YouTube’s Latest Paywalled Features Aren’t Worth Paying For

YouTube keeps adding perks to its Premium subscription service, but does anything top the ubiquity of a web video monopoly?


Do you pay for YouTube? Better yet, should you? Google is rolling out several new features to its Premium video subscription service this week, but none of them change the fundamental calculus of what’s now an essential platform.

For $11.99 a month, YouTube will now let you stream higher-quality videos and access a few features for its mobile app that should be free. Removing ads is still the reason to subscribe to this service, and that’s a problem for Google as much as it is for the average user. When your ad-supported product is good enough on its own, getting people to pay extra at some point means adding features people care about, a puzzle Google hasn’t cracked since Premium launched as YouTube Red.

That higher bitrate is going to cost you

I shouldn’t have to pay money to add things to a queue.


You can sort the additions Google is making into two buckets, the “possibly worth paying for” and the “this absolutely should have been free.” In the “worth paying for” category, a “1080p Premium” resolution test for iOS devices brings higher-quality videos to paying subscribers by essentially streaming more information per pixel of video. Google ran a smaller test of this feature earlier this year, but now the setting will be accessible to anyone who pays up. “1080p Premium” videos should be less blocky and pixelated than the average 1080p video (there are a lot of 1080p videos on YouTube) without having to have been recorded or uploaded in a higher resolution.

Smart Downloads, another excellent quality-of-life feature, makes more videos available to you without having to think of them first. Offline playback was part of the original YouTube Red pitch, but Smart Downloads — like a similar feature Netflix offers — attempts to anticipate what video you’ll watch next and have them already downloaded and in your library when you’re off Wi-Fi.

In the “this should have been free” category is basically everything else Google is launching. Take SharePlay support. SharePlay was introduced in iOS 15 as a way to listen and watch things with friends over FaceTime. It’s a feature that doesn’t have to cost money unless the apps enabling require it, which makes sense for a paid service like HBO Max, and a lot less for something that’s technically free, like YouTube. Similarly, the ability to add videos to your queue is something that you can do for free on the web version of YouTube, but now for some reason costs money on mobile. Are these features only part of YouTube Premium to add a few more bullet points to the feature list?

Why pay for YouTube?

YouTube has swallowed all of the web’s video, at least if you’re looking for something that isn’t affiliated with a social network like TikTok. The website and the videos it hosts are ubiquitous, embedded in articles, shared on social media, and a Google Search away at all times. That easy access and relative ease of use have made Google’s ad business a lot of money over the years — in 2021, for example, YouTube raked in $8.6 billion in ad revenue — which in turn has made creators a lot of money because of the company’s simple partnership setup.

That fortuitous cycle is great if you’re not trying to run a trillion-dollar company but less so in the growth-minded world of Silicon Valley. Premium, besides acting as a weird way for Google to try original programming, exists to squeeze more blood from the stone. People are happy to watch ads on YouTube, but there are quite a few who’ll pay not to have to do it at all — 80 million YouTube Music and YouTube Premium subscribers combined in 2022.

This puts Google in a tricky situation. Its first idea for Red/Premium — no ads — is still its best. But people are paying, and they expect new features. Google can either come up with entirely new experiences for subscribers (hard) or slowly undercut its current free product as a way to nudge more people to its paid one (easy). This go-around, locking away something that should be free, like SharePlay support, is annoying but not catastrophic. Will we be so lucky next update?

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