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.
Visual preview is the perfect example. With cable, you can typically see a thumbnail preview while fast forwarding or rewinding through recorded programs, so you know exactly where you'll be after hitting play. Over the years, I've gotten a bunch of messages from readers who won't tolerate any live TV streaming service that lacks this feature.
Upon digging into the matter, I've 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 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 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.
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). YouTube has also made some improvements since I first wrote this story: Thumbnails are larger and less pixelated than they used to be, and bringing up the previews on Apple TV devices is easier; you can just swipe left or right on the touchpad to see them.
Hulu with Live TV
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, these features aren't available on Apple TV, whose Hulu app doesn't offer visual preview at all. And no matter which device you're using Hulu's DVR has one major caveat: Ad-skipping isn't even allowed unless you pay $10 per month extra for Hulu's "Enhanced" DVR, which also gives you 200 hours of storage instead of 50 hours.
AT&T's live TV streaming service is hit-or-miss for visual preview support. It's available on Roku players and on the AT&T TV streaming box, but not on Amazon Fire TV devices or Apple TV.
Whether you'll see the preview also depends on how you skip through the video. On Roku, for instance, you have to use the remote's fast forward or rewind buttons; using the directional pad will instead give you a 10-second skip with no preview at all.
FuboTV lands at the bottom of this 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.
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