Before Hulu and the online copyright crackdown, YouTube was the place to go for finding TV content on the Internet. Now, it's trying to be the place for Internet video content on your TV. YouTube has made the jump to living room screens through different methods, including as a widget for Samsung TVs running Yahoo's TV widgets. The YouTube widget is an easy solution to getting YouTube on your TV without the need for additional wires or devices, but it finds itself somewhere between a compact widget and a full-screen program, unable to compete with a number of other TV-based YouTube platforms.
We spent some time with the YouTube widget as part of our updated look at the Yahoo TV Widgets platform. The "snippet," or collapsed form of the widget as it appears on the dock at the bottom of the screen, only serves to launch the program--unlike the Yahoo Video widget, for example, which allows users to scroll through the snippet for favorite video categories. When expanded, the main window provides quick access to a number of familiar features, including links to all sorts of top video categories, channels and the search feature. Selecting any of these options (except Channels, which opens an additional but currently nonfunctional submenu) wipes the screen of whatever you were watching and loads a full-screen YouTube client that bears a resemblance to the Web site, only cast in black.
Call it semantics, but there's something about completely taking over the screen that isn't very widgety. Having a full-screen YouTube program is by no means a bad thing, but it does mean that the Yahoo widget has to hold its own against some strong competition.
Sony and LG, two other supporters of Yahoo TV Widgets, as well as Panasonic with its VieraCast system, all use their own proprietary YouTube clients. Samsung is the only company among them to provide access to YouTube via a widget. Compared to these other clients, especially the one on the LG 47LH50, the widget comes off as a bit of a disappointment. The LG 47LH50 presents everything in a highly responsive and visually impressive interface that uses buttons on the remote for a number of dedicated features, including pausing, seeking and full-screen. During playback, a progress bar shows both how much of your video has been downloaded and how far into it you are, just as the Web version does. You can also sign in with your YouTube account to access and mark favorite videos, a very useful feature when you don't feel like trying to type with your TV remote. The LG remote utilizes the number pad in the same way a cell phone does with text messaging, although it can't always keep up with fast fingers. This issue aside, a physical keypad is still a more efficient method than a virtual keyboard.
So what kind of features does the Yahoo widget offer to compete? Nearly all of the things that make the LG client so great are nowhere to be found in the Yahoo widget. There's no download progress bar, no dedicated playback buttons, no ability to skip forward through videos and no account support. The actual video player is available in a window within the interface screen and in full-screen, which, like other YouTube clients for TV, stretches out a video regardless of display ratio to fill the 16:9 screen. Only the Sony we tested preserved aspect ratio. The Yahoo widget does have a few features that the LG doesn't. For one, it automatically plays the next related video, which is particularly useful when watching multipart videos (Sony and Panasonic also offer this as a changeable option). The one truly unique feature, a live-updated search, was really impressive, at least at first; it provides a search service similar to OS X's Spotlight. After you input each letter using a virtual keyboard on the left side of the screen, the right side is populated with a list, complete with thumbnail previews, ratings and descriptions, of matching videos. At its core, it's similar to the search suggestions on the YouTube Web site, only with specific videos rather than keywords.
Ultimately though, the Web method is much more efficient. On the Web, typing "C" in the search brings up Coldplay as one of a few suggestions. Typing "Co" bumps Coldplay up to the first suggestion, and this will bring you to a number of music videos and concert clips. Accessing this same content on the TV, though, still requires that you type out the full word. We didn't get any Coldplay-related results until "Coldp" had been input, and even then they were mostly fan-made cover songs. To make matters worse, after each key press, the program freezes for a second as it updates the search results. While the search feature looks great, its sluggish and imperfect performance make this time-saving feature ultimately seem to do the opposite.
The most disappointing aspect of the Yahoo widget for YouTube, and one it shares with all the other TV clients we tested, is subpar video quality. Videos tend to look worse than the standard quality setting on the YouTube site. Furthermore, none of the programs we looked at offer the option to view high-quality or HD videos, which YouTube happens to do particularly well. This is understandably and most likely a codec or processing issue, but as these are all HDTVs, a YouTube program should really deliver high-quality or HD content.
Based on the less than stellar offering of movies and TV shows, it's unlikely that the YouTube widget will become your go-to source for entertainment on your TV. Yes, the disappointing video quality is somewhat forgivable; you don't need HD to enjoy Harry Potter Puppet Pals. It's the lack of features, though, that really leaves the widget behind. Mildly tech-savvy users will enjoy a much more complete experience from a laptop and an HDMI cable or a digital video streamer. For those just looking for an easy way to watch user-generated videos, the Yahoo TV Widget does the job, just not as good as it could be.