Hands-on with Hulus new Live TV service

Hulu officially announced the launch of its live TV streaming service this morning at its Upfront presentation in New York, after earlier promising its under $40 offering would arrive sometime this spring. The service which is actually $39.99 per month has a robust channel lineup, cloud DVR and combines Hulus existing on-demand library, including its Originals, with streaming TV and on-demand content from its broadcast partners.However, a key part to the new service is the revamped, redesigned Hulu experience.

Though Hulus new user interface made its debut at CES earlier this year, the company didnt allow press to try the service for themselves at that time. Over the months since, a number of Hulu beta testers were allowed to demo the service and offer early feedback. But todays launch is still considered a beta, as Hulu is continuing to tweak many of the details.

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At first glance, the service feels like a worthyupgrade from the existing Hulu app, which was starting to seem a little dated. The new interface instead has a mobile-first focus, with swipeable screens, larger imagery and (planned) support for push notification reminders and alerts.

But the devil is in the details, as they say.

Upgrading challenges

There are a couple of things to know if youre interested in upgrading to the live TV service. For starters, its not yet available on every platform. At launch, you can stream Hulus live TV on Apple TV, Xbox One and Chromecast, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices. Support for other major platforms, including Roku, Amazon Fire TV/Fire TV Stick and Samsung Smart TVs, iscoming soon.

I initially ran into another gotcha, too. I had subscribed to Hulu through my Roku, which prevented me from being able to upgrade to the new service. Until Roku is supported, the workaround would be to cancel your account, wait for the account to expire, then re-sign up. But that may take weeks as your account is not immediately switched off you still have access through the billing cycle. (For the purposes of this review, I had to gethelp from Hulu.)

Onboarding

When you first sign into your Live TVaccount, Hulu will walk both existing customers and newcomers through an onboarding experience designed to customize Hulu to your preferences.

Here, users are prompted to import their existing WatchList if available, and then go through screens where they tell Hulu more about their interests. Some of the interest categories are broad like Crime & Justice, Sci-Fi, Late Night, Action & Adventure, or News & Headlines while others are more niche. For example, there are two categories for reality TV one for celeb reality shows and the other for reality competition shows.

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You can also pick your favorite channels through the onboarding experience. Im not sold on the idea that we should still be tracking favorite channels after all, the new Hulu is supposed to be about following the content you like, not networks.

The app

The main Hulu app is organized into five main sections, accessible from the bottom of the screen: Home, My Stuff, Browse, Searchand Profile (settings).

Home is where you kick-off your Hulu experience and is the companys big bet on personalization. Its not immediately obvious, but the section on your home screencalled Lineup is meant to be a mix of the shows, movies and sports programming it knows you like (because youve favorited or watched) along with recommendations it thinks youll like. At first, this screen may have some misses, but the promise is that it will get better in time the more you use Hulu.

However, as many Hulu users have been conditioned to seek out and watch on-demand content, it may feel odd at first to start here with a screen designed for serendipitous discovery especially when its getting things wrong.

As you move through the Home screen, you can dive into other sections, like Continue Watching to pick up where you left off, My Channels (which shows you whats on now on your favorite stations), Sports, TV, Movies, Kids, News, Featured Movies, Hulu Originals and other suggested categories. In total, its 13 swipes to reach the end of the Home screen.

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Above: Flipping through Hulus Home screen

Unfortunately, you cant customize this Home screen to remove any of the default categories here, which is a bummer if youre not into sports or dont have kids and dont want to see these categories.

As you scroll further to the right, Hulu offers other suggestions of things you may like to watch. For now, Hulu is suggesting a lineup of shows under the Dark Futures category heading and another called Magic of Disney. The company says that these are editorial collectionseveryone sees at launch, but youll receive more personalized suggestions like this in time.

Mixing live and on demand

Hulus Home screen may work for people who dont really have a show or movie in mind they want to see, and are just generally interested in finding something to watchright now. It blurs the line between live television and on demand only marking its live TV content with a little green lightning bolt and the text Watch Live.

Im not sure the average streaming service user arrives with the desire to firstbrowse suggestions, though. Once you make the decision to ditch cable, you generally make watching TV a less passive experience. When you log onto a streaming service, you tend to first follow your favorites and then look for recommendations when youve binged your way past the shows you had beentracking and now want something new.

Im also not fully convinced that combining favorites and recommendations across both live TV and on demand into a confusingly named Lineup makes sense. Granted, this is just my day-one gut reaction, but something about the Home screen feels wrong.Im not sureif it would have been better to place your My Stuff into the Home section along with a Watch Now list of live TV recommendations,or if it just bugs me that Lineup is the place you start.

Lineup is basically Hulu thinking its recommendation technology is going to be so good that its the first thing youll want to see when you log in. But in reality, Im coming to Hulu either for a specific piece of content, or now the desire to flip aroundlive TV to see if something good is on.

Finding content through the Searchand Browse screens

The rest of Hulus interface is fairly self-explanatory a Search screen helps you find channels, movies and shows, and see trending searches as before. The Browse screen lets you discover content by Networks, TV Shows, Movies, Originals, Kids, Sports or Genres.

It seems sort of odd that the categories Sports, TV Shows, Movies and Kids arein both Browse and Home I think thats overkill. Hulu seems to think people wouldnt figure out how to find these high-level categories on their own, so it added them to the Home screen. But there itfeels like clutter.

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Tracking sports teams

Though Im not a huge sports fan myself, Hulus new interface does offer a handyway to track your favorite teams so you wont miss their games. Theres a Teams section under My Stuff, but you cant search and add those teams from this interface.

Instead, you have to search for the teams from the Search screen, tap onto a search result, then tap the plus (+) sign to add it to your Teams. Not ideal, but once its set up, you can follow your favorites through My Stuff at any time.

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Above: How to track a team

The idea with following your Teams is not only to make it easier to find the games you want to see when you tune into Hulu, but also to alert you to games that are about to start so you can tune in or record them. This will work with favorite TV shows, too. Unfortunately, push notifications are not available during the beta.

Cloud DVR

The implementation of the cloud DVR is also a little odd. You might have expected the DVRto have its own button at the bottom of the screen, but instead the Manage DVR section is the very last item on the My Stuff screen you have to swipe more than six times to find it.

While you can play content from the DVR on this screen, its obvious Hulu doesnt wantyou to.

Instead, theway youre meant to use the DVR is not by going to a DVR section but rather by adding items to My Stuff viathe plus (+) button. This is confusing because the plus isalso the same button you use to favorite content for later viewing.

For example, if you tap the plus sign on a non-current TV seriesin Hulus library, that show will be added to My Stuff, but not create recordings. If you plus a current-season show, Hulu will record new episodes only.

Testing this feature on a show that has an on-demand library, syndicated re-runs and current airings (Greys Anatomy), I found that Hulu aggregated all the episodesit had in its library or was planning to air live.

You could then switch between seasons from the shows Episodes page (Seasons 6-8 in re-runs or the current season 13). However, if you wanted to watch a particular syndicated re-run, youd have to add that episode by adding it individually to My Stuff. For its current season, Hulu had all episodes on demand, and will add to this as new ones air on ABC.

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Above: How to record a re-run

The way to record re-runs feels overly complex.While I understand that Hulu doesnt want you to clog your DVR with re-runs for a show thats still airing, it seems that it would be easier to allow those who do want to watch all there-runs to simply tap a single button to add an entire back season to their My Stuff. (In other words, instead of tapping the individual re-run of a Greys episode on Lifetime, you could tap Record Season.)

This would beespecially helpful for those who are working their way through a TV series, but are behind whats live. Often, to get caught up on non-Netflix shows, you have to buy a season from Amazon Video or iTunes to see the episodes you missed. But if some of those back seasons are on Hulu, you could just record them and save your money.

Recording live TV

It was also not immediately obvious how to record a live program youre watching now. According to Hulus documentation, you have to pause the show, then tap the plus sign. But in testing, there was no plus sign to tap! Instead, you have to first tap the FLIPTRAY button on the pause screen, and then youll see the option to add the show to My Episodes.

This seems, well, wrong. The recording option should be right on the pause screen, not hidden away underneath the FLIPTRAY button.

And secondly, I dont know why things cant just be labeled record. Given that Hulu is now a mix of on-demand streamable content and live TV, Ithink it should be more obvious and differentiated whether youre favoriting something (to stream later on demand) or explicitly asking Hulu to use up your recording space to save a particular episode.

Hulu wants to blur this distinction, but I think thats doing a disservice to users.

FLIPTRAY?

FLIPTRAY, by the way, feels even more experimental. It has two sections: Up Next and Live. When youre watching a live TV show, you can think of Up Next as a guide to whats going to air next on that channel. But when youre watching on-demand content it seems to be a list of related suggestions. (You like Battlestar Galactica? Well, try Elysium.)

The Live section, meanwhile, is a scrollable list of whats on now. The same list can be found under Browse > Networks > Live. (Because Hulu likes putting the same things in two places!)

Hulu has said that it wants to move away from people worrying about whether a show is on-demand or live its all just TV and some of its design decisionshonor that vision. But putting a way to browse live TV right within the now playing window is like trying to remind users at every stopping point that, hey, were a live TV service! Watch now!

Still a beta

Hulu has definitely broken away from other streaming services both on demand and live TV with its new interface. But its Home screen experience could still be more personalized and feels misaligned with the way you browsethe rest of Hulus app.

Today, theway you flip through content on Home is different from its other sections, which can bejarring. On Home, as you flip through the Lineup, TV Shows or Movies, etc., a show or movies imagery takes over the entire screen. Its a more immersive experience, but its alsoa bit time-consuming to browse this way.

Meanwhile, all the other sections rely on more traditional thumbnails of the show, movie or channel, which lets it better utilize the screen space. Its like Hulu wanted to try a new way to browse on mobile, but then couldnt fully commit. (And to be honest,theres a reason why all the other services go the thumbnail route: its efficient. Home is pretty, but definitely not speedy.)

Then there are the little tweaks like the hidden record option or the option to tap once to add a season to your lineup that could make Hulu easier to use.

And can we talk about this light font choice? Its hard to see on the TV:

Finally, it remains to be seen if Huluslarger design decisions like minimizing the DVRs existence and recording functionality will confuse users or make the service feel simpler in the long run.

Hulus live TV service is still in beta, so much could change between now and its public launch.

Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2017/05/03/hands-on-with-hulus-new-live-tv-service/