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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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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.

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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 ol' 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 service 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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We did run into one weird snag trying to sign up. We first tried signing up on my wife's Google account. It denied her, saying she had a "branded account." Research into that term said she might have some time earlier had a Google Plus account or a YouTube account with a different name. This is definitely odd, because she's a very basic YouTube user. I didn't do much more research into the problem because we signed up under my account and were able to watch the show we were interested in. Your mileage may vary.

That's particularly important for local channels. My ZDNet buddy Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has tried Sling TV, DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue, and others. He tells me he prefers YouTube TV. I haven't tried traveling and using the service yet, but Steven tells me that when he's in a different city, he gets the channels local to that city.

Steven will be back with a comprehensive comparison of these cable TV replacement streaming services some time in the near future. I last looked at Sling TV two years ago, and at that time it was horrible. It didn't allow pausing for many channels, it had no DVR capability, and -- at the time -- it couldn't even provide a reliable stream. Steven says Sling has improved considerably (it's now his second choice).

Unlike my experience with Sling a few years ago, the YouTube TV streaming experience has been virtually flawless. That said, I'm not going to extend my trial and go for the monthly subscription.

For me, it's just not worth the extra $40 per month for channels I don't normally watch. We already have a CBS All Access account, which is necessary whenever Star Trek Discovery comes back. That gives us all of CBS (except, strangely enough, early seasons of Big Bang Theory). We have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO, Starz, and Showtime. When new seasons of my favorite History Channel shows come out, I buy them on iTunes and spend a lot less than even a month's cable service.

I'll tell you this. I'll probably never use a cable TV box again, even for the elections. My inability to watch the debates on streaming TV resulted in my wife insisting (mostly for her sanity) that I bring a cable box back into the house, even after I cut the cord. But given that Fox, CNN, and CBS are all available on the YouTube TV, when debate season comes around, I'll probably reactivate the service rather than wire in a new box.

But that's me. If you like the channels that YouTube TV offers, it's a win. Honestly, they probably should combine YouTube TV and YouTube Red. If I got all those channels, plus was able to remove ads from my steady diet of YouTube tool and maker videos, I'd probably sign up.

So, are cable boxes doomed?

For those people who do not or cannot pay for broadband service, the old-school cable box (or an HD antenna) may be a familiar solution. That said, it's clear the entrenched advantage of the cable TV box is waning.

For people like me and Steven, YouTube TV is a service that makes perfect sense. We're both steeped in the Internet and have been cord cutters for quite some time.

The last cable TV service I had (Brighthouse, which became Spectrum) also offered a wide range of music-only channels, kind of like a 1990s version of Pandora. For streaming music, we now have Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Google Play, and Amazon Music. For streaming television channels, we now have YouTube TV, Sling, DirecTV Now, and Playstation Vue.

While the price of these services isn't cheap, and they use what may be capped broadband bandwidth, their reliability and convenience are now close to reaching the point of being valid substitute solutions, especially after more channels are added to their line-ups.

Finally, TiVo should be very worried. With the exception of TiVo's Roamio OTA VOX product, all other TiVo DVRs require a monthly fee of $14.99 (or $149/year). For more than the price of Netflix or Hulu, all TiVo provides is a channel directory and schedule.

It's getting harder and harder to make a case for a separate device and separate service fee for the TiVo, compared to the all-inclusive DVR service of YouTube TV.

The bottom line is this: the writing is on the wall for the 1990s way of watching TV. Dedicated cable boxes and DVRs are undoubtedly on their last legs. The only thing really standing in the way of this digital transformation is the legal and business model issues facing traditional networks.

Once the issues of licensing for markets and revenue sharing are resolved with the likes of YouTube TV, the old-school cable TV business is toast. Fortunately for the cable companies, who are now really broadband infrastructure providers, our appetite for bandwidth and bit streams is virtually limitless.

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