If you have an Android TV (ATV) device, be it a full TV set or a set-top box like the Nvidia Shield TV, you may have noticed one idiosyncrasy in the experience when trying to cast to it from your phone: despite the ATV having a built-in full-fledged YouTube app, casting opens the bare-bones YouTube Chromecast interface. However, there's a little known way to completely control the main app, even if you're not on the same network, with voice search and queue management.

Better yet, this method should work on all TVs that have a YouTube app, not just ATV. That includes the PS4, Xbox One X, Fire TV, and more.

We owe this discovery to Android Police reader, Samarth Verma, who shared a screenshot of it, sending us down a rabbit hole of confusion because it looked similar to the Chromecast experience but still a bit different. Eventually, we figured out what was happening then spent a bit of time trying to see what makes this experience more interesting than simply casting from your phone to your ATV or using the ATV remote to control the YouTube app directly, no phone needed.

"Watch on TV" as it's called inside the YouTube app, isn't new. It's existed in some form for at least five years. If you've known about it, there's nothing new for you here. But if, like us, this isn't something you're familiar with, then let's explore it together.

How to link YouTube on your TV with your phone

To get started, you need to link both YouTube on your TV with your phone. Open the former, go to Settings -> Link with TV code. A 12-digit unique code will be displayed.

Now move over to your phone, open YouTube, tap on your profile photo in the top right, then Settings -> Watch on TV. If you're trying to link a Chromecast target (including Android TVs), they'll show up at the top. This is not what we want. Look below them for the Link with TV code section and tap Enter TV code. In the next screen, type the code that you got from YouTube on your TV, then Link.

The first thing you'll notice is that even though this displays the regular Chromecast icon inside YouTube, it isn't exactly the same. In the screenshot below, I can cast to both my "SHIELD" (regular Chromecast interface) and "YouTube on TV" (the full-fledged app).

Also different is how the grey now playing/queue box at the bottom of the app has a bright red microphone.

Voice search

Tap that microphone icon and your phone becomes the input for your TV. You can dictate searches from the microphone in the mobile app and they'll be performed on the TV.

Searches are immediately transmitted from the phone to the TV and results show up there. They'll also be added to the search history in YouTube on the TV, so you can always go back to them later.

If the TV or box you're using YouTube on has a regular remote without a microphone, this can be a huge boon as you don't have to painstakingly type your query letter by letter. It's also nice if you've replaced your TV remote, lost it, or if you use a Logitech Harmony remote (no mic) to control your entertainment setup.

Built-in remote

Once the search is sent from your phone to the TV, the mobile interface switches to a basic remote with up, down, left, right, enter, and back. These controls let you choose the search result you want from the list and even manage playback and the entire app on your TV.

Queue management

Like a regular Chromecast instance, this experience lets you browse videos on your phone and add them to the queue to be played on the TV. On the phone, queue management looks exactly the same as when you're casting.

On your TV though, you get the whole YouTube app, not the bare-bones Chromecast UI. You can pause and control playback directly from the TV now, you don't need the phone anymore if you don't want to use it. So enabling captions, checking the queue, moving to a different video, browsing suggestions, etc... they're all accessible.

"Watch on TV" vs. Chromecast

This direct link between YouTube mobile and TV, which is known as "Watch on TV" is clearly different from simply casting to your Chromecast or Android TV. Here are its benefits and drawbacks.

Drawbacks:

  • It requires the YouTube app on your TV to be open (otherwise it might seem like it's working, but nothing happens on the TV). Chromecasting doesn't need the app. For some hardware, you can start a regular casting session even if your TV is off. That's not feasible here.

Benefits:

  • You get to control the full YouTube app, not just a simple Chromecast UI. Start your session like this and you can queue up videos from your phone, continue from the TV app, go back to your phone, all seamlessly.
  • The queue doesn't die or disappear once the sessions is over. Force close the YouTube app on both your phone and TV, then open them, and you're back in business where you left off. Your queue is still there waiting for you. The only way I managed to kill the queue is by rebooting my Shield.
  • It works even if you're not on the same WiFi network. In the example below, you can see the "YouTube on TV" option shows up and I can control it even though I'm on LTE. This might be very handy if you're in a hotel room with a TV that has the YouTube app installed.

"Watch on TV" vs. using your regular TV remote

Similarly, you might be wondering why this experience is any different from using your regular TV/ATV/Xbox One X/PS4/Fire TV remote to directly control the app on your TV. Here are the main distinctions.

Drawbacks:

  • The remote interface in the mobile app is difficult to get to. You need to start a voice search, let it fizzle, and then you get the buttons.
  • The mobile app remote doesn't do anything on your TV outside of YouTube. This isn't a full replacement for your physical remote.

Benefits:

  • Voice search using the microphone on your device is faster than typing, in cases where your physical remote doesn't offer a microphone.
  • The YouTube app on TVs doesn't have any queue management ability. This adds the functionality and shows it's available inside the app, it's just not user-facing in any way.

There are many reasons to like this rather hidden way of linking YouTube between your phone and TV. Even on Android TVs, where the casting functionality is more straightforward, this affords more controls and a queue that doesn't disappear on a whim. For one video or two, you may prefer the faster Chromecast way, but for a longer browsing session, this seems like a more powerful choice.

I wish Google would unify the experience between both though. If I'm casting to a TV with a proper YouTube app installed, it'd be great if it bypassed the Chromecast interface and gave me full control of the app straight away.

YouTube for Android TV
YouTube for Android TV
Developer: Google LLC
Price: Free