Sunday, April 8, 2018

YouTube TV and Roku: Why your cable box and TiVo days are numbered

Is YouTube TV the service that finally delivers quality, performance, and features to rival a dedicated set-top cable TV box? That depends on what you expect. But we'll tell you this: it's close.


Cable television (that is, television programming delivered through a dedicated cable connection and set-top box) may well be on its last legs. The latest offering from YouTube, YouTube TV, may help usher the old school cable box to its inevitable doom.

That's a bold statement. But while it makes for a good sound byte, there are so many ahems, buts, on-the-other-hands, and it-depends-on-yous that it may just be so many words.

LET ME EXPLAIN

At first glance, YouTube TV does pretty much what an old-school dedicated cable TV box did for us for a couple of decades. YouTube TV delivers network television and local TV channels. It delivers some favorite cable channels. It even provides DVR support.

YouTube TV does all this without needing a special cable box, cable card, or any custom fiddling. If you've got broadband and YouTube TV, you have the array of channel-based TV we all grew up watching.

YouTube TV is a subscription television service provided by the same folks who brought you YouTube. Let's be clear. YouTube TV, YouTube Red, and plain old' YouTube are three separate things. Because, of course, they are.

A YouTube TV subscription replaces your cable box and provides network and local television. YouTube is where you go for kitten and puppy videos. And if you want to watch all the kitten and puppy videos you can without watching any ads, you can pay for YouTube Red (plus some original programming).

Got it? Good. Today, we're just talking about YouTube TV.

For $40 per month (in the US), you gain access to certain local TV channels, as well as network and streaming channels.

Here in Salem, OR, I have access to the local CBS, ABC, and NBC affiliates, as well as AMC, BBC America, BBC World News, Bravo, BTN, Cartoon Network, CBS Sports, CNBC, CNN, Comet TV, Disney, E!, ESPN, Fox, Fox News, Fox Sports, Freeform, FX, Golf, HLN, IFC, MLB Network, MSNBC, Nat Geo, NBA TV, NBC Sports, Newsy, Olympic Channel, Oxygen, Pop, Smithsonian, Sundance TV, Syfy, TBS, TCN, Telemundo, Tennis Channel, The CW, TNT, TruTV, Universal Kids, Universe, USA, WE TV, and YouTube Red originals.

It's a relatively large line-up, but for me, YouTube TV leaves out many channels you can watch with a cable box. There's no History, H2, Discovery, American Heroes Channel, DIY, HGTV, Animal Planet, Nickelodeon, Food Network, Science, Travel, or any of the CSPANs.

We signed up Sunday for the 7-day free trial YouTube TV offers. My wife wanted to watch the live Easter Sunday performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC. (Disclosure: ZDNet is owned by CBS. More disclosure: Despite ZDNet being owned by CBS, and my writing for ZDNet, CBS has never accepted plot advice from me for Star Trek Discovery).

While I am not much of a fan of musicals, religious themes, or holidays, I have to give props to the production quality of the performance. More to the point of this review, despite the video being in HD and not 4K (YouTube TV does not yet stream in 4K), the streaming video quality was notably exceptional.

That's not a surprise. Delivering quality video is a core competency of YouTube. Clearly, they're doing that with YouTube TV.

We watched the show on our TCL 65-inch Roku TV. There are great YouTube TV apps for both the Roku and the Apple TV. When my beautiful 70-inch LG TV arrived, crushed, in the moving truck, we had to go out and buy a replacement.

After the awesome experience with the inexpensive Costco TCL Roku we bought for the office, we looked into a larger one to replace our broken screen. Rather than spending thousands of dollars, we found the 65-inch TCL, with 4K and HDR at the local Target for $600. Given that it includes Roku functionality, that was quite a bargain. We now have three such TVs, one 40-inch, one 49-inch, and one 65-inch. They're inexpensive, easy to use, and excellent quality.

My point about these TVs is that with them (or a Roku box or an Apple TV), there's no real need for a cable box anymore. If you get YouTube TV, you get many of the expected cable channels, and connecting to the service and watching couldn't be easier.

A second major feature of YouTube TV is the cloud DVR service it offers. First, it works. We DVR'd Sunday's musical and it's now in our library. I also recorded some live video and scheduled some videos for future recording. Notably, there's no space limit to the cloud DVR, so record all you want. That said, if you don't watch a recording within 9 months, it'll be gone.

One interesting note: while YouTube TV does not eliminate ads from the TV shows you watch, if you DVR a show, you can skip over the ads. Not sure how long that feature will last, but it's nice.

YouTube TV allows six family members to set up individual selections on one $40/month account. You can have up to three streams playing at once.

The search function is not bad, but not as comprehensive as you might expect from a Google property. I typed in "Babylon" and it brought me to Babylon 5. Sadly, Babylon 5 is not available on YouTube TV, but the server recommended that the Kevin Sorbo series created by Gene Roddenberry, Andromeda, is available on Comet TV.

A search for Alda returned M*A*S*H, along with other shows Alan Alda had been in. The search did not turn up The West Wing, even though he was a cast member in a few seasons. However, since The West Wing is also not available on YouTube TV, that makes some sense. A search for The West Wing did show up, indicating that the program is not available for YouTube TV.

There are some availability issues for YouTube TV. When I first tried to sign up for it, back in Florida, my locale was not supported by the service. Here in Oregon, YouTube TV considers me part of the Portland market and made the Portland version of YouTube TV available. If you dream of the 90s, Portlandia is available on YouTube TV.



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