Hands On With DirecTV Now, AT&T’s new streaming service for cord cutters

Next Story

Copy and paste trick could unlock iOS 10 devices in Lost Mode

This week, AT&T unveiled its new TV streaming service for cord cutters, who aren’t ready to subsist entirely on Netflix, YouTube and whatever else they can watch for free around the web. Launched on Tuesday, DirecTV Now offers access to over 120 live TV channels, in addition to on-demand programming, and the option to add on premium networks like HBO and Cinemax for just $5 more per month.

With launch pricing of only $35 per month for the “Go Big” package of over 100 channels (normally $60/month), and promotions that include a free Amazon Fire TV Stick or Apple TV with prepaid service of 1 or 3 months, respectively, DirecTV Now is worth a look if you’re in the market for a streaming TV service.

But how well does it actually perform?

Having only a couple of days with the service so far, it’s too soon for a comprehensive review. That said, from this initial glance, it’s fair to say DirecTV Now offers a compelling alternative to existing rivals like Sling TV or PlayStation’s Vue.

Pros: Pricing, Cheap HBO, Zero-Rated

Starting with the cost, if you sign up at the $35 per month rate, you’ll be grandfathered in at that same rate for as long as you use the service. If you miss the limited time promotional pricing, you’ll be able to choose from four different packages:

Live a Little – $35 / month (60+ channels)
Just Right – $50 / month (80+ channels)
Go Big – $60 / month (100+ channels)
Gotta Have it – $70 / month (120+ channels)

Even at the standard pricing, $35 per month delivers a lot of channels without resorting to add-on bundles like Sling, and even if you tack on HBO for another $5, you’re still coming in well under the average cable TV bill of $103.10.

DirecTV Now event

HBO and Cinemax are cheaper on DirecTV Now at $5 per month. Sling TV, by comparison, charges $15 for HBO as does Vue, and Sling charges $10 for Cinemax.

In addition, AT&T subscribers can stream from the service to their smartphones and tablets without tapping into their wireless data plans. (How the FCC will react to this is still not fully decided, though.)

DirecTV Now event

Cons: No CBS, missing devices, no DVR, only 2 streams

The biggest drawback to DirecTV Now is that it only allows you to watch on 2 devices at the same time. That’s fewer than PlayStation Vue, which permits up to five total streams at a time. Meanwhile, Sling TV has two packages: Sling Orange only offers one stream, but Sling Blue offers up to three.

At launch, can use DirectTV Now on iOS and Android devices, Apple TV (4th gen), Chromecast (Android for now), the web, Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, and select Google Cast-enabled smart TVs.

Yes, there are some devices missing at launch, most notably Roku, Fire tablets and some smart TVs.

DirecTV Now event

But DirecTV Now already has plans to expand its device support next year, just like it also plans to upgrade its service after launch with more features.

For example, its cloud DVR feature isn’t expected until next year. PlayStation Vue has a cloud DVR and Sling just announced its DVR is in beta.

Lacking a DVR isn’t huge concern in terms of simply having something to watch, given that DirecTV Now isn’t only a live TV service – it also includes on-demand programming. At the start, 15,000 on-demand titles are available for instant viewing.

A bigger worry, perhaps, is that DirecTV Now doesn’t offer CBS and Showtime, though it’s still trying to make a deal to bring those to its service. (NFL games are another matter – they’re on CBS All Access, while Verizon still has the exclusive on mobile streaming.)

Channel Lineup

With DirecTV Now, the ability to live stream other broadcast networks like NBC, ABC, and Fox is limited to select markets. But this doesn’t necessarily make it any worse than Sling TV or Vue – neither of which prioritize live streaming of broadcast TV. Those competitors also only make live broadcast streams available in select markets, and Sling sells its “Broadcast Extra” as an add-on.

On DirecTV Now, you can still watch shows from networks like Fox, ABC or NBC – you just may have to watch them on demand. (A list of VOD vs live channels is here. To see if your city has local live channels, you can check this list instead.)

The rest of the channel lineup is everything you’d expect from cable TV, from lifestyle programming, to sports, to news, to educational channels, and kids TV, like Nickelodeon and Disney.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-3-30-21-pm

Plus, DirecTV Now has access to Viacom channels, including Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Spike, MTV, Comedy Central, and others, which PlayStation Vue just lost.

It has a ton of sports channels, too, like ESPN and its related networks, Fox Sports 1 and 2, Golf Channel, NBA TV, NBC Sports Network, NHL Network, Tennis Channel, and others, as well as some regional sports networks, depending on availability.

AT&T is also bundling its teen-focused Fullscreen network, and a handful of originals. Fullscreen is not a big selling point, unless you have kids. And the originals are paltry and lower quality than what you’d find on Netflix.

User Interface

One of the biggest selling points for DirecTV Now, at least in this cord cutter’s opinion, is the user interface. As someone who has tried both Sling TV and Vue, I found I much prefer DirecTV Now’s look-and-feel.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-2-57-57-pm

Sling TV is still a nightmare to navigate, but DirecTV Now is simpler. There are only four tabs at the top for moving through the content: the homepage, “Shows,” “Movies” and “Networks.” Unlike cable TV where you’re presented with a linear programming guide, DirecTV Now has a bit of a Netflix-like feel to it.

In the TV section, curated categories point you to different TV genres, and not just “drama” or “comedy,” either. Instead, there are groupings that feature suggestions like reality game shows, alternative cartoons, shows for teens, crime TV shows, and more. These collections have catchy titles like “Made You Think” (educational shows), or “Way Out There” (shows with the man vs nature theme).

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-2-59-43-pm

There are also rows that feature DirecTV Now’s own recommendations, new shows and returning shows. DirecTV Now claims its service will personalize itself to your interests more over time. (As will its ads!).

The Movies section is more simply organized by high-level genre (Action, Family, Drama, Comedy, etc.).

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-2-59-56-pm

DirecTV Now could make it easier to add on to your service or upgrade your plan, however.

On the “Networks” tab, it shows a list of “unsubscribed” channels beneath those you can access on your current plan. Here, it doesn’t only tease with an HBO add-on, but also a couple of channels that are actually included in the pricier tiers.

When you click “subscribe,” you’re informed you need to change your plan to gain access.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-3-00-04-pm

But doing so means navigating to the Settings, clicking “User Account,” then “Manage My Plan.”

A one-click upgrade right from the Networks screen would be a lot easier.

I’m also not a fan of it taking 2 clicks to see all a network’s TV shows on a single page – that should be the default after you click on the logo. (Right now, you have to click a “Show All” button.)

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-3-06-43-pm

If you’re more interested in just watching what’s airing live, the Home tab will direct you to those shows. Like Sling TV, it ditches the text-only linear guide for rows of thumbnails you click through as the default experience, but you can still click over to “Guide” if you prefer a traditional layout. Plus, the Home page also offers suggestions of other things to watch, ranging from New Shows to Featured Movies and other content collections.

Performance

Again, in limited testing, I ran into a couple of issues with faulty streams – errors when loading a video, or just slow loading. But some cord cutters did see more error messages and even crashes. The interface also sometimes was slow to load content as you scrolled further down the page.

Some testers also ran into errors claiming they had gone over their number of permitted streams, though they hadn’t. Hopefully this, too, will be fixed soon.

To what extent these are just launch week hiccups that will be worked out, versus more serious underlying infrastructure problems can’t yet be determined.

Personal Choice

DirecTV Now is not the clear winner compared with Sling TV and PlayStation Vue.

It will come down to what’s most important to you: Pricing? Multiple streams? Channels? Device support? Cheaper HBO? User experience? Etc.

But it’s definitely a service that’s in the running, given the features it offers today and those it has planned for the near future.

 

Update: in the weeks since its launch, the service has struggled with performance and stability issues, and has denied customers refunds. Until these issues are resolved, we would not recommend signing up.