YouTube TV is finally available to the vast majority of U.S. residents, and it was worth the wait.
The $40-per-month streaming bundle is only available in markets where YouTube TV can carry at least three live local broadcast channels, but that now covers about 85 percent of U.S. households. And in February, the YouTube TV app landed on Roku and Apple TV, joining existing apps for Android TV, Xbox One, Chromecast, Android, and iOS.
Editor’s note: This review was updated in its entirety—including its review score—after YouTube TV underwent a number of changes, channel additions, and expansions to new markets. If you’re interested in reading our original opinion, we’ve preserved that record here.
Even though YouTube TV is pricier than it used to be (or will be after March 13, when a price hike from $35 per month kicks in for new subscribers), it’s still an excellent value, covering many of the most popular news, sports, and entertainment channels on television. It’s also the best attempt yet at combining live, on-demand, and recorded TV into a comprehensible interface. For most people—save for the unfortunate 15 percent who still can’t get it—YouTube TV is the best all-around streaming TV bundle.
YouTube TV: What you get
YouTube TV is a one-size-fits-all service, with more than 50 channels for $40 per month. The lineup includes the major broadcast networks, ESPN channels, regional sports from Fox and Comcast, all three major cable news networks, and a slew of entertainment channels such as FX, AMC, SyFy, and Disney Junior. Access to YouTube Red originals are included at no extra charge, and you can add Showtime for $11 per month and Fox Soccer Plus for $15 per month. (See the bottom of this review for the full channel list.)
Like other streaming bundles, YouTube TV omits some networks to keep prices down. You won’t get any channels from Scripps Networks (HGTV, Food Network), Discovery Communications (Animal Planet, Science), or Viacom (Comedy Central, MTV), and the package doesn’t include the NFL Network. Google is also a bit less stringent about including local channels than it was at launch, when it offered live feeds from ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox in five markets. Now, some markets only include live local broadcasts from three of those channels—plus the CW in some cases—with on-demand video from the rest.
Each subscription entitles you to three simultaneous streams, and supports up to six profiles for anyone with a Google account, allowing family members to save their own favorite shows and DVR recordings (more on that shortly). YouTube TV also works with about 20 TV Everywhere apps, so you can log in and watch shows even on platforms that the service doesn’t support yet.
How YouTube TV DVR works
YouTube TV doesn’t charge extra for DVR, like Sling TV does, nor does it set storage limits like Sling TV, Hulu, and FuboTV do. Instead, recordings expire after nine months, which is more generous than the 28- and 30-day windows afforded by PlayStation Vue and Philo respectively. The service also supports partial recordings, and it lets you watch the recorded portion of a program while it’s still airing live. You can pause any live TV channel and rewind through what you’ve already watched as well.
Here’s the catch: YouTube TV replaces recordings with on-demand streams if the latter are available, and the on-demand versions don’t allow ad-skipping. In some cases, you can expect to sit through about a minute and 30 seconds of ads for each commercial break, which tends to line up with the breaks in the live telecast. An option to pay extra for longer than nine months of storage and full ad-skipping privileges would be appreciated.
Google reportedly conceded the on-demand issue to TV networks so it could otherwise build the DVR it wanted, and overall the tradeoff seems worthwhile. Some hardcore DVR users might gripe about the lack of granular controls—you can’t make one-off recordings or avoid recording reruns—but having unlimited storage means you shouldn’t have to worry about recording management in the first place. YouTube TV frees you to make liberal use of the “+” button that accompanies every program, and you’ll quickly build up a backlog of movies and shows to watch as a result. The only thing that’s really missing is a way to filter unwatched recordings.
Navigating the bundle
Here’s how I know YouTube TV nailed the design for its apps: I can explain them easily.
The main menu splits off into three sections: The Home section provides quick access to recommendations and things you haven’t finished watching, the Library section lists all the on-demand and recorded programs that you’ve marked as favorites, and the Live section is a traditional grid-based TV guide.
In addition, YouTube TV offers a powerful search feature, letting you look up titles, actors, directors, genres, sports teams, channels, and even specific seasons or episodes. On mobile devices, pressing the search button also brings up lots of ways to peruse the YouTube TV catalog. You can browse by channel, each of which has its own subsections for featured programming. You can select a genre, and YouTube TV will present shows or movies that it thinks you’ll like. You can even dig through a list of every sports league covered by YouTube TV’s channels.
Strangely, YouTube TV’s Roku, Xbox, and Apple TV apps don’t function in quite the same way. The search button offers none of the rich browsing options that appear in YouTube’s mobile apps. Some are scattered across the home screen, while others you can only find with a voice or text search.
On all devices, YouTube TV offers rich program pages, with plot synopses, cast information, and related programming for movies and shows. For sports, you‘ll see team information, league rankings, scores, and roster details. These pages are a little harder to reach on TV devices—you’ll need to swipe or tap up, and then scroll over to the tiny “i” button near the right side of the screen—but they’re still available.
The only major misstep in YouTube TV’s interface is the inclusion of some regular YouTube videos on the home screen. In theory, the tie-ins should help create continuity between the two services, but the tone and quality of YouTube videos are in such sharp contrast with Hollywood productions that their inclusion just comes off as ham-fisted.
Few performance caveats
In my personal experience—which may not be representative—YouTube TV has been mostly reliable. Channels typically loaded in a couple seconds, and fast forwarding or rewinding through videos seldom required any buffering or major drops in quality. I do appreciate that YouTube TV offers a “stats for nerds” menu, where you can monitor resolution, framerate, and video latency in real time.
While YouTube TV supports up to 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second, and up to 720p at 60 frames per second, some channels still aren’t providing the higher frame rates: 60fps is currently limited to ESPN channels, Fox and Fox Sports channels, and the Big Ten Network So if you’re watching sports, news, or talk shows on CBS or NBC channels, motion won’t look quite as smooth. DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue are still ahead of other streaming bundles in this regard.
So far, every streaming bundle I’ve tested has at least one significant weakness. Sling TV lacks two of the four major broadcast networks in most markets, DirecTV Now lacks DVR, PlayStation Vue is a bit on the pricey side, FuboTV’s apps are unpolished, and Hulu with Live TV is a little too clever for its own good.
YouTube TV’s biggest weakness is simply that some people still can’t get it. For everyone else, it’s the new sweet spot of streaming bundles.
Here’s the full YouTube TV channel list as of February 19, 2018:
- BBC America
- BBC World News
- Big Ten Network
- Cartoon Network / Adult Swim
- CBS Sports Network
- Disney Channel
- Disney Junior
- Disney XD
- ESPN-SEC Network
- Fox Business
- Fox News
- Fox Sports regionals
- Golf Channel
- Local Now
- Nat Geo Wild
- National Geographic
- NBC Sports regionals
- NESN Regional
- Olympic Channel
- Oxygen Network
- Sundance TV
- Turner Classic Movies
- Universal Kids
- USA Network
- We TV
- Showtime ($11/mo extra)
- Fox Soccer Plus ($15/mo extra)
Because online services are often iterative, gaining new features and performance improvements over time, this review is subject to change in order to accurately reflect the current state of the service. Any changes to text or our final review verdict will be noted at the top of this article.