AT&T kicked this week off with some big news: DirecTV Now, its internet TV streaming service, is here. You can sign up starting today for a free trial on a slew of platforms including smartphones, tablets, living room streaming devices, and PCs. No satellite dish or cable box required; it’s all over the web. I’ve been using DirecTV Now for a day, and my early impression is that there’s a lot of potential and value in it, but the first try feels a little unfinished.
Four tiers of channel bundles are offered with DirecTV Now, but the deal that AT&T is pushing hardest at launch is a limited-time promotion that will let you pay $35 per month for a package of over 100 channels. That tier will eventually cost $60 for those who miss the introductory offer. AT&T claims that anyone who signs up in time will be able to stay at the $35 price point for as long as they remain an active DirecTV Now customer. And yes, the $35 promo gets you pretty good savings and something mostly comparable to traditional cable. Even better, you can subscribe to HBO for only $5 extra each month.
Even without HBO, DirecTV Now includes many popular channels, and the cheapest subscription will get you access to shows like The Walking Dead, Empire, The Voice, Grey’s Anatomy, and others. But there are downsides. Most pressing is that the service doesn’t have CBS in its lineup, meaning you can’t watch The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, 60 Minutes, and other weekly ratings hits. Showtime is also absent, and at least for now, DirecTV Now will not offer NFL Sunday Ticket or the Red Zone channel. There’s some weirdness around live TV from the big networks (ABC, FOX, NBC) too; only customers in cities where those networks run the local station will get live programming.
Worse yet, DirecTV Now has no DVR functionality whatsoever for recording shows. If you miss something live, you’ll have to hope that a replay is eventually available on demand. Sony’s PlayStation Vue, a rival to AT&T’s new service, offers a cloud-based DVR that can save recordings for up to 28 days. Another competitor, Sling TV, will soon launch testing on its own cloud DVR. In response, AT&T has already confirmed that DirecTV Now will add a DVR feature in 2017. They know it’s a glaring weakness, and they’re working on it.
Okay, you’re saying, but what’s it like to actually replace your cable with DirecTV Now? I spent most of Tuesday giving it a test run, and there are a lot of channels here if you’re paying for that $35 promo. Scrolling through the entire guide can take awhile. Thankfully, DirecTV Now lets you pick your favorite channels and view those in a separate list. The interface (I tested it on Apple TV) was mostly fast and fluid, but it’ll take a good 30 minutes or even an hour before you remember where everything is and how to get around. Some of the swiping gestures — at least on the Apple TV remote — seem a bit counterintuitive and awkward. Swiping left or right changes channels one by one, but this forces you through every channel instead of your favorites, which seems pretty dumb. Everything about the guide is a 1.0 product that very much looks the part, and it reminds me of what Sling TV was like at launch. It’s not quite as scrappy and thrown together, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Pick an individual network and you’ll get a vertical scrolling list of the programming schedule, but selecting a show from there doesn’t really do anything useful. There’s a brief summary and that’s about it. For a service that you can watch anywhere (and one that lacks a DVR), I wish DirecTV Now would let you set up notification reminders for when your favorite shows are about to come on. Nope!
As is, the current interface lets you find your way without too much confusion. And other aspects of it are much nicer and show more polish. The full-screen TV show and movie imagery that’s shown as you change channels is high-res and looks great, and the on-demand menus are straightforward enough. There’s a watchlist for keeping track of all your favorite shows, but again, DirecTV Now does very little to highlight when the next episode will be on. That’s up to you, TV addict.
Channels loaded extremely fast — one or two seconds at most — in my day of using DirecTV Now. From what my eyes could tell, they also instantly loaded at 1080p resolution. But I’m not sure what bitrate AT&T is delivering the stream at; compression artifacts were visible at times, and some channels looked noticeably better than others.
Channels load within a second or two
The service doesn’t officially support or encourage pausing live TV, but I was able to do so on many channels while testing. An AT&T spokesperson clarified that short pauses between 5 and 10 seconds are permitted, though not for all channels. Any longer than that and you’ll just get kicked back to live TV when you hit play again. Video-on-demand content supports pause, rewind, and fast forward functions. But even there, sometimes it’s restricted.
Speaking of VOD, AT&T was in the process of loading up DirecTV Now’s “rewind” and on-demand programming vault as I was trying it out, so it’s too early to say whether you’ll find a better lean-back selection than Sling TV or PlayStation Vue. There are Netflix-like categories to help you parse the catalog, though AT&T wastes some space hyping its original content that very few people will ever see — except for that Taylor Swift show, obviously.
Here’s what I can say after a few hours of watching DirecTV Now: if you only (or mostly) care about sitting on the couch and watching live TV, then it might prove to be a pretty intriguing option. Will it save money compared to what you’re paying Comcast or whoever now? Yes for some, no for others. Internet bills have a way of suddenly increasing when you call the cable company and cancel half of their precious double play. But $35 is cheap. Cheap enough that AT&T is probably taking a hit for every customer who jumps on the temporary deal. If you ever cancel the service or lose that $35 100-channel subscription, the whole thing gets much more expensive and much less compelling.
Price isn’t everything and there’s a lot of work to be done on AT&T’s part. DirecTV Now needs CBS. Having to subscribe to All Access separately or use an antenna for one channel don’t strike me as great solutions. DirecTV Now needs Sunday Ticket. It needs a DVR. It probably needs to increase the number of simultaneous streams for some people to consider signing up. And this company’s trampling of net neutrality might push others away before they even get there. But so long as what’s missing isn’t a deal breaker, you don’t have much to lose by going in on the free trial.
The common questions
How can I stream DirecTV Now?
Here’s what you don’t need: a satellite dish or DirecTV box hooked up to your TV. Instead, DirecTV Now requires only an internet connection and any of the following gadgets or web browsers:
- Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick
- Android smartphones and tablets
- Apple TV
- Chromecast (Android at launch, iOS in 2017)
- Google Cast on supported Vizio and LeEco televisions
- Google Chrome
- Internet Explorer
Roku is an obvious omission from that list, but AT&T says it will bring DirecTV Now to the popular streaming line in 2017 — probably much sooner in the year than later.
How many simultaneous streams are allowed?
Just two devices can watch at the same time. That’s pretty unfortunate if you want DirecTV Now to be the one and only TV solution for an entire family. If one person’s watching on the TV and anyone else is streaming from a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, then that’s it. It might take some coordination if several people live in your house or apartment.
Can I watch live programming from ABC, FOX, and NBC?
Much like PlayStation Vue, the answer to this question depends on where you live. If it’s in a city where the networks own and operate the local stations, you’re good to go. But in cities where those channels are run by affiliates — and that’s a lot of places — you won’t see live shows and can only access stuff on-demand the day after it originally airs. Unlike PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now’s monthly subscriptions cost the same regardless of whether or not you’ll have access to live network programming. So you’ll want to research this before signing up.
Added November 30th 3:00PM: There’s also a rather unfortunate restriction that applies to NBC’s local stations. According to AT&T’s own website, live local NBC feeds (regardless of market) cannot be watched on “streaming devices or Apple TV” which leaves you with... basically just web browsers. That’s no good.
What about football and regional sports channels?
DirecTV Now does not carry NFL Sunday Ticket or the Red Zone channel. If a game is on a channel that Now does stream, you should be able to tune in. Blackout rules apply, and Verizon maintains its exclusive streaming rights on smartphones, so you can’t watch the NFL there. Your TV or laptop should work fine, though.
- Availability of regional sports networks will vary by your location; the YES network is part of DirecTV Now in New York, for example. AT&T says these are offered in other areas of the US:
Comcast SportsNet: Bay Area, California, Chicago, Mid-Atlantic, New England
- Fox Sports: Southeast and Sun
- FSN Arizona, Cincinnati, Detroit, Florida, Midwest, North, Ohio, San Diego, South, Southwest and West
What’s the resolution? Frame rate?
When viewed on TV platforms, DirecTV Now streams at “up to” 1080p. On my solid home Wi-Fi connection, it seemed to consistently start at and maintain that quality without any obvious degradation, buffering, or pauses. But that was with barely anyone using the service on Tuesday; we’ll have to see how it holds up once people start jumping on that $35 offer en masse.
On mobile, there are two options for video quality: Good and Better. The “Better” option will get you HD resolution, according to an AT&T spokesperson. Presumably “Good” is less than that and comes in at around 480p / DVD-quality.
In an interview with The Verge, AT&T Entertainment CEO John Stankey said that 4K will “definitely” be part of DirecTV Now’s future.
As for frame rate, the service supports up to 60fps — good news for sports fans.
Does DirecTV Now support 5.1 surround sound?
Yes. Currently 5.1 audio output is available only on Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.
Can I sign into TV Everywhere apps (HBO Go, WatchESPN, Disney, etc.) with my DirecTV Now account info?
Yep. AT&T thinks most people will stick with the main DirecTV Now app for all their streaming, but you can use your account credentials to authenticate with the following apps on various devices, with more due to be added in the future:
- HBO Go
- Max Go
- Disney, Disney Jr, Disney XD
Can I see the entire channel list?
Sure. Here’s what channels come with each DirecTV Now tier. If you want to compare them to PlayStation Vue and Sling TV, CNET has done an admirable job laying out who offers what.
I’ll be testing DirecTV Now more extensively (and on multiple devices) over the coming days, so leave any lingering questions in the comments if I’ve left anything unanswered.