Bundling one's entertainment services - be it television, Internet or phone - is all the rage these days. Every service from satellite to cable is seemingly offering an all-in-one solution in the hope of making your home entertainment more enjoyable and, if possible, more affordable. Enter AT&T, a relative newcomer to the space and their U-verse fiber optic based home entertainment and communication solution.
U-verse, though fiber optic-based, is basically a broadband service that is capable of supplying high speed Internet, phone service and digital TV (both SD and HD) to the home. U-verse packages seem to fluctuate daily and even a quick stop over on AT&T's own website can often yield different prices and/or results depending on what page you happen to land on. I've seen prices starting as low as $20 a month for basic service up to almost $200 a month for an all-in-one bundle. Like all satellite or cable television services, be it SD or HD, prices can go up or down with the amount of premium channels or additional set top boxes or DVRs that you might require. AT&T U-verse is not available everywhere so be sure to check with an AT&T representative or online before placing your order.
In terms of my AT&T U-verse package, I ordered up their largest HD DVR (made by Motorola), which is a rather compact unit; roughly half the width of a standard DVD player but about the same height. Also as part of my package I received two additional set top boxes (non DVR) that can access the main DVR wirelessly, meaning all of your recorded programming is going to be centrally located when using AT&T U-verse, which is kind of nice. Visually and physically they are pretty much identical in every way. The front fascia features your standard on/off switch and three small lights that let you know if you're recording a show, watching an HD signal as well as receiving a signal at all. Next to the signal indicators there is a large circular control that allows you to manually control the set top box and access U-verse's menus but I'm not sure how many users would actually if ever use these controls. Around back you'll find your usual connection options such as composite and component video outputs accompanied by analog audio outs. There is a single HDMI output capable of transmitting HD video up to 1080i and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio signals. The DVR itself can record up to 233 hours of standard definition content or 65 hours of HD content or any combination thereof. The DVR itself can be controlled via remote or by your computer or mobile phone - and yes, that means your iPhone.
Well, like all satellite or cable services, AT&T U-verse is installed by a "professional" technician. I put the word professional in quotations because if you have a system that is more complex than a simple HDTV and perhaps also have a Blu-ray player, be prepared to offer some assistance in helping them install and hook up U-verse service in your home. My technician arrived almost an hour late; keep in mind his arrival window was between noon and 5pm on a Thursday afternoon. So at quarter to six he sauntered up to my door, no apology, no explanation - no problem.
While U-verse is a fiber optic-based service, the fiber optic part stops at a junction box located somewhere in your neighborhood (provided you're in AT&T's jurisdiction), which may or may not be close to your home. In my case the junction box is a mere two houses down. From the junction box the U-verse service is carried over traditional coax cable. I had Dish Network satellite service previously installed so the AT&T technician just patched into the cables from Dish Network which were already routed throughout my home.
I went ahead and ordered up the Full Monty package (not the actual name) from AT&T, which included high-speed Internet, phone and television service. I did this for two reasons: one, AT&T high speed Internet is the fastest connection I can get in my neighborhood and two, I wanted all of my services on one bill and thought I might as well save a couple of bucks on my phone bill and Internet by bundling. If you order up the all-in-one package like I did, the first thing your technician is going to want to install is the U-verse modem, which is the service's life's blood.
The modem is large and very much in charge and is easily double the size of my previous modem/router I had in my old condo. The modem has to be "centrally" located in the house for best results; however, my house doesn't really have a creamy wireless center so it had to make due with my home office, which is on the second floor at the rear of my house. Once the modem was installed he proceeded with connecting my new phone service, which is AT&T's version of Vonage if I'm honest. Sure it's one low monthly price with unlimited local and long distance calling, however if the modem fails - so does your ability to make phone calls. More on that later. With the Internet and phone service installed it was time to get down to business and install the HDTV portion of the U-verse service.
The technician positioned himself in front of my projection screen and asked me where all the wires were. I was as confused as he was at first, then I realized he thought that my motorized drop down screen was, in fact, a large LCD HDTV. I kindly showed him to my equipment rack, which rested in a custom closet at the back of the room. He stared at it for a good five minutes before letting me know that he wasn't qualified to work on such a system. I told him I would help him with anything he needed and relieved him of any liability should something go awry. I pulled the rack out from its cocoon and turned it 180 degrees, exposing the business end of my multi-room system.
He preceded to try and install the U-verse HD DVR atop my Mark Levinson No 433 amplifier because it had the greatest amount of space above it to allow for proper ventilation for the DVR. I guess to hell with the No 433's need for ventilation. I politely relocated the DVR to its own shelf towards the top of the rack and urged the technician to continue. He continued by simply connecting the existing Dish Network cables (remember, U-verse enters the house via existing coax cables) already run to my rack to the back of the DVR and stepped back to admire his handy work. He repeated the steps for the DVR in my master bedroom and began to do the same in my home office; when I told him I wanted the DVR in the office to reside in the closet he said "no problem."
No problem in the eyes of AT&T and their crack team of installers must mean "drill baby drill" because that is precisely what he did. He busted out a power drill with what looked to be an auger-sized bit and punched a hole in my wall a good inch in diameter to run a quarter inch coax cable from my master bedroom to my home office closet. I was speechless. He connected the remaining DVR to my home office system and began to pack up his things.
Start to finish, the technician was in my home for roughly two hours and before he left he asked if I'd give him a demo of my theater because I was his last stop of the day and he didn't have to be anywhere that evening. Sorry - I did, and because of his tardiness I was already running late.
With the technician barely a memory in my mind I surveyed the damage. Cables were not routed cleanly and by cleanly I mean not at all. He left three remotes and a channel guide on my kitchen table and a host of bits and pieces here and there strewn throughout the house. Parting contestants receive a poke in the eye, I guess.
Since I was left to become familiar with U-verse on my own I powered up the main HD DVR in my reference system and began navigating the setup menus, which are buried in the system's guide menus for some unknown reason. I let the little HD DVR know that it was connected to a 16:9 display (default is 4:3). I set the DVR to output HD signals at 1080i (default is 480i) and Dolby Digital surround.
From there I began channel surfing. I ordered the maximum number of HD channels, not including the premium movie channels such as HBO, Showtime etc., and found that I had gained quite a few new channels but lost quite a few as well. In the year since its initial installation AT&T has upgraded its HD channel selection and is now competitive with all the major service providers.
One of the things U-verse prides themselves on is the ability to watch multiple HD feeds at once. My old Dish Network service allowed me to watch or record two separate HD programs simultaneously, so I was excited to learn that U-verse added an the ability to watch a third HD feed, however upon testing I realized this was not the case. If you want to watch live HD programming you are limited to two channels. Where the third channel comes into play is if you want to watch an already recorded HD program. Say for instance you're recording 24 in HD on Fox and at the same time are recording Deadliest Catch in HD on The Discovery Channel. If you want to watch the NBA finals while these two shows are recording you're out of luck because they count as two simultaneous HD feeds even though you're not watching them live, so you'll be forced to either stop one of the recordings or watch your beloved NBA in SD. You can have three HD feeds going at once only if one of your HDTVs is tuned into an already recorded show, which resides on the central HD DVR. In a nutshell, U-verse is no different than my old Dish Network service in this regard. Boo. Side note: AT&T claims on their website that you can watch four shows at once on a single DVR; this is true provided that at least two of those shows are being watched in SD.
Another thing that U-verse touts is its ability to pause a show in one room and pick it up in another right where you left off. Cool right? Sure, so long as you keep in mind that the feed is being transmitted wirelessly and depending on what type of mood the modem/router is in will dictate how quickly that transaction is. In all fairness it works most of the time;, however it can sometimes take a while before the show begins playing on the alternate or secondary display.
Apart from those little quirks, U-verse works much in the same way as my old Dish Network service and my DirectTV service before that. Even the remote is decidedly Dish Network-like. The menus are easy to read, though the On Demand service/interface is troublesome and frankly a joke, but all-in-all U-verse really isn't that different from the competition. Minus one small caveat...
Because U-verse, especially bundled the way I have it installed, is all being sent over the same "pipe" the image quality sucks. I won't even get into SD programming. Suffice to say if you're thinking about picking up U-verse to watch on your 27-inch Panasonic CRT set, I say skip it and save your money and watch TV via your laptop on Hulu, for you'll be far better off. As for its HD performance, U-verse is about as bad as I've seen in a long while and I've now had every major HD service provider there is in Southern California.
Read more about AT&T U-verse's performance on Page 2.