YouTube rabbit hole can be frustrating. You want to catch up on last night’s late show or check out a few sports highlights, but you soon find yourself trapped in mind-numbing loop of annoying advertisements. It can bad enough to make you think your pay-TV bundle is a great deal.
But the ads are there for a reason: content producers deserve to get paid. It might not matter as much for the big companies who throw their stuff on YouTube merely for exposure; but for video bloggers and other independent creators, it can mean the difference between making a living and going back to their day jobs.
Google thinks it has the answer for both viewers and content producers: YouTube Red, a $10-per-month subscription service that grants you ad-free access to virtually all of YouTube’s video vault. YouTube Red works anywhere you encounter YouTube videos: youtube.com, embedded videos across the web, and within YouTube’s Android and iOS apps.
In addition to that, your subscription also includes the unlimited version of Google Play Music (and if you already have a paid subscription to that service, you now have access to YouTube Red, too). More on that later.
Here’s what you get
In addition to Google Play Music and ad-free videos, you get two other goodies with a YouTube Red subscription: First, when watching on a mobile device, you can save videos offline so you can watch them even when you don’t have an Internet connection. Second, videos will continue to play in the background even if you lock your mobile device or switch to another app.
Those features are the outgrowth of YouTube Music Key Beta, which Google rolled out last year as a trial run at how it might reinvent YouTube. The company provided the same offline access and background playing, while eliminating advertisements on music videos.
I’ve been a Play Music subscriber since day one, and I really came to appreciate the ability to save a video offline or to keep a song playing while zipping over to another app. Be aware, however, that you’ll need to hop into the settings to enable background play; by default, YouTube kicks it on only if your device is connected to headphones or a speaker.
But YouTube Red feels liberating: there’s no dreading an irritating advertisement every time I go to launch a new video. It’s made me go to YouTube more often to seek out a how-to video or to just glance at the various subscription channels. I know I’m a member of the “in” crowd now, so I’m more apt to spend time there.
That’s what Google hopes, of course. This ad-free bliss, however, is limited to paid YouTube content, such as movie and TV rentals and purchases, and YouTube’s gaming channel. But Google will soon offer more to hook you in. There’s a YouTube Music app in the works (YouTube is the home to most of the world’s music videos, so it’s the right kind of vertical to launch), and YouTube is developing original programming, just like Amazon has done with its Prime service.
The original content looks to be quite the mashup of comedy, drama, and romance, but we’ll need to actually see how it turns out to determine if the quality is there. This excites me less, especially since none of it’s ready yet; but it does give me the feeling that there will be at least some extra value for my monthly fee.
A gateway to Google Play Music
As I mentioned earlier, a YouTube Red subscription includes the unlimited version of Google Play Music. Similar to Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and other services, this gives you a broad catalog of music for streaming and/or offline listening. You can also upload music that you own (up to 50,000 tracks) to an online music locker and play them through the Play Music site and its mobile app.
The 320Kbps streaming bit rate isn’t audiophile quality—Tidal streams in lossless FLAC—but it’s better than what some other streaming-music services offer. If you’re concerned about going over your mobile data plan’s cap, you can configure the app to stream at the highest bit rate only when you’re on a Wi-Fi network.
YouTube is subtly integrated with Google Play Music: If there’s a video for the song you’re listening to, you’ll see the album art in both the mobile apps and browser-based player. Each artist page also has a collection of their YouTube videos.
If you’re not all that into music videos it might be uninteresting, but I like the ability to discover a new song through one of Play Music’s curated stations and then see what the artists can do on camera. It’s a great add-on.
It’s a compelling package, for some
From what I’ve seen so far, YouTube Red—combined with Google Play Music—is a compelling package. For $10 a month you get an excellent streaming-music service plus a supercharged YouTube experience.
If you’re already a Play Music subscriber, you automatically get YouTube Red. And if you’re one of the few early adopters who signed up for Play Music at launch (and stuck with it) you’re still locked in at the $8-per-month rate. Now that is an absolute steal.
What's unknown at this point is if you’ll get to join the YouTube Red party as part of the new Play Music family plans that will launch soon. It seems likely, but we won’t know for sure until Google chimes in.
I won't formally review YouTube Red at this point, because none of its original series are available for screening, but I'm a fan of what Google has put together so far. If you don't care about music videos, and you're already subscribing to another music-streaming service (paid or free), you might not feel the same. Google is offering a 30-day free trial if you're curious. Just remember, this is still YouTube: For every piece of quality content, you'll encounter 100 painfully amateur videos.