The live TV streaming issue no one's talking about

Some streaming services make a chore out of ad skipping by omitting a visual preview.

cord cutting cable television streaming
Getty Images/GoodLifeStudio

One thing I've learned from writing about cord-cutting is that people are particular about their DVRs. If a streaming service's DVR doesn't provide the same creature comforts as cable set-top box, it can be a dealbreaker.

Case in point: I recently heard from a reader who'd successfully cut cable in favor of DirecTV Now, only to become frustrated with how the service handles ad skipping. While DirecTV Now puts no restrictions on recording shows or jumping past commercials, it offers no visual preview of what you're skipping when you hit fast forward. Without this visual preview, skipping past commercial breaks requires a lot of trial and error.

I decided to dig into the matter, and I discovered that visual preview is a nuanced and occasionally vexing issue in the world of live TV streaming services. The ability to skip past commercials with ease can depend not only on which service you choose, but on the device you're using and even the button you press to fast forward on your remote. After a whole bunch of testing, here's what I've learned. 

Philo

philopreview Jared Newman / IDG

Philo is close to the ideal for how visual preview should work on live TV streaming services. Whether you're watching on Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV, you'll get a large pop-up window showing what's on as you fast forward. On Roku and Fire TV, this preview appears with both the directional pad (which jumps ahead in 10-second increments with each press) and the fast-forward button (which scrolls ahead continuously until you hit play).

The Apple TV experience is slightly inferior--there's no preview when you tap left or right on the Siri remote--but you can still see a preview by pausing and scrolling forward or backward.

Sling TV

slingtvpreview Jared Newman / IDG

Sling TV also gets high marks for its implementation of visual preview, which was available on every platform I tested, including Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Android TV. Like Philo, it provides a preview with both directional-pad scrolling (on all platforms except Apple TV) and with your fast-forward and rewind buttons. My only gripe is that clicking the directional pad advances the video by 30 seconds, which is prone to overshooting the commercial break.

Keep in mind that Sling TV charges $5 per month for DVR service--it's the only streaming service that doesn't let you record channels for free--and it still can't record ESPN or Disney channels.

YouTube TV

youtubetvpreview Jared Newman / IDG

YouTube TV's visual preview is near the head of the class, with a small thumbnail popping up on Roku and Android TV when you hit the directional pad (to jump ahead in measured increments) or the fast-forward (for continuous scrolling through the video). The thumbnail is a bit too small, though, and it always seems to offer a pixelated image.

A preview is available on Apple TV as well, but it might not be obvious how to reach it. Instead of clicking on the remote, you must either tap lightly on either side of the directional pad (to jump ahead in 15 second increments) or wipe across the remote (for continuous scrolling).

Hulu with Live TV

hulupreview Jared Newman / IDG

Hulu deserves credit for going beyond mere visual previews and actually highlighting commercial breaks in the video progress bar on Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Unfortunately, the implementation varies from one device to the next. Fire TV only shows a preview when you hit the directional pad, not the fast-forward button, and Apple TV doesn't offer any visual preview whatsoever. (You'll need make do with fast-forwarding in 10-second increments by clicking right on the remote.)

One other caveat: Unless you're paying $15-per-month extra for Hulu's "Enhanced" DVR, which offers 200 hours of storage instead of 50 hours, you can't skip commercials at all.

PlayStation Vue

psvuepreview Jared Newman / IDG

PlayStation Vue is another prime example of visual preview inconsistency. It's available on Amazon Fire TV and Android TV devices, but only when you hit the fast-forward button instead of the directional pad. It's also the only service that dedicates the entire TV screen to the preview instead of showing it in a separate thumbnail. (I think this is more jarring than beneficial.) As for Apple TV and Roku, the best you can do on those devices is to click right to advance the video by 10-second increments. (A triple-click will let you skip through a standard 30-second commercial break.)

Also worth noting: Fox and FX channels don't support fast-forward, and some local channels don't allow DVR at all.

FuboTV

fubotvpreview Jared Newman / IDG

FuboTV lands near the bottom of the list for visual preview support--it's available only on Apple TV by pausing, and then swiping left or right. You can quickly jump ahead in 10-second increments on Roku and Apple TV, or 15-second increments on Fire TV and Android TV, but you won't get a preview while doing so on any of them.

DirecTV Now

dtvnownopreview Jared Newman / IDG

As the live TV streaming service that prompted this column, DirecTV Now does not offer visual preview on any of its supported devices. On most devices, you can click right on your directional pad to jump ahead in 15-second increments, but you won't see what's happening up ahead when you do. Also, the process for skipping ahead is more cumbersome on Fire TV, which requires you to hit the select button, tap right to highlight the fast forward button, and then hit select again to jump ahead.

DirecTV Now bills DVR as a "beta" feature. Here's hoping visual preview is on AT&T's to-do list.

This story has been corrected with an easier way to access YouTube TV's visual preview on Apple TV.

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