DirecTV has officially launched its competitor to Dish Network's Sling TV service. The online TV service, called DirecTV NOW, went live at the end of November. I gave DirecTV a couple weeks to work out any initial kinks and then signed up for the free seven-day trial to see how DirecTV NOW fares against Sling TV and other online streaming options.
DirecTV NOW packages start at $35/month, which gets you the "Live a Little" package of 60+ channels. "Just Right" gets you 80+ channels for $50, "Go Big" gets you 100+ channels for $60, and finally there's the "Gotta Have It" package of 120+ channels for $70. All packages include a slate of on-demand movies (not brand new releases, but the kind that you'd come across on TV), and you can add HBO or Cinemax for $5/month. Right now, DirecTV is offering a deal where you can get the "Go Big" package for $35.
It's fair to say those prices, especially for the higher-tier packages, aren't that much lower than what you can find through cable/satellite companies. The perks are that you don't have to sign a long-term contract, and you don't have to pay monthly fees to rent boxes. $35 means $35, which is seldom the case with traditional cable/satellite packages.
On what devices can you watch DirecTV NOW? As of today, you can access the service via any Web browser, the free iOS and Android apps, some Chromecast and Google Cast devices, and the Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV streaming media players. Roku support is reportedly coming soon. I tested the service through many of these platforms. Let's see how it did.
I began by going to www.directvnow.com and setting up an account. After you create a name/password, you select a plan; naturally, I went with the discounted "Go Big" package for $35/month. Here's another preliminary deal being offered: If you prepay for three months of service, you can get a free Apple TV. If you prepay for one month of service, you can get a free Amazon Fire TV Stick.
The Web interface consists of some basic elements that you will see across all the different platforms. Along the top are the main menu options: Home, Shows, Movies, and Networks, plus a search tool to search for content or channels. Below that is the window where live TV content plays; if you run the pointer over the screen, an overlay pops up that tells you what's currently playing on that channel, as well as what's coming next and at what time. There are also buttons for guide, pause, info, volume control, closed captioning, and the option to view the video full screen. You can pause live TV for up to 17 minutes, but you cannot rewind, fast-forward, or record any live content.
At the left and right ends of the TV interface are arrows that allow you to move up and down through the channel lineup. Channels are arranged in alphabetical order, which makes it easy to scroll quickly through the Channel Guide to find what you're looking for. The guide looks pretty much like every cable/satellite guide, and you can customize one Favorites channel lineup.
The first thing I noticed in browsing the guide was the absence of CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, and PBS live channels. In some areas, subscribers can get their local ABC, NBC, and FOX channels, but apparently Denver is not one of those areas. Apparently local stations are only available in cities where the network owns and operates the channel, as opposed to an affiliate. (And this issue isn't restricted to DirecTv NOW; PlayStation Vue has the same limitation and charges extra for live local channels where available.)
TV shows from these three networks are available for on-demand viewing, which you'll find if you go over to the Network area. However, the most recently aired episodes of shows like NBC's This Is Us and ABC's Speechless were not yet available.
While local channels may or may not available, a lot of other compelling channels are offered in the Go Big package--including A&E, AMC, BBC America, Bravo, Big Ten Network, CNN, Comedy Central, Discovery, several Disney channels, several ESPN channels, Food Channel, Fox News and Sports, HGTV, IFC, Longhorn Network, MSNBC, several Nickelodeon Channels, SEC Network, TBS, TNT, and more. Basically, it's a full-blown channel package that contains a lot of the marquee names in sports, news, and entertainment. It's definitely not a "skinny" package like Sling TV, where prices start at $20/month for about 30 channels. For a good overview of the channels offered in the various DirecTV NOW packages, check out this story from iDigitalTimes.
The Movies and Shows sections of DirecTV NOW feature content options arranged in various lists. Movies are organized primarily by genre, but the Shows area is arranged a bit more creatively, with options like "What We're Watching," "Teen Time," "Alternative Animation," "Comic Relief," and "Love Is Complicated." Be warned, a lot of this on-demand content contains short commercial breaks, and the version of "Avatar" that I auditioned was the "edited for television" version.
As for video quality, TV shows and movies that are available in HD are streamed at "720p or better" through the Web browser and media players like Apple TV; mobile devices are limited to a 480p resolution. DirecTV says you need a minimum broadband speed of at least 150 kbps and recommends 2.5 to 5 Mbps to get HD quality. Obviously, the video quality and stability of the streamed feed will be largely dependent on the speed and reliability of your network. I've got gigabit Ethernet at my house, although my older Airport Extreme router keeps me at about a 50-Mbps download speed when I choose to go wireless, as I did for most of my DirecTV NOW tests.
Still, that's plenty for 720p streaming, and through the Web browser on an admittedly small 12-inch MacBook Pro screen, I found the quality of the video to be perfectly fine, and generally the signal was stable. The only thing I really didn't like about the Web interface was that, when you pull up the guide, video playback stops completely, as opposed to playing in the background. Through other devices like the Apple and Amazon boxes, the live TV channel will continue to play behind the guide.
Speaking of other devices, I tested DirecTV NOW on the Apple TV, the iPhone 6, and the Amazon Fire TV. (I also have a Chromecast, but DirecTV NOW only supports Chromecast on Android devices right now, with iOS support coming in 2017.) Of course the DirecTV NOW interface is slightly different on each device to suit in the general design and navigation of that particular platform--but the basic elements I described above are in place.
The most problematic interface was on the Amazon Fire TV. It was the slowest to switch between channels, sometimes taking as long as 15 seconds before the new channel would start playing. And the Fire TV was the most glitchy in terms of overall reliability--with lots of video stuttering, video dropouts, and audio sync problems ... even when I switched to a wired network connection. At one point when the video was buffering a lot through the Fire TV, I immediately switched to the Web interface, and playback was perfectly smooth and reliable.
Reliability was also good through the Apple TV and iPhone, although let's be frank--this is Internet TV, and you're going to experience the occasional stutter or buffering issue. But I was able to go long periods of time watching DirecTV NOW through the Apple TV without being reminded that it's Internet TV, and that's a good thing.
• DirecTV NOW offers several reasonably priced package options that include many of the big-name channels in news, sports, and entertainment.
• The service doesn't require a long-term contract or equipment rental fees.
• The service is available on a variety of devices.
• For AT&T wireless customers, streaming DirecTV NOW does not count against your data usage.
• Reliability and video quality were solid through many devices, like the Web browser, Apple TV, and iPhone.
• 5.1 audio output is supported through the Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.
• You can only stream DirecTV NOW to two devices at once.
• Live streaming of local channels like ABC, NBC, and FOX is only available in select areas. DirecTV currently does not have a deal in place with CBS.
• You can't record, rewind, or fast-forward live TV channels. You can only pause.
• The starting price of $35 is higher than that of some competitors.
• Performance through the Amazon Fire TV was not very reliable.
Comparison & Competition
The two main competitors to DirecTV NOW are Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. Sling TV has three package options priced from $20 to $40. It has the lowest starting price and the most customization options to tailor your channel lineup--in that you can also add on $5 packs, like the Sports pack, Kids package, News pack, or Comedy pack to any package. Sling is currently beta-testing a DVR function.
Sony's PlayStation Vue live TV service has a starting package price of $29.99 for 45+ channels, going up to $64.99 for its top-tier package of 90+ channels. You can add on services like HBO, Showtime, Epix, and NFL RedZone for an extra fee. Vue offers DVR functionality.
Regarding the on-demand Internet TV options, Hulu is the best choice for TV fans who want access to the most recent episodes of their favorite shows. Hulu's $7.99/month plan includes lots of commercials (usually the same ones over and over again), while the $11.99/month plan is commercial-free. Hulu is working on a separate live TV service to compete with the services above.
For more details on other current and future Internet TV services, check out our story What's the Skinny on Skinny TV Bundles?
DirecTV NOW is a solid Internet TV service, in that it offers a lot of live channels that people actually watch and it delivers a generally good playback experience (except on Fire TV devices). The current $35 promotion for the "Go Big" package is a really good deal, but it won't last. When you look at the non-discounted price comparison, the competitors offer a lot the same channels at a lower starting price and add features like DVR functionality that DirecTV NOW currently lacks (although is reportedly working on). I still think Sling TV offers the best bang for the buck, with the most flexibility to tailor your channel lineup to your specific tastes. Then again, if you're an AT&T wireless subscriber who wants to watch a lot of TV on the go, then the fact that DirecTV NOW doesn't count against your data usage may be its biggest draw.
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