AT&T is officially courting cord-cutters. The telecom giant on Wednesday released DirecTV Now, a new streaming service that lets you watch a selection of live TV channels over the internet for a monthly fee.
If that sounds like other internet TV services such as Dish’s Sling TV or Sony’s PlayStation Vue, that’s because it is! At its core, DirecTV Now does the same thing as any other so-called “skinny bundle” – it’s something for people who want to quit cable, but can’t go whole hog.
This is by no means a groundbreaking product, and as it stands now, it isn’t likely to finish cable off. That isn’t really AT&T’s goal anyway. However, if you find yourself missing the comforting background buzz of live TV, there’s enough here to at least be worth a look.
And if you pay AT&T for phone service, there’s one big, hugely controversial advantage to consider.
We were able to test DirecTV Now on an Apple TV for a couple of days prior to launch. While that’s too little time for a final verdict, here are some quick impressions on what AT&T has to offer.
It works, mostly. As in, programs stream with little issue, and the app works quickly enough. Anecdotally, swiping through channels isn’t as fast as it is with PlayStation Vue, but it’s not slow. It’s better than what we’ve experienced with Sling TV.
But there’ve been technical issues. The touted “72-hour lookback” feature – which lets you watch the last three days of programs for certain channels – worked at an onsite demo, but not outside of that. The main menu was prone to sluggishness while scrolling. And sometimes, certain networks just wouldn’t load.
An AT&T rep pinned bugs like these on the final preparations being made before the service went live en masse. That would make sense. But again, we haven’t spent too long with the service, and it remains to be seen how well it will hold up under a full load. We’ll update if things get better or worse.
Navigating the app isn’t too hard, but could be faster. The whole thing looks clean, with big, hard-to-miss icons that are given plenty of space. As with Vue, the channel guide is structured a lot like what you’d find with a cable package, but it’s pleasant, and it lets you only scroll through your favorite channels if desired.
Speaking of, you can mark those favorite networks in the guide, then see quickly see what they’re airing in a “What’s On Now” row in the main menu – not the most obvious process, but mostly convenient.
It’s a similar story with favorite shows and movies: You have to go out of your way to search for them – or find them in the “Shows” or “Networks” tabs – but once you do, you can add them to a “Watchlist,” which lets you view whatever episodes are available for a given show on demand. (Though it doesn’t seem to tell you when those shows will air live, which is an oversight.)
That there’s a tab dedicated solely to scrolling through networks seems redundant, though; you could theoretically do all the same things just through the channel guide. Being able to customize channel order would be great, too.
There are show suggestions, and they’re fine. Within the main menu you’ll see several rows of content recommendations: “Comic Relief” serves up shows like Saturday Night Live and Tosh.0, “So Dramatic” has popular dramas like Empire and Lethal Weapon, “HBO” has, well, HBO shows, and so on. Movies are similarly separated by genre.
These tend to highlight already popular shows first, but generally speaking they do well to break up the content AT&T has into more discoverable chunks. And if you don’t need them, they’re easy to ignore.
Search is just okay. Again, generally speaking, if you look for a show the service covers, DirecTV Now will find it, and show upcoming episodes in the order they’re set to air. It wasn’t flawless, though, and there’s no way to search by specific actor.
Most of the major channels are there, but there’s no CBS, Showtime, or NFL Sunday Ticket, and local broadcast support will vary by market.Essentially, if your local broadcast stations are owned by the networks they show (ABC, Fox, NBC), then you’ll able to watch them like normal. If they aren’t, you get everything a day late.
HBO and Cinemax, meanwhile, are available as $5 add-ons. That’s cheaper than the $10-15 they usually cost elsewhere.
While AT&T says it’s working on getting CBS on board, that’s a notable loss compared to PlayStation Vue today. That said, Vue lacks Viacom networks like Comedy Central and Spike. Right now, no one service has it all. You simply have to pick and pay for the bundle that covers the most for you.
The more expensive bundles probably won’t add much value. It’s much like normal DirecTV’s offerings; going up in price mainly adds nichier channels and hardcore sports channels (MLB Network, NBCSN, ESPNU, NBA TV, etc.). The one big gain is regional sports networks, like Comcast SportsNet or FSN, which are available in select markets. Vue makes you pay up for those, too. For most, though, the $35 entry-level bundle should be the best deal here. That’s good!
It’s difficult to tell what does or doesn’t support on-demand playback. When the “72-hour lookback” works, it’s like a beefed up take on channel surfing. You can go to a channel you like, but you aren’t beholden to what’s playing in the moment.
But not every network supports it. Beyond that, not every program on a given network is onboard. (Which means they also can’t go on the Watchlist.) More consistency would reduce the learning curve, though an AT&T rep noted that it will take the company a few more days to get all of its on-demand content on board.
Related: There’s no cloud DVR. You can’t record your own on-demand content, and you can’t rewind live TV. And while you can pause, you can only do so for a few seconds at a time. Try to change channels, and you’ll lose your spot when you come back.
Again, AT&T says it’s working on this for the future, but today it’s DirecTV Now’s biggest technical disadvantage next to PlayStation Vue. Sling TV will soon introduce the feature as well.
Most of the significant streaming platforms (and the Web) are supported, with the notable exception of Roku boxes and TVs. AT&T says that’s coming in two to four weeks.
You can only stream DirecTV Now from two devices concurrently. This is not a whole family solution, because AT&T doesn’t want to cannibalize its existing pay-TV business. PlayStation Vue lets you stream from five devices at once.
There’s no 4K support yet. A 1080p resolution is still plenty for most, but it’s worth noting.
The mobile app is good. It mirrored the TV experience closely, and made it easy to switch through channels. We liked it better than Sling’s app, in which things feel a little too large and clunky.
Just note that you won’t be able to stream NFL games on your phone specifically, since the league has an exclusive deal with Verizon. Which brings us to …
Zero rating is a genuine selling point, for better or worse. If you use AT&T for phone service, you can stream DirecTV Now over mobile data for free. If you want to watch live TV on the bus, this is a godsend.
Ultimately, DirecTV Now doesn’t feel like a cable killer so much as a cable overhaul that is designed with the internet in mind. You’re still watching commercials. Live and on-demand content still feel like they’re in separate silos, with live taking precedence. You’re still paying for channels you’ll probably never watch; you’re just getting a little less, for a little less money.
DirecTV Now’s interface has some convolutions to work out, the lack of DVR hurts, and we’ll have to keep watching to see if the service holds up technically. PlayStation Vue, which starts at $40 per month ($55 with HBO), is a more fully-realized product today, even as it faces the same existential problems.
But both Vue and Sling TV have had the advantage of time. They’ve gotten better, and we’d expect DirecTV Now to do the same. For a little bit cheaper, though, the makings of a good value are there for those who can’t quit the cord completely.