Technically, Hulu with Live TV is still in beta, though it’s become hard to tell from using it. After more than a year, Hulu’s streaming TV bundle is available on most major streaming devices, and is generally free of rough edges. And despite the tiny “beta” tag that appears on Hulu’s website, the service still costs $40 per month, in line with other live TV services that have similar channel lineups.
Beta or not, let’s render a verdict: Hulu with Live TV creates a great value by combining lots of popular channels with Hulu’s existing on-demand service (normally $8 per month). It’s also customizable, with options to add more DVR storage, additional streams, and fewer commercials, and its interface—while occasionally overwhelming—has a way of helping you find new things to watch.
Still, some caveats apply: The DVR doesn’t allow ad-skipping unless you pay for more storage, out-of-home viewing isn’t allowed on streaming TV devices such as Roku and Fire TV players, and certain devices don’t yet support 60-frames-per-second video playback. Whether Hulu with Live TV works for you will depend in large part on whether you can tolerate those restrictions.
How Hulu’s live TV service works
Hulu’s channel lineup is one-size-fits-all, with roughly 60 channels included in the $40 base package. Those include all four major broadcast channels; the big three cable news networks; national and regional sports from ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports Network, and NBCSN; and a slew of entertainment channels. The only additional channels you can purchase are HBO ($15 per month), Cinemax ($10 per month), and Showtime ($9 per month.)
The major omissions are channels from AMC Networks, Viacom (such as Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and MTV), Discovery (such as Animal Planet and Sci), and league-specific sports channels, such as NBA TV and NFL Network.
As with most other streaming bundles, Hulu carries live, local broadcast stations in some markets, but not others. (Enter your zip code on Hulu’s website to see which local channels you’ll receive.) If a live broadcast is not available, you’ll still get that network’s prime-time on-demand programming the day after it airs, but you won’t be able to watch local news, sports, or other live events.
The $40-per-month plan includes 40 hours of DVR storage, saved indefinitely, but with one major limitation: You’re not allowed to skip through ads on recorded programming. If you want Hulu’s cloud DVR to act like a real DVR, you’ll have to pay $15 extra for full ad-skipping and 200 hours of storage.
The base plan allows for two streams at a time, but you can pay another $15 per month to watch on unlimited devices at home and three streams on the road. (This add-on can be bundled with the expanded DVR for $20 per month total.) In any case, Hulu does not allow you to stream on TV devices such as Fire TV Sticks or Roku players from outside the house. As a workaround, your Hulu account can log into 35 TV network apps, but not all of them offer live feeds, and some have unskippable ads during on-demand video.
But wait, there’s more. Hulu’s live TV service also includes all of Hulu’s on-demand programming, including back-catalog shows from the major networks and several cable channels, every episode of Seinfeld, and original series such as The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s a valuable perk, but if you want to skip the ads on these shows, you must upgrade to the no-commercials version of Hulu for another $4 per month.
Clearly, the cost of Hulu’s live TV service can add up, in some cases for the same service that other bundles offer gratis. PlayStation Vue and YouTube TV, for instance, place no limits on DVR storage (though they have time limits of 28 days and nine months respectively, while Hulu stores recordings indefinitely), and the former does not restrict ad-skipping on most channels. Those bundles also offer three simultaneous streams compared to Hulu’s default two, as does Sling TV with its Blue package.
Still, Hulu is tied with YouTube TV as the cheapest streaming bundle that covers major networks, news channels, local sports, regional sports, and DVR at no extra cost. Throw in Hulu’s on-demand service, which continues to grow as Hulu snatches up the rights to more network shows, and you’re getting a lot of TV for the money.
An overflowing interface
Hulu’s live TV service is available on Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, Roku, Xbox 360, Xbox One, select LG and Samsung smart TVs, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android, Fire tablets, and the web. You can still access the on-demand service on other devices that Hulu supports (such as Android TV, PlayStation consoles, TiVo, and Vizio TVs), but you won’t be able to watch live channels.
As it was a year ago, Hulu’s app is still a bit dense. Beyond the home screen, which provides quick access to recent programs, favorite channels, and recommendations, there are separate menus for live TV, DVR and saved programs, general browsing, and search—many of which overlap with one another in various ways. There’s arguably a method to the madness—click around enough, and you’ll find something interesting to watch—but getting comfortable with the app can take time. (That might explain why the design, which also applies to the on-demand version of Hulu, has been so polarizing.)
Still, Hulu has made some improvements over the last year. The biggest change is a proper grid-based guide for live TV, currently available on Apple TV, Fire TV (but strangely, not the third-generation Fire TV pendant), Xbox One, iOS, and the web. It’s not exactly a full grid—you can only see what’s upcoming on the currently-selected channel, and you can only see past the next program on iOS and the web—but it makes browsing through channels a little easier.
Other recent tweaks are subtler. When you scroll to the top menu bar, for instance, all the menu icons show text descriptions underneath them, and remote control commands (such as “click and hold: details”) are displayed more conspicuously than they used to be. Hulu’s also provides a “stop suggesting” button for weeding out bad recommendations in its iOS app, and is bringing this to other devices soon.
Hulu’s been adding more options for its cloud DVR as well. You can now add a show to your favorites without recording it, choose to record only new episodes, or record individual episodes. Because Hulu’s DVR has a 40-hour storage limit (or 200 hours with the $15-per-month expanded DVR add-on), these can help maximize your recording space.
In total, the changes help Hulu feel more like a complete streaming TV service rather than a work in progress. The only remaining nitpick is the way Hulu handles children’s profiles. Hulu still recommends programs that aren’t age appropriate, even when you’ve provided the child’s birthday. (Update: An earlier version of this review said Hulu did not provide a "Keep Watching" section for children's profiles, but this feature was added shortly before publication.)
Quality and reliability
Over the past year, I’ve seen and read several complaints about about the reliability of Hulu’s service, including problems with buffering and an ill-timed glitch during the Super Bowl.
I’ve yet to experience any of this myself. While reviewing Hulu’s live TV service, channels loaded quickly, buffering problems never occurred, and video quality was comparable to other TV bundles. (The service streams at 720p for live channels and some on-demand network content, with 1080p and 4K available with some on-demand shows and movies.) Without industry-standard ways to measure reliability, it’s hard to say whether Hulu’s service is markedly worse than others.
Sticklers for smooth streaming in sports, news, and reality shows should note that Hulu now supports 60-frames-per-second video on many channels, but only on certain devices. The higher frame rate currently works on iOS, Apple TV, Xbox One, Samsung smart TVs, and the Nintendo Switch.
Like most other streaming bundles that have arrived over the past few years, Hulu with Live TV has gotten a lot better since launch. While the interface is polarizing, the out-of-home TV streaming restrictions, and the limits on ad-skipping could make it a non-starter for some cord-cutters, the lineup and on-demand library make for an effective combo. Maybe it’s time to remove that beta tag for good.
Hulu channel list as of June 1, 2018:
- Big Ten Network
- Cartoon Network / Adult Swim
- CBS Sports Network
- CNN International
- Disney Channel
- Disney Junior
- Disney XD
- ESPN-SEC Network
- Food Network
- Fox Business
- Fox News
- Fox Sports regionals
- Golf Channel
- Lifetime Movie Network
- Nat Geo Wild
- National Geographic
- NBC Sports regionals
- Olympic Channel
- Oxygen Network
- Smithsonian Channel
- Travel Channel
- Turner Classic Movies
- Universal Kids
- USA Network
- Cinemax (+10/mo.)
- HBO (+ 15/mo.)
- Showtime (+ $9/mo.)