DirecTV Now review: An extremely rough draft of a great streaming bundle

DirecTV Now review: An extremely rough draft of a great streaming bundle

Don’t rush into DirecTV Now, even if AT&T really wants you to sign up immediately.

DirecTV Now is a streaming video service that offers a big bundle of traditional cable channels, similar to Dish Network’s Sling TV and Sony’s PlayStation Vue. And for now, the price is unbeatable, with a promotional rate of $35 per month for 100 channels that locks in for as long as you stay subscribed.

Still, subscribing now would mean suffering through bugs and rough edges, while waiting around for features that the competition already offers. Even with the introductory pricing, you might not get your money’s worth.

Not-so-skinny bundle

DirecTV Now takes a maximalist approach to the streaming bundle. Setting aside the introductory pricing, the basic “Live a Little” package includes more than 60 channels and costs $35 per month. That’s $15 per month more than Sling TV’s cheapest plan, and it’s $5 per month more than the basic PlayStation Vue “Slim” plan, though it includes more channels than either of those offerings.

If you want regional sports networks, including Fox Sports, the price jumps to $50 per month. You can also pay $60 per month for a 100-channel bundle (the one that’s currently $35 per month), or $70 per month for 120 channels, including several Starz Encore feeds. HBO and Cinemax are each available as $5 per month add-ons with all packages.

No matter what you spend, you won’t get CBS or CBS-owned channels, such as The CW and Showtime, nor will you get the NFL Network or NFL Redzone. And while DirecTV Now offers on-demand video from ABC, NBC, and Fox in all markets, only a handful of cities get live local feeds. (The same is true with Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, as local affiliate stations have resisted making deals with streaming bundlers.)

Click here for a full list of DirecTV Now channels.

Strong vision, flawed execution

At a high level, the DirecTV Now takes a smart approach to bridging live and on-demand TV. The home screen shows what’s on your favorite channels, followed by quick access to your watchlist and any on-demand shows you haven’t finished watching. Scroll down a bit further, and you’ll find curated lists of movies and shows to watch.

AT&T also provides a traditional channel guide, and it’s better than the one you’d find on a cable box. Channels appear in alphabetical order along the Y-axis, and air times appear on the X-axis (PlayStation Vue’s guide switches the axes for some reason), and you can quickly toggle between all channels or just your favorites.

directvnowguide DirecTV Now

DirecTV Now provides a traditional channel grid for those who can’t let go.

When you start using DirecTV Now, however, the annoyances start piling up.

On Apple TV, for instance, swiping left or right on a live telecast changes the channel, an action that’s too prone to inadvertent flipping on Apple’s touch-sensitive remote. With on-demand video, the same action lets you fast forward and rewind, which is not only confusing—different controls for different viewing modes—but again invites accidental input.

DirecTV Now defies user interface convention in other ways. Pressing your remote’s select button doesn’t pause, like it does in most apps, but instead brings up playback controls. And on Fire TV devices, pressing the back button in a full-screen video exits the app, rather than bringing up a menu or channel guide as most apps do. This makes accidental quitting a regular occurrence. (The Apple TV app is only marginally better, bringing up a navigation bar at the top of the screen instead of the full guide view. If you press “menu” again, you’ll quit.)

Building up your watchlist is also harder than it should be, with no way to add shows through live TV listings or the traditional channel guide. And when you’re browsing through on-demand videos, you must click on each episode to get a full description. The channel guide doesn’t show episode descriptions at all.

Smooth streams, spotty reception

In terms of performance, DirecTV Now’s streaming quality seemed sharp to my eyes—my guess is 720p resolution for most live channels, similar to Sling and Vue—and nearly all sports and newscasts come in at 60 frames per second.

Reliability is another matter. Although I haven’t experienced the outages and unexplained sports blackouts that some users are complaining about, I have run into bugs that range from mildly annoying to literally show-stopping.

On one occasion, I couldn’t get through a full on-demand episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, because DirecTV Now kept showing a “trouble loading” error message and a QP1502 error code. (I’m not alone on this one.) Exiting and quickly re-entering the app on Apple TV also caused errors, with DirecTV Now throwing up a QP1004006 error code instead of resuming playback.

directvnowerror Jared Newman

Many DirecTV Now users have reported errors like this one.

DirecTV Now’s app is also pretty resource intensive. At one point, it ground to a halt on my second-generation Fire TV Stick, and even the blazing-fast Apple TV struggled to keep up at times.

Where’s the rest?

On top of all these other issues, DirecTV Now just doesn’t feel like a complete streaming TV service.

DVR is not part of the package, at least for now, and AT&T hasn’t said when that will change or how much the feature might cost when it's rolled out. PlayStation Vue has offered a 28-day cloud DVR since its launch in 2015, and Sling TV is now privately beta testing its own DVR feature.

DirecTV Now does offer a “72 Hour Rewind” feature, which is supposed to let you watch programs that aired over the past few days. But only about 40 channels support this feature, and only a handful of cherry-picked shows are available, rather than the entire three days of past programming. Sling TV and PlayStation Vue both offer much later catalogs of “Replay” and “Catch Up” TV.

And because it’s so new, DirecTV Now is also behind the competition in terms of app support. The service is available on iPhone, iPad, Android, Amazon Fire TV devices, Apple TV, Chromecast (from Android devices only), and on the web through Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari. Roku, Chromecast via iOS, and Samsung smart TV support is coming next year. There’s no word on apps for Android TV, game consoles, or other smart TVs.

directvnowandroid Jared Newman

DirecTV Now is on smartphones, tablets, web browsers, and some TV boxes.

DirecTV Now could be a great streaming service someday. The layout of channels and shows is fundamentally sound, and streaming quality matches what you’d expect from cable. If your goal is to get a lot of channels without the hassle of a cable box, AT&T could have your answer. But for now, signing up for DirecTV Now effectively amounts to joining a beta test, and being asked to pay—albeit a discounted rate—for the privilege.

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