DirecTV and AT&T announced DirecTV Now with a ton of fanfare. Cord cutting has been growing and growing in popularity, especially with multiple low-cost options like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue (and that doesn’t even touch on the likes of Netflix). So DirecTV needed a compelling answer to users that are ditching traditional cable subscriptions in droves.
With that being said, there are two extremely different approaches to internet-based content delivery. You have Sling TV and PlayStation Vue that offer a traditional television model, but delivered over the internet instead of cable or satellite. You have channels and watch things in real time with different “packages” of different amounts of content. There’s also Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, plus a few others, that offer a completely different model. You pay one price per month and have access to an entire catalog of on-demand content. No channels, no live TV, just shows and movies to pick from. DirecTV falls in the former category but obviously also competes with the latter.
Compared to its closest competitors, Sling and Vue, DirecTV Now offers a service that’s great for someone that wants as much content as possible for the cheapest price.
Now has four different tiers of channels starting at $35 per month for 60 channels, and for the first few months they’re running a promotional package by discounting the third tier down from $60 to $35 for 100 channels. You can add HBO on top for just $5 per month, which is also aggressively priced.
Compared to Sling TV’s very basic $20 package for 30 channels that runs up to $40 for 50 channels, it’s clear that DirecTV holds an advantage of the sheer amount of content. It’s cheaper, offers more channels, and has more options to get more channels. Vue gets closer with a base package for $30 that includes 45 channels, but even without DirecTV’s promotional pricing, they still have a leg up.
However, DirecTV does not have any on-demand content or any type of DVR. PlayStation Vue offers a very sophisticated cloud DVR and playback on up to five devices, while Sling TV is currently working on rolling out their own DVR to certain devices. DirecTV, on the other hand, has plans to bring some kind of DVR to Now sometime next year, but that’s vague at best and we don’t have any details otherwise.
Device support for DirecTV Now isn’t better or worse than Vue or Sling, but it might break your decision one way or another depending on what you have hooked up to your TV. AT&T managed to round up a pretty large selection of devices for DirecTV now, including Amazon Fire Sticks and TVs, Apple TV and Chromecast, plus Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer and Android and iOS apps. Roku support is coming, as well as an Xbox One app.
But okay, you’ve figured out you want DirecTV Now based on your budget and devices, so let’s dig into how the service actually works. For an internet-based live streaming service, DirecTV absolutely knocked it out of the park. It’s fast, fluid, and I’ve yet to see any buffering on any channels. It’s a huge step up from streaming NFL Sunday Ticket, which is also owned by DirecTV and has connection and speed issues constantly. Performance is a pleasant surprise.
Navigating channels is a breeze thanks to a very slick interface. Android purists are probably going to be a little disappointed with how glossy and not Material Design it all is, but it functions very well as a replacement for a cable box. It’s also consistent across boxes and devices, so you’ll get a similar interface whether or not you’re using your smartphone, tablet, or any of the set-top streaming boxes that Now supports.
Swiping left and right flips between channels, and surprisingly, they load very quickly. There’s a slight delay when you jump to the next channel, but within just a couple seconds you’re back to watching TV. That’s pretty useful to avoiding the inevitable commercials.
You can also set up favorite channels to make it easy to browse only channels you care about, and there’s a watch list that you can fill up with shows and movies. If you put The Walking Dead in your watch list, for example, you’ll get a schedule of when the next episode will air and what channel it’s on so you can keep up with everything in one place. It’s a huge time saver compared to browsing through channels to find shows, but it does feel a little half baked at times because there’s no way to watch anything on-demand with DirecTV Now. There’s also still no DVR to set up shows to record, so you’ll have to remember to actually watch the channels when the shows come on, whether that’s at home or on your phone.
Those issues highlight the biggest problem with DirecTV Now; this feels really antiquated. For a cable subscription service, it’s decent. It’s probably cheaper than your local cable provider and you’ll get a few more channels, but it’s more or less the exact same service, just delivered through your internet instead of directly through cable. There’s no tangible advantage to any of this, and in many cases you’re actually getting less because you don’t have the ability to record anything and you can’t watch on-demand content. So unless you like channel surfing with no guarantee of anything good being on, you’ll still end up supplementing this with a Netflix or Hulu subscription.
And that’s a problem that AT&T is going to have to face if they want to stem the tide of cord cutters and millennial cord-nevers. DirecTV Now’s selling point is that it’s mostly the same as your cable or satellite subscription, but over the internet. That’s fantastic, but the delivery method isn’t the reason why many people (myself included) are cutting the cord and not looking back. I don’t care how you get the content onto my TV, but I do care about being able to watch shows and movies on my own time and not having to wade through repetitive advertisements and commercials to do so.
Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon will all sell me all-you-can-eat content that I can consume whenever and wherever I want. New season of House of Cards drops? I can watch all of it tonight, space it out over the next few months, or watch one episode per week. With DirecTV Now, you have to plan your schedule around when the show comes on every week. If you’re at work or have another commitment that comes up? That sucks, better go find it somewhere else. Oh, and I hope you like losing an hour to watch 43 minutes of content, because not only are you paying DirecTV to watch shows, you’re getting bombarded with the same six commercials for nearly 25% of the time block for the show.
That problem isn’t specific to DirecTV Now, to be fair. Sling and Vue are both also guilty, although they’re working on DVR options to alleviate some of the problems. But even then, you’re required to remember to set up the recording process instead of just deciding to watch the show on a whim.
This move into the no commitment, no hidden fees market by DirecTV is great, don’t get me wrong. But they’re warming up a tired old method of bringing television shows and movies to customers and ignoring many of the reasons that people have migrated to Netflix, and for many people, a new coat of paint on this rusty old bucket isn’t going to bring them back. Bake in a DVR, add some on-demand content and original programming, and we’ll revisit this in a few months. The building blocks are there and the writing is on the wall, AT&T just needs to notice it.
Buy it now: DirecTV