February 11, 2018 at 3:41 p.m. PST
Hulu has joined the fray of cable-over-the-Internet providers. This article provides a thorough review of Hulu with Live TV for Apple TV.
The times are changing, but not as fast as some would hope. Digital media is in an awkward phase. The technology is here and has been for some time. Unfortunately, networks and content providers are playing hardball as they negotiate deals with streaming video portals.
Those who want the future now must set their expectations accordingly. Every cable-over-the-Internet provider offers an incomplete channel lineup. Stability and reliability are often challenges for the new wave of services that stream live channels to your TV device.
Hulu with Live TV Shows Promise
I’ve used just about every cable-over-the-Internet service available to Apple TV, including Sling TV, DIRECTV NOW and PlayStation Vue. They all have one thing in common — missing channels. Hulu’s new service suffers from the same fatal flaw. Typically, the missing channels are owned by Viacom. They are charging exorbitant fees to broadcast channels such as CBS, AMC and Comedy Central over the Internet. Viacom also has their own streaming solution in the works.
Most of these services simply forgo these costly channels. Including them would necessitate higher fees for customers. These services need to be less expensive than cable, as users must supply their own Internet connectivity. Competing with cable bundles is pretty difficult these days.
Although these services are all flawed, they do show promise. The flaws are not technical, but are instead rooted in greed. Eventually, either Viacom or the streaming providers will capitulate or find middle ground.
The technology offered by these services is actually impressive. On demand actually works, which is not always the case with digital cable. With smarter user interfaces, simple DVRs and complete caching of live TV, cable-over-the-Internet will be a desirable product when the channel lineup is complete. Hulu’s live TV service, currently in beta, has some very impressive features, although reliability, usability and stability are glaring issues. Let’s take a look at how to get started with Hulu with Live TV for Apple TV.
Getting Started with Hulu with Live TV for Apple TV
This article assumes that you have a 4th generation (or later) Apple TV. If your Apple TV Home Screen does not have an App Store, you have an earlier version of Apple TV. The older models cannot run Hulu with Live TV, but they do support the standard Hulu streaming service.
If you own a compatible Apple TV, open the App Store and search for Hulu. You can also hold down the Siri button and say “Hulu”, however, it may be interpreted as “Who Lou”. Sometimes Siri is just more trouble than its worth.
Once you are on the Hulu app installation screen, click on the Get button to install the app. There is only one Hulu app, but it works with all variations of their service. The app will be installed on your Home Screen, but you can just click on the Open button to launch the app. You will see the main Hulu screen with prompts to restore a purchase, login or other options.
Hulu bypasses Apple’s in-app purchasing system, at least for their live TV bundle. When you start the Hulu app for the first time, there’s no option to try their live TV service. This makes sense, as Apple takes a 15% cut from in-app subscription purchases. The live TV service costs much more than the standard on-demand Hulu offerings. It seems a bit ridiculous for Apple to take $6 a month, per subscriber, in perpetuity. Apple is not hosting the live TV service in their data center, after all. They’re only hosting a small, one-time app download and handling monthly billing. It’s easy to see why Hulu would opt out. Unlike Spotify, Hulu is large enough to get away with it.
All of this means that you will have to go to Hulu’s website to sign up for their free 7 day trial. It’s probably easier than trying to subscribe over Apple TV with the clumsy on-screen keyboard. (You can use an iOS device as an Apple TV keyboard and controller, but just going to their site is easier. You have to do this anyway, as they don’t offer live TV as an in-app purchase.)
Using just about any device, open a browser and navigate to Hulu’s live TV website. You will see the free trial offer and information about the service. I recommend signing up for all of the extras, because they’re free. Just make sure to cancel your subscription if you don’t intend on paying for the service. You can cancel before your trial ends, and still use the service. Make sure to remember your user ID and password. You will need these to login to Hulu on Apple TV.
Once you have created your account you can login to Hulu on your Apple TV. Simply click on the login button on the Hulu app and enter your information. Once authenticated, you are walked through an initial setup process. Hulu asks about your favorite networks, genres and other customization options. When you’re done, you will be presented with the Hulu with Live TV home screen. Let’s take a look at all that Hulu with Live TV has to offer.
Hulu with Live TV: Home Screen
Hulu’s streaming television service makes a decent attempt to figure out what you like and presents it to you on the main screen. This capability gets smarter as you use the service. Simply start the app, and Hulu will attempt to predict what you want to watch. It can even suggest current live events. For example, I launched Hulu on Super Bowl Sunday, and the top suggestion was to watch the Super Bowl. Other suggestions were based on my initial configuration and viewing habits.
Hulu actually tells you why the suggestion was made with tags such as “Popular on Hulu” and “For Fans of Documentaries”. This was helpful, as I wondered why it recommended Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
Predictive suggestions are done reasonably well with Hulu’s streaming TV service. That said, when they’re not appealing, drilling down into live TV or on demand programming can be a chore.
Watch Live TV on Hulu
Hulu has abstracted the concept of TV channels. You can access channels and do some channel surfing, but they often blur the line between live and on demand programming. If you just want to do some channel surfing, you have to drill down pretty far into the UI. Home screen categories like My Channels and TV won’t necessarily take you to that channel surfing experience.
The fastest way to surf live channels is to start playing any video. Swipe up from the bottom of the Siri Remote’s Touch surface. A panel with video thumbnails is displayed. Navigate and click on the Live tab. From there, you can scroll through all of the live channels. Click on any channel to start watching. You can start a show from the beginning, even if you tuned in late.
You can also start watching live TV the “hard way”, which involves drilling down into the user interface. From the main screen, select My Channels on the second menu bar from the top. You will see the live channels that you configured during the setup process. To access all channels, click on More Networks.
There’s also a third way to access live TV. Click on My Stuff on the top-most menu bar. The My Stuff screen will appear. Next, click on Networks on the second menu bar.
There really doesn’t need to be three ways to access live TV. A more streamlined menu with one live TV option would be better. Of course, they should keep the slide up channel surfing panel embedded in every video.
Overall, there is a problem with overloading the user interface. So many of the options and pathways take you to the same place. They could drastically simplify the user interface, to the benefit of Hulu subscribers. I’m very good with technology, but I sometimes find myself lost and confused with this service.
Hulu with Live TV: My Stuff Screen
I remember my 10th grade English teacher telling us to never use the word “stuff”. It sounds uneducated. Instead, it’s always better to be specific. If you can’t do that, say “things of that nature” or something more eloquent. It looks like the UI/UX designers at Hulu don’t agree. I can’t hold them to that standard. They’re trying to be folksy and put people at ease. The word “stuff” is the least of my concerns…
The big question for me is, why is there a My Stuff screen in the first place? It is mainly just a rehash of the Home Screen. The menu, with 7 categories of “My Stuff”, presents Sports and Teams as two distinct categories. Teams should probably go under the Sports category.
The idea seems to be that My Stuff is personalized to the user. Items on the Home screen, however, are also personalized. The Networks menu option on the My Stuff screen is personalized to the extent that you can only watch favorite channels. Networks on the Home screen lets you watch both. Confused? Me too.
I understand that there’s a vast collection of movies and TV shows available on Hulu, in addition to a decent selection of live channels. Categorization is necessary, however, duplicating categories just makes things worse. Categories are muddled as well. Genres, actions (Keep Watching) and personal collections are all on the same menu bar. Why are there sports and teen menu options, but not ones for comedy? Why is Olympics Preview a menu option, when it should be under Sports? The answer to all of these questions is poor UI/UX design. It’s definitely not a deal breaker. If all else fails, searching works very well. The overall design is just a bit confusing.
Hulu with Live TV: Browse Screen
The Browse Screen is another facet of Hulu available from the top menu bar. It is yet another superfluous screen. It just shows many of the same menu options, with a few distinct entries. Users can drill down into these categories, as they can from the main menu and other screens.
Hulu with Live TV: Search Screen
Searching offers the simplest and fastest way to find movies and TV shows on Hulu. Simply click on the Search menu option. It automatically focuses on the search field, enabling users to immediately use Siri dictation. This is helpful, as entering search criteria using the tvOS on-screen keyboard is cumbersome. Although you can use an iOS device as a keyboard, thanks to the Remote app, Siri dictation will save you the effort of wielding your iPhone. Hulu also includes recent searches and trending searches.
Search results display quickly with switchable categories to minimize scrolling. Each result shows a video thumbnail. Descriptions display only for selected videos, which makes it easier to see which video is selected. One problem with tvOS is that it is often difficult to see which item has focus. You can rotate your thumb on the Touch surface to wiggle the item, but Hulu’s solution requires less user intervention. Hulu has definitely improved on stock tvOS search capabilities. Search is my go-to screen for navigating Hulu. It almost makes up for other deficiencies in the user interface.
Hulu with Live TV: Profile and Settings Screen
The top menu features an item with your name on it. Clicking on your name displays the profiles and settings screen. From here, you can change profiles (one for each member of your household), alter settings and read documentation and legal agreements. If you move your Apple TV to a new location, you can even change your home location. This will incorporate your local networks into Hulu’s channel lineup.
Reliability and Performance
It is important to note that Hulu with Live TV is currently in beta. This means it is not a final release. Normally, I would cut them some slack, but they are charging a full price for users to beta test their product. At least they admit it. We have all been paying to beta test smartphones, tablets, OS releases and apps.
Some brands abuse beta testing more egregiously than others. That said, every tech company has started releasing products that are crammed with useless features and shipped before they’re ready.
I’m sure you have read Internet comments claiming that competition makes everything better. That’s an oversimplification. Competition has forced tech companies to overpromise and under deliver. They’re dreaming up features that no one cares about while adding unnecessary complexity to the code base. Too much reliance on automated testing has resulted in products that are far less reliable than their predecessors.
When Hulu works, it works well. I am about 20 days into my free trial and there have already been three outages during prime time. I launch the app and Hulu is unavailable. It usually works within 30 minutes, but one evening they left me high and dry. I ended up watching Beetlejuice on Crackle, as I had no other active subscriptions. (Crackle is actually an excellent content provider, and the service is completely free.)
Beyond outright outages, Hulu also suffers from videos that just won’t play, often for some unknown reason. I tried to watch one show and, after several attempts over a few days, it finally worked.
Live TV is smooth and offers excellent picture quality. It looks better than what most digital cable companies can deliver. Apple deserves some credit, for creating a lean, efficient stack of technology. That said, Hulu’s operations function quite well. It felt like I was watching cable TV, but the picture quality was better.
Keep in mind, cable isn’t perfect either. I cut the cord years ago, but I still use cable when I visit family. Cable TV has all sorts of problems with picture quality, dropouts and missing on demand options. Even Hulu couldn’t design a user interface as awkward and ham-fisted as most digital cable systems.
Competing cable-over-the-Internet services also suffer from the same reliability woes. It’s the new normal for high-tech, but cable has always been unreliable. That’s why I cut the cord. I got sick of waiting around for the cable guy to show up, every month, because there was something wrong with the distribution box. Hulu would have to fail spectacularly to be worse than my experience with Comcast.
Hulu with Live TV: Channel Lineup
Deficiencies in channel lineups is a problem common to all cable-over-the-Internet services. Hulu is no exception. This is not their fault. Viacom is playing hard ball and charging exorbitant fees to stream their channels. Most streaming TV services are missing Viacom channels. Although Hulu offers my local CBS affiliate, I cannot watch Comedy Central or AMC. They do offer some Comedy Central shows on demand, but you’re better off just using the Comedy Central app (even if you don’t activate it with your TV provider). As for AMC, if you want to watch Breaking Bad, Mad Men or The Walking Dead, you’re out of luck. Hulu does have Fear the Walking Dead available on demand. The spin-off isn’t as good as the original.
Overall, the lineup includes about 70 channels, depending on your location. Hulu offers local channels based on where you live. The strange thing is that channels can disappear. For example, CNN will often just vanish. (It must be those pesky Russian hackers that they’re so obsessed about.) I still have CNN International, but CNN appears and disappears randomly.
I’m not sure if this is a defect or a licensing issue. I have noticed that most of these live TV streaming services are subjected to harsh blackout rules that go beyond local sporting events. I personally don’t watch partisan news networks, but I am well aware that CNN, FOX News and MSNBC are important to some. If you watch CNN, just be aware, that it comes and goes on Hulu. You may have better luck catching a rogue live feed of CNN on YouTube.
It’s hard to justify paying for a service that’s missing so many channels, especially when you have to supply the Internet connection. Cable bundles are still the best option, at least for a family that consumes content heavily. It would appear that Viacom is stunting the growth of this industry while they develop their own solution.
Hulu with Live TV: Sports
I’m not an avid sports fan, but I know this is an essential aspect of any television bundle. The good news is that Hulu’s channel lineup and design are sports-heavy. Sports channels include BTN, CBS Sports Network, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPNews, ESPNU, FS1, FS2, Golf Channel, NBC Sports, Olympic Channel and SEC Network. If that’s not enough, you will also get local sports channels. In the San Francisco Bay Area, I also get NBC Sports Bay Area and NBC Sports California. Local network affiliates will also often broadcast sporting events, which comes in handy if the game is blacked out on a national network.
Hulu’s tvOS app is very sports centric. The Home screen immediately presents any major, live sporting event. I didn’t configure sports as a preference, yet Hulu still shows the big game as the first option on my Home screen. The content menu bar on the Home screen is dominated by sporting options. If you love sports, Hulu has you covered. This is important, as most cable-over-the-Internet services are deficient when it comes to sports. If you’re not a sports fan, be advised that Hulu will still fill up screens and menus with recommendations for sporting events.
Hulu with Live TV: On Demand
Hulu with live TV comes with its excellent on demand library, which is still the cornerstone of the service. Unfortunately, they bundle the “limited commercial” version with the live TV service. This means that you will need to sit through commercials when watching on demand content. You can’t fast forward through ads.
In the past, Hulu used to be pretty fair about advertising breaks. There were far fewer commercial breaks and they were much shorter than on broadcast TV. These days, it all depends on what you’re watching. I’ve watched some programs with a ridiculous amount of advertising. Some commercial breaks are almost 7 minutes long and there can be as many as 6 or 7 per hour. This is excessive, especially considering the fact that you are paying for the service. Crackle is totally free, and even they don’t force so much advertising on the viewer. Excessive advertising is not good for advertisers either. Their message can’t get through, because they are competing with so many other advertisers for your attention. I found myself getting up off the sofa during commercial breaks. I could probably even cook some bacon during a commercial break.
Hulu’s on demand content is quite different from what you can find on Netflix. It makes sense for the two services to offer complementary content. Hulu tends to focus on current episodes of major network television shows. If you want to watch the latest episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Hulu will have it the day after it airs. Netflix tends to get TV shows a year after they air. You simply can’t keep up with the Kardashians that way!
I’m not a fan of reality TV, however, I do love a good British comedy. Hulu has an amazing collection of British TV shows, including Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and Fresh Meat. Netflix just got rid of Peep Show and they seem to have given up on most British shows. If you’re a fan of TV from across the pond, Hulu has you covered.
Like most content providers, Hulu is in the business of creating their own content. What I have watched so far is very good. The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent, award-winning drama. It’s one of the few shows that piqued my interest from the very first scene. To date, Hulu has 35 original series. They aren’t as prolific as Netflix or HBO and not everything is as good as The Handmaid’s Tale. I can’t see subscribing to Hulu just for the originals, but they are a perk.
Fans of stand up comedy are destined to be disappointed with Hulu. With the exception of a Hulu original Sarah Silverman comedy special, they don’t have much to offer. I searched for stand up comedy and found nothing. Browsing yielded similar results.
Hulu’s once impressive movie collection is now a just a mere bundle of flicks. They no longer offer the Criterion Collection, a collection of classic art movies. Hulu is focusing more on TV and less on movies. This makes sense. If they try to be a Netflix copy, they will fail.
Hulu with Live TV: DVR
DVRs are provided by most of the cable-over-the-Internet services. Hulu is no exception. By default, Hulu with Live TV subscribers get 50 hours of DVR storage space. Subscribers can increase this to 200 hours by purchasing an add-on.
The DVR is extremely simple to use. Just drill down into a program and add it to My Stuff. You can also add individual episodes of a series to the DVR by clicking and holding down the Touch surface on your Siri Remote.
I had mixed results with the DVR. One show was recorded in below-SD quality. It was unwatchable. Other shows turned out fine. It’s just that I really wanted to watch this episode and their DVR service failed spectacularly. I wouldn’t rely on it. The service is in beta, but you’re paying for it. They’re even charging extra for more storage.
Hulu with Live TV Works on Many Platforms
Most of the cable-over-the-Internet services don’t just cater to TV devices such as Apple TV. In fact, they usually launch an Apple TV client months or years after the service has been available on the web and mobile devices. Hulu with Live TV is no exception. You can use your account on virtually any device, including your iPhone and iPad. This comes in handy when you want to watch TV anywhere. Just make sure not to burn through too much cellular data, because, unlike Netflix, you can’t download programs for offline viewing. Even Hulu’s DVR is cloud-based.
While this may sound like a useful feature, keep in mind, many cable companies offer complete access to live, streaming TV on mobile devices and the web. I know that Spectrum offers their full, live channel lineup on mobile devices at no extra charge.
How Much Does Hulu with Live TV Cost?
Hulu with Live TV costs $39.99 per month. Unlike cable, there are no hidden fees, but there are add-ons. Subscribers can add HBO, Cinemax or Showtime for $14.99, $9.99 or $8.99, respectively. The enhanced cloud-based DVR and unlimited simultaneous streaming to multiple screens are also add-ons. Both features cost $14.99 each. Given that users must supply their own Internet connection, there really isn’t much of a savings over cable. That’s a tough sell for a service that’s missing so many channels.
Hulu with Live TV Is Not Quite There Yet
I’ve been fond of Hulu for many years. I am not a fan boy, so I can comfortably enjoy Netflix and Hulu. Even though they don’t compete, a simplistic mentality pervading the Internet has fan boys feuding over two completely different things. I subscribe to both services, but usually not concurrently.
I really wanted to love Hulu with Live TV. I was so excited when it debuted on Apple TV and rushed to sign up for the free trial. Deficiencies in the channel lineup and horrible usability dampened my enthusiasm for Hulu’s live TV service. I simply cannot justify paying cable prices for a service that doesn’t have Comedy Central or AMC.
The usability is atrocious. There are way too many categories and duplicate pathways for users. Just about every screen has two menu bars. The user interface is much too complicated for tvOS, where users navigate using the Touch surface. Navigation is difficult when a tvOS UI has too many elements on the screen. Users tend to overshoot on-screen targets. I found it too difficult to easily navigate the screen. They need to simplify the UI and get rid of the duplicate categories.
It’s better if people can drill down into a user interface featuring a well-organized hierarchy of screens. This is not the case with Hulu. It seems to have been designed by people with little experience with tvOS or user interfaces, for that matter. It’s hard to find good people in tech these days. Anyone working in non-coding aspects of technology tends to be woefully ignorant of technology as a whole. In a tighter job market, you often find people who write front-end code displaced into UI/UX design. They tend to be more aware of the capabilities of differing platforms and how to optimize user interfaces.
The funniest thing about the user interface is how they indicate selections with a line above the text. This is ridiculously unintuitive. Did they usability test this? If so, how could this get past usability? This design choice constantly confuses me, but they have applied it everywhere in the Hulu universe, including commercials and their website. Thinking different can be a good thing when it doesn’t involve negating conventions to the point of being unintuitive.
Unfortunately, Hulu had to do something, as Apple’s UI conventions are problematic, at least for Apple TV. By default, most tvOS apps don’t show that an element is selected. Sometimes the selected element is imperceptibly bigger. You usually have to rotate your thumb on the Touch surface, which does a 3D rotation of the object on the screen. Apple thought this was so cool when they introduced this at the keynote. I did too. Then I bought an Apple TV and reality set in. It’s really hard to tell which item has the focus on most tvOS apps. You have to rotate your thumb to tell where you are. They could have done this so many ways, but they chose a novel approach.
App developers have had to overcome this deficiency in tvOS and create their own user interface classes, instead of using the stock ones from tvOS APIs. For example, the new YouTube app indicates selected videos by animating them with previews. That’s very innovative, useful and intuitive. Hulu decided to do “overlining”, which is the opposite of underlining. It’s not even a word, because no one would do it in the first place. My mind keeps telling me that the item above is selected, because I am used to underlining. I’m not too old of a dog to learn new tricks, but there’s decades of conditioning to overcome. “Overlining” was not a smart choice.
Overall, Hulu’s live TV service is worth trying. I strongly recommend going for the free trial. That said, as it stands now, most people will probably cancel the service. Digital cable is still the best option for most households. In time, Hulu will get better. Not all of the deficiencies are their fault. Viacom is throwing a monkey wrench into all streaming services until they can figure out how to stream video themselves. They are currently testing their own platform. This isn’t rocket science, and streaming video is over 20 years old now. Viacom is big and inept enough to keep the future of television out of the reach of consumers. Hulu and other TV providers are in a difficult situation. The technology is here and has been for some time. We’re all just waiting for Viacom…