Is DirecTV Now worth subscribing to… er, now? Or should you wait for the streaming service to get its reboot later this year? Our review of DirecTV Now will let you know what you get for your money and what you can look forward to in the future.
We’ll start with a review of the features, plans, and channels of the current DirecTV Now service. Then, we’ll explain the plans AT&T has in place for its streaming TV subsidiary before giving you our opinion.
- 1 What is DirectTV Now?
- 2 Plans and Add-ons
- 3 Channels
- 4 Rebooting DirecTV Now
- 5 Overall Review: 7.5
- 6 Final Comments
What is DirectTV Now?
DirecTV Now is an internet-based streaming TV service offered by AT&T. Even though DirecTV Now uses the same branding as AT&T’s satellite television service DirecTV, it is a completely separate service with different features, subscription plans and channel lineups
DirecTV Now has apps for Apple TV and Roku set-top boxes as well as devices built on the Chromecast or Amazon Fire platforms can watch DirecTV Now too. But the streaming service has some major gaps in its device support strategy. Game console owners, for example, are left in the cold without app support.
Subscribers can only stream content to two devices at a time. That’s fine for individual users, but not such a great deal for families. DirecTV’s advice to people who need more than two streams: get a second account.
The mobile apps for Android and iOS smartphones will not stream NFL football games. This is true for all streaming services, not just DirecTV Now, since the NFL only lets its games stream to smartphones on the Verizon Wireless network.
Browser support is the biggest hole in DirecTV Now’s service. AT&T made the fateful decision to build its streaming TV service on Silverlight, Microsoft’s alternative to Flash. Microsoft walked away from Silverlight more than a year before AT&T launched DirecTV. Few modern browsers even work with Silverlight. Chrome users, in particular, will struggle with DirecTV Now. If you rely on a Mac or PC to watch your streaming TV, then DirecTV Now isn’t the best option for now.
DirecTV Now is a US-only streaming TV service that is available in the continental US, Hawaii, and Alaska. It is not available in Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands. Furthermore, AT&T blocks the access of American subscribers who travel outside the United States or serve on military bases overseas.
Local live TV
The hit-and-miss nature of local live TV streams is a common theme running through all of our streaming service reviews. Getting all CBS stations onto DirecTV Now, for example, requires more than a contract between CBS and AT&T. CBS and the other broadcast networks only control a dozen local TV stations each out of more than one thousand local stations in the United States. DirecTV has to negotiate separate deals with the independent owners, which takes time.
In August, AT&T announced that it now offers live streams from 130 local ABC, FOX, and NBC stations. In September, it announced that more than 150 local CBS and CW stations joined DirecTV Now. That lets more than 70% of American households get some local stations, but the reality is still spotty. Our late-October check found that people living in Durham, North Carolina, only get ABC and NBC while those living in Los Angeles get ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, Telemundo, and three regional stations. If you think the gaps are a matter of big-city-versus-little-city, you’re wrong – Houston doesn’t get CBS or NBC.
Be sure to check the DirecTV Now zip code lookup page to see what local stations you can get before you sign up.
DirecTV Now is not as feature-rich as other streaming services. The biggest gap in its feature set is the lack of a cloud DVR service. You can’t record programs, pause live TV or fast forward through ads. There are two ways DirecTV Now addresses this: on-demand and a feature called 72-hour Rewind.
Each network makes new episodes of its TV shows available on-demand. Many networks, however, only let DirecTV Now stream a few of the most recent episodes. Older episodes disappear after a few weeks and there’s no way to keep them. On top of that, the on-demand function doesn’t apply to programs from local stations or to live events.
The 72-hour Rewind feature gives you three days to watch any show after its original broadcast. You still can’t keep the recording but at least it gives you a chance to catch a show that you missed. Unfortunately, only a third of DirecTV Now’s channels support 72-hour Rewind. FOX, for example, is the only broadcast network on the list.
Plans and Add-ons
DirecTV Now takes a straightforward approach to its service. After the 7-day free trial, DirecTV will enroll you in one of four quirkily-named plans that deliver more channels as you spend more money. Not all streaming TV services are as easy to understand. Check our review of Sling TV to see how a streaming service can be as complicated as a cable subscription.
Live A Little
For $35 per month the Live A Little plan gives you a 60-channel lineup. It includes sports from FOX, NBC and ESPN as well as all of the major broadcast networks. The other channels are a good mix of news and lifestyle channels with one glaring exception: Travel Channel. Evidently “living a little” doesn’t include traveling according to DirecTV.
Fans of the Travel Channel will have to pony up for the $50-per-month Just Right plan. Sports fans will be happier with the 80-channel lineup of which adds the MLB and Tennis channels, a couple more ESPN channels, as well as the Big Ten and SEC networks. You also get the Game Show Network – game shows are sports, right?
Of course, if it’s sports you love, then you should really be getting the 100 channels in the Go Big plan. It will cost you $60 per month, but now you’ll get the CBS Sports Network, FOX Sports 2, the Olympic Channel, Golf Channel, as well as the NBA and NHL networks.
Gotta Have It
The name says it all: get all 120+ channels from DirecTV Now for $70 per month. For once, sports aren’t the selling feature. Gotta Have It is all about having entertainment. You get the full lineup of eight Starz and Starz Encore channels as well as Chiller, the El Rey Network, and Boomerang.
Besides the channel bundles, you can also subscribe to HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and Starz. The pricing is much better than you see on other streaming services – HBO will only cost you an extra $5 per month rather than the $15 most services charge.
AT&T gives a special “loyalty credit” to people who have the AT&T Unlimited wireless plan. As long as you stay subscribed to both services, AT&T knocks $25 off your DirecTV Now bill, bringing the monthly Live A Little cost down to $10 per month.
The more than 120 channels in the channel lineup, mainstream audiences will find a lot to like in DirecTV Now’s service. A recent survey conducted by TiVo found that Americans’ ten favorite channels are:
- Discovery Channel
DirectTV filled the only gap in that lineup when it inked its deal with CBS earlier this year. Of course, that doesn’t mean the other 110 channels are meaningless. These ten channels simply represent the baseline that a streaming service needs to pass the first hurdle with potential customers. Having so many channels lets DirecTV Now appeal to a wide cross-section of the cord-cutting public.
DirecTV Now has a source of original programming in the AT&T-owned Audience network. Shows only available on Audience include:
- Mr. Mercedes – A crime thriller based on Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy.
- Religion of Sports – A sports documentary series created by Tom Brady and Michael Strahan.
- Undeniable with Joe Buck – One-on-one interviews with sports stars in front of a studio audience.
Where is the NFL Network?
The NFL Network is the biggest remaining gap in DirecTV Now’s lineup. Although you can watch games on the broadcast and sports networks, you won’t get the full range of pro football content on DirecTV Now. Two other football channels besides the NFL Network are missing from DirecTV Now: ESPN Goal Line and NFL Red Zone.
DirecTV Now also has gaps in its college sports lineup as it only offers the Big Ten and SEC networks. Pac12, ACC, and Texas Longhorn fans looking for their networks are out of luck. The FOX college sports channels are also missing.
Forget niche audiences
DirecTV Now is a mainstream TV provider for mainstream audiences. You won’t find the narrowly-focused channels that other streaming services provide. PlayStation Vue, for example, has several channels focused on e-sports. Sling TV has an add-on package called the Heartland Extra designed to appeal to Americans who aren’t part of the East Coast/Left Coast culture. Hulu has an on-demand catalog of anime series from Japan. If you want a streaming service that appeals to your favorite sub-culture, then give DirecTV Now a miss.
The biggest limitation on DirecTV Now’s video streams is on its mobile apps. Smartphones, as well as tablets with LTE chips, by default only stream video at 480p. You can unlock this and enable high-definition streaming (typically 720p). Unless you qualify for AT&T Wireless’s free TV feature, you could also face throttling if you exceed data your caps.
As long as you have a Wi-Fi or a wired connection, however, DirecTV Now streams everything in at least 720p high definition. The exact resolution varies by channel – some provide a 1080p feed while others only stream at 720p.
DirecTV Now will also adjust the streaming quality based on the quality of your internet connection. It recommends that households have internet connections running at least 12 Mbps to ensure the best quality.
Rebooting DirecTV Now
AT&T actually has two other streaming TV services besides DirecTV Now. Subscribers to the DirecTV satellite service have their own streaming app. U-verse, AT&T’s triple-play combination of telephone, internet and TV service, also uses internet-based systems to stream live TV into the home.
That’s three separate services, with three separate infrastructures and three separate systems of subscription plans – all doing the same thing. That inefficiency is why, earlier this year, AT&T announced that it would consolidate its internet-based TV services into a single system.
“By developing for a single video platform,” explained AT&T Entertainment Group’s chief marketing officer David Christopher, “we’ll deliver new features and platform innovations in a faster, more efficient way.”
Some DirecTV Now customers got to join the new service’s beta test this summer. AT&T expects to roll the new system out to DirecTV Now subscribers later this year. The features AT&T has promised – like cloud DVR and 4K HDR content – address many of the missing pieces we’ve identified in our review.
Overall Review: 7.5
Evaluating DirecTV Now right before a major overhaul isn’t exactly fair. The announced features of AT&T’s rebooted streaming video platform promise to address many of the weaknesses in DirecTV’s creaking architecture. As a result, our final score came in a little higher than it would otherwise.
Content quality: 9
DirecTV Now serves mainstream audiences with mainstream content and enough specialized channels to meet the needs of major segments of the TV-watching public. The NFL Network is the biggest gap in the lineup, but DirecTV Now makes up for it with broad support for local TV stations.
Streaming quality: 8
Caps on mobile streaming, a large amount of 720p content, and the lack of 4K and HDR content are factors far from unique to DirecTV Now. AT&T’s rebooted TV services promise to turn these around, but subscribers may have to wait until 2018 to see those promises fulfilled.
Device support: 6
AT&T’s embarrassing decision to use a Microsoft technology that Microsoft scrapped puts customers who stream to their computers in a bad spot. Beyond the browser, the absence of any apps for game consoles abandons many potential customers to other services.
The pricing of the various packages, with the possible exception of Gotta Have It, represents a good value. The entry-level Live A Little package has all of the most popular TV channels at a reasonable $35-per-month price. Missing features like DVR, apps for gaming consoles and higher quality streams detract from an otherwise solid offering.
We will have to revisit this review once AT&T rolls out its new unified streaming service. Company executives are certainly saying the right things and have promised features that could help DirecTV Now keep up with changes in viewing habits.
Even with the state of things as they are, DirecTV Now makes a lot of sense if you want to replace your mainstream cable subscription with an equally mainstream internet-based streaming service.