Article: Early Thoughts on DirecTV Now
I was on a pretty nice promotional rate with DirecTV, taking advantage of AT&T’s love of bundling when the “All Included” plans were introduced last spring. Unfortunately, a move later, and I was dish-less due to not having a southern exposure to mount the dish at my new apartment. Rather than switch to AT&T’s U-verse product or Comcast (Xfinity is still a stupid brand), I decided to sit a month or two out, dust off my over-the-air TiVo from 2008, and see what developments happened in the world of streaming. Sony’s PlayStation Vue was already on my radar, as was Sling TV. I wanted to see what AT&T was going to offer with DirecTV Now, especially considering that they’ve already done an IP-based TV service before with U-verse and had some strong programming agreements in place through DirecTV.
By now, just about every technology and media site has summed up DirecTV Now’s channel listings, prices, and limitations, but I’ll offer some of the key points:
- Four clearly-pandering-to-Millennials tiers starting at $35 and going up to $70/month
- HBO and Cinemax are $5 additions at each level
- Each account can have two streams running simultaneously at maximum
- Local channels for ABC, Fox, and Telemundo in network-owned-and-operated markets, on-demand for everyone else
- Local channels for NBC in network-owned-and-operated markets, but only on mobile or web browsers
- No CBS
- No NFL Sunday Ticket, NFL Network, Red Zone, or mobile access to NFL games
- No DVR, but promised to be coming in 2017
- The $60 “Go Big” tier is $35 at launch and if you keep renewing, it will be grandfathered in at that rate, even when the promotional period expires
- Free Amazon Fire TV Stick if you prepay for one month, free Apple TV 4 32GB if you prepay for three months
- Most other platforms are supported, but Roku support is forthcoming, as is Chromecast via iOS
- Your credentials will work on the apps for WatchESPN, ABC, Disney, Disney Jr., Disney XD,
ABC FamilyFreeform, HBO GO, Max GO, and
- Does not count against your data usage on AT&T’s cellular devices and supposedly
U-verseAT&T Internet plans
There’s a lot of items that one would categorize as a “no” or limitation. PlayStation Vue offers cloud-based DVR, while Sling TV gets you in the door at a cheaper price. If you add all the bells and whistles, you’re pretty close to a traditional cable plan.
I don’t really care. Even though I love television, I’ve been finding myself weeding out content over time and wanting a little more than just the broadcast/Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime Video combination, but not needing the 500 channels that normally come on most cable or satellite packages. Even though I have some favorite sports, I don’t really care about the NFL, and there are two shows I watch on CBS, so the TiVo is handling those fine. Basically the big early complaints about DirecTV Now aren’t deal-breakers for me.
More importantly, with the free-device promotions, I thought that it was worth checking out solely to get an Apple TV for about $45 less than retail. Since the service is no-strings-attached, if the product isn’t great after the three months I prepaid, I could cancel, and still have a cheap Apple TV to try Sling TV or PlayStation Vue. In my mind, it’s a win-win.
I went to the local corporate-owned AT&T store near me and went through the signup process with one of their employees. Basically, he handed me his iPad with the signup page that I could’ve done at home. The steps are pretty standard if you’ve signed up for Netflix or Hulu—email address, password, billing information. Since I was an AT&T customer, they “checked out” the Apple TV to my account (I guess if I have any issues and lose the receipt), but a T-Mobile-using colleague of mine had no issues signing up either. The service is kept entirely separate from any other AT&T or DirecTV service, which makes some sense if you look at the types of services it really competes with. The employees seemed knowledgeable about the service and there was plenty of marketing around the store. For a product that might cannibalize AT&T’s other TV products, there seems to be a lot of support.
Up and Running
I got home, installed the DirecTV Now app on my Apple TV and signed in using the credentials that I picked earlier. What excites me most is that my Apple TV can become my primary device for entertainment. When you prepay for service, it will bill automatically at the end, much like Netflix/Hulu and seven days are added, since you opted to skip the seven day trial. Some people had trouble signing in last night, but I must’ve gotten in early as it worked right away.
From a navigation standpoint, there’s not a whole lot to mess with and it’s certainly less than an overloaded-with-buttons cable box remote. A swipe left/right changes the channel, a swipe up from the bottom brings up a list of programs, and a swipe down from the top allows you to select items like the guide, watchlist, search, or settings. Clicking the button shows the current program, the one up next, and gives you the option to turn on closed-captioning or, if supported, start the program from the beginning. Just as DirecTV started rolling out support for this feature, DirecTV Now allows certain shows to be restarted from the beginning.
The guide itself looks like most other services, but it is a bit odd not seeing channel numbers, as the various channels are arranged alphabetically. In my opinion, they could’ve made the grid a bit smaller, allowing more information to be displayed, but this is a first-generation product. You can narrow down the list to your favorites by selecting the heart next to the channel and then switching to the Favorites-only list. This cleans things up if you don’t care about certain channels. I’d like to see some sort of quick toggle on the guide to skip by 24 hours, as found on DirecTV and U-verse, but other than that it’s functional enough.
I ran into a few issues of getting an “Error 60” which will appear if you max out the number of streams. Apparently this was a common error last night, even for people that were only signed into one device. That seems to have been remedied today.
The biggest takeaways from watching the service for a few hours is that it changes channels fast, even with a “slower” connection as far as most tech writers would argue (I have 24Mbps
U-verse AT&T Internet ADSL. Throwing multiple streams at once didn’t make my connection cry uncle and it was a mostly pleasant experience. Even though I’m not in the blackout area, Fox Sports Indiana was not included on the lineup, so I couldn’t watch the Pacers last night. This seems to be due to the weirdness of Fox Sports Indiana being a part-time offshoot of Fox Sports Midwest (which is included). I hope they’re able to work this out, but I’m more concerned about Cubs games on Comcast SportsNet Chicago (which is included and works, too). Basically, for $35/month I get a good chunk of sports and other content that would be nearly impossible with most other cord-cutting package.
Crazy enough, I cannot get Comcast SportsNet Chicago on any sort of Comcast cable service at my apartment, so I’d have to get the Cubs on the Extra Innings package or go with Dish Network, DirecTV, AT&T U-verse, or PlayStation Vue. Due to being in the local market, I’d be blacked out on MLB.TV. Things like this really need to change as a whole.
Everyone is up in arms that AT&T is zero-rating DirecTV Now (and by extension the older, DirecTV app) for their wireless customers. While this may make me reach for live TV instead of Netflix or Hulu while I’m needing to waste some time with only my phone, it certainly isn’t going to drive me away from other services. I’m generally in favor of net-neutrality, but I don’t think this is the end of times or a slippery slope, but rather just another way to add value if you go all-in on a particular family of products. I sort of see it similar to how AT&T lifts the home internet caps if you have DirecTV or U-verse, or the free mobile-to-mobile minutes that every cellular carrier offered on prior plans. This may make DirecTV Now more “sticky” for AT&T customers, but the service also has to be good enough that one would want to subscribe to it over the competition in the first place. For me, if it’s awful, I’d still pick something else, and if I really wanted to have a benefit on mobile with another service, I’d switch carriers.
Net-neutrality is a tough thing in the context of zero-rating because there are some downsides for smaller companies in theory, but there are also upsides for the consumer. At this point, I’m going to enjoy DirecTV Now and see where things go.
Other Notable Points
I did try the service outside of my apartment, both on a cellular connection and at work and the experience was the same on an Android tablet, iPad, and iPhone. I think AT&T is smart for going the route of every mobile app looking the same and every streaming device looking the same, as this solidifies the user experience and brand. If you recall, Netflix and Hulu’s “apps” on the older Apple TVs fit Apple’s interface, which was great if you loved the Apple TV, but led to every Apple geek complaining when they used the service anywhere else. At this point, Netflix is the same on all modern devices, so you don’t have to relearn it if you are visiting friends or family.
Unlike some services, there aren’t any at-home-or-not-at-home limitations other than when it comes to the NFL. Since Verizon has the exclusive mobile rights to the NFL, it will only work on streaming devices (this would mostly apply to those with access to Fox and NBC affiliates or ESPN’s Monday night games).
I grew up with C-Band satellite service (the big dish that actually moves when you change channels) and we had some limitations: you bought all the equipment, no local channels, viewing one channel at a time, and you had to be somewhat geeky to program and use the whole system. While some may complain about a streaming service not being as easy and complete as a satellite or cable subscription now, if you can live with its limitations and understand that it is an evolving and improving product, there is some satisfaction and cost-savings with being bleeding edge. Plus, the thought of having access to TV both on my TV with a streaming device I chose and on my favorite devices is pretty exciting.
I sort of see the product as a public beta right now. It’s mostly complete, but with the amount of excitement and emphasis that AT&T is putting on it, they’d be morons not to tweak it a bit these first few months. By offering a discounted rate and free devices to early adopters, the risk is pretty low. If you are even the least bit interested in the service, I recommend doing it for curiosity sake and at this point to at least pick up a free streaming device (Apple TVs make great gifts if you don’t want/need one). Unlike services with brief trials, I’m going to be “trying” DirecTV Now for the next three months and even if I’m not happy, I’ll have an extra Apple TV for the bedroom.