DirecTV Now Review: Not Ready for Prime Time

UPDATE 1/20/17: After retesting DirecTV Now, we discovered that the service still has many of the issues that affected it at launch, including jittery streams and an "Error 40" that renders content unwatchable. The service is better than when it first launched, but not enough so to alter our score or recommendation. We've contacted AT&T about the bugs we encountered, and will update the review when we receive a response.

On paper, there's no reason why DirecTV Now ($35 to $70 per month) shouldn't work. Like Sling TV, it is a stand-alone streaming cable-replacement service. Like PlayStation Vue, it offers a huge variety of channels for a relatively small amount of money. But even a few minutes with AT&T's new service reveals that it's technically subpar, sorely in need of some fine-tuning before it's ready for prime time.

The channel selection is decent enough, but DirecTV Now is sluggish, buggy and sometimes just downright broken. To top it all off, it's not even very widely available. Contrary to its name, DirecTV Now is very much a service that might work better later.

Content

Credit: AT&TCredit: AT&T

One thing that DirecTV Now does reasonably well is selection. Thirty-five dollars per month will get you the "Live a Little" package, which includes about 60 channels — more than Sling Orange ($20 per month) or Sling Blue ($25 per month) offer. The basic channels are pretty decent ones, too, including ESPN, Cartoon Network, AMC, Nickelodeon, the Food Network, CNN, FX and Syfy.

"Just Right" charges $50 per month for about 80 channels, while "Go Big" requires $60 per month for 10 channels, and "Gotta Have It" asks $70 per month and offers about 120 options. Depending on what you're willing to dish out, you can get networks like Discovery, Disney, Fox News, NBA TV, Starz and the Weather Channel. There's a full comparative list available at DirecTV’s website. Users can also add HBO and Cinemax, each for an additional $5 per month. It's cheaper than buying them stand-alone, at least.

MORE: Best Streaming Devices: Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV & More


DirectTV Now payment plans. Via PC screen capture.DirectTV Now payment plans. Via PC screen capture.If DirecTV Now has any huge gaps in cable channel coverage (apart from Showtime, which isn't available, even as an add-on), I did not find them. However, local channels are still something of a problem. Depending on where you live, you'll get some broadcast networks, but not all of them. I was able to get NBC, Fox and ABC in New York City, but stations like CBS, PBS and the CW were nowhere to be found. This is probably because DirecTV and CBS are currently at loggerheads, and other networks are often affiliates, meaning that channels can vary significantly depending on where you live. Lacking broadcast stations is not a problem unique to DirecTV Now, but it's still an annoyance to have to buy an HD antenna on top of an expensive cable replacement service subscription.

On-Demand

DirecTV Now has an enormous problem: It doesn't offer any DVR capabilities. The company does plan to add this option sometime next year, but for the moment, unless you're an expert screen-capture software wrangler, and have all the time in the world, you won't be able to record anything to watch later. Sling TV doesn't offer this functionality, either (although a Sling DVR feature is currently undergoing beta testing), but PlayStation Vue does, and it is a huge feather in the latter's cap. In the era of streaming on demand, there's no reason why viewers shouldn't be able to pick and choose when to watch their content.

Fortunately, DirecTV Now does offer some on-demand content. Unfortunately, it's handled very poorly. Some channels offer it; some don't. You can get a handful of episodes from Fox, for example, but nothing from ABC. Nickelodeon has a few episodes available to stream, but Disney doesn't.

HBO Content. Credit: AT&THBO Content. Credit: AT&T

You don't get full seasons, either, just a few scattered episodes. Even shows that ended years ago, like the delightfully anarchic cartoon The Angry Beavers, offer only a few episodes at a time from random points during their runs. It’s not inconceivable that you could find something good to watch on-demand, but it's hardly a replacement for either DVR functionality or a more dedicated subscription service like Hulu.

MORE: PlayStation Vue vs. Sling TV: Face-Off

Movies follow the same pattern. There are a few dozen movies available at any given time, although it's not clear which ones are here to stay, and for how long. Some of them are quite good, like X-Men: First Class and Captain Phillips; others are forgettable, like Men in Black 3 or Snow White and the Huntsman. The movies are nice to have, but the selection is too eclectic to make them a big selling point.

Interface

Where DirecTV Now falls down — or more accurately, falls apart — is in its interface. Getting around is simple enough, but bugs, which range from obnoxious to fatal, plague every single part of the program. Even when the program works as intended, it feels surprisingly threadbare.

Credit: AT&TCredit: AT&T

To start off, there aren't all that many places you can watch DirecTV Now. You can use a web browser, Android, iOS, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV. At present, that's about it. There's no Roku, no Android TV, no game consoles and no smart TV apps. Certain TVs from LeEco and Vizio can use DirecTV Now, but through screencasting, not dedicated apps. Most of these options will come later this year, but it raises the question of why DirecTV couldn't wait to launch the product properly rather than piecemeal.

The interface is about the same, no matter which platform you use. The home screen displays whatever you're currently watching in a small screen — sometimes, anyway. Certain channels offer only full-screen streams, meaning you won't be able to weigh your options with these attention hogs in the background. It's an obnoxious feature, although at least you'll know which channels are the vainest. Beneath the central video stream are descriptions of other currently airing programs. You can access a guide below your video stream, as well as your Watchlist and recommended streaming shows and movies.

The Watchlist, by the way, is not nearly as helpful as it may sound. I tried in vain to add a variety of shows airing later in the day from the guide, but found I couldn't do it. As it turns out, you can only add on-demand content to your Watchlist, and as discussed above, DirecTV Now's on-demand selection is notoriously thin. The recommended movies and shows are likewise not that useful, as they are curated by DirecTV, and have nothing to do with your own viewing habits.

Watchlist. Via PC screen capture.Watchlist. Via PC screen capture.

The guide is probably where you will spend most of your time outside of individual shows, and it's functional. Although your video stream still happens in the background, the guide takes up the entire screen, which means you essentially can't watch and browse at the same time — something even basic cable subscriptions conquered years ago. You can scroll through all available channels, or earmark your most common choices for favorites. You can also surf one channel at a time, if you pine for the good ol' days of the late '80s.

As for the shows themselves, you can pause them, but that's all you can do. You can't rewind or fast-forward, no matter how long the show has been running. If you pause a show and decide you'd like to catch up, you have no choice but to refresh the whole stream. It's not intuitive, and it's not on a par with what other services offer.

Performance Issues

All of this assumes, of course, that you can get your video stream to load at all, which is not a given. I frequently encountered the prevalent and undescriptive “Error 40,” which prevented the service from streaming anything. Error 40 has been a mainstay of DirecTV Now since its inception, and while it never identifies a problem, it does render a channel totally unwatchable, sometimes necessitating a reboot of the whole app. During my tests, Error 40 was the only error I found that broke the whole service, but it's still not something I should have encountered at all on a post-beta program.

Using DirecTV Now on the Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV and an Android tablet was straightforward enough, although it was a much worse experience than I'd believed possible on a modern streaming device. (More on that later.) The apps had no idea what channel I'd last watched, and kept rotating between networks when I first started streaming, some of which I'd only turned on for a minute or two.

It's inconceivable that a service that wants hundreds of your dollars each year would run this way, although if you can get a show up and running, it will hopefully stay that way.

Video Quality

You won't actually know the video quality of anything you're watching on DirecTV Now, which is a bit of a pain. Sling TV and PlayStation Vue are also loath to share exact resolution numbers, but that doesn't mean that cable replacement services shouldn't give users this useful information. If Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video can tell you whether your stream is in SD, HD or UHD, DirecTV Now should be able to do the same.

Not that you'll get anything in UHD just yet, of course. I observed both SD and HD streams on DirecTV Now, depending on the channel. My trained eyeball pegged them at 480i and 720p, respectively, but without hard numbers, I could be mistaken. It's similar to what you'd see on regular broadcast or cable TV, so I have no real complaints about the resolution. Even something as simple as bringing up the guide could play mad havoc with how the shows looked.

Viewing interface. Via PC screen capture.Viewing interface. Via PC screen capture.

What I do object to, though, is that the service is just terrible at keeping the resolution steady. On a home Wi-Fi network that averaged 15 Mbps, my shows often became grainy, blurry and frozen if I brought up the menu or scrolled further down the page. (DirecTV Now recommends 12 Mbps for excellent service.) Even when DirecTV Now’s resolution stayed steady, it still jittered and froze every other minute or so, sometimes taking up to 30 seconds to right itself and continue the show. This happened whether I was watching live channels or on-demand shows. It’s not something I’ve ever observed in another streaming service.

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Getting back to full resolution took between 5 and 10 seconds, but even something as simple as bringing up the Guide could play mad havoc with how the shows looked. Given that I've never experienced similar problems with other video services (or, indeed, more demanding video games), this is probably an issue with DirecTV Now's framework.

Bottom Line

DirecTV Now is not on a par with Sling TV or PlayStation Vue, even though it’s not entirely without merit. The channel selection is both broad and deep, the price is fair (at the higher tiers, anyway), and the navigation is admirably straightforward. But it's not available for nearly enough platforms, the on-demand options are all over the place, and the bugs can literally make the service unusable.

About the only reason I can recommend DirecTV right now is that a long-term subscription will net you either a free Amazon Fire TV Stick (if you prepay for a month of service) or an Apple TV (if you pay in advance for three months). Otherwise, Sling TV or PlayStation Vue will serve you much better — as will Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, if you can bring yourself to give up live subscription TV altogether.

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  • jsmithepa
    Sorry being the kill-joy, in the U.S., telecomm carriers have no incentive to be "better." More service for less money? meeew, I wager they just do enough to entice you to try and maybe you like it just enough to keep it. There are no real competition, telecomm carriers are like the airlines, they just have to do not much worse than competitors to stay in business because you can't walk 500 miles.
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  • Harry_72
    I fell for it and bought the 3 month Apple TV promo. And keeo my VUE and went fron Ultra to Core so I can get the Viacom channels and NHL and MLB Networks. What a mistake! You can't even reach customer service! Only on chat! And that has been busy 24/7! So I had to go through my bank to cancel the charge. I should have known better to trust AT&T on this. They over promise and suck you in and don't let go! Keeping VUE all the way until Hulu and YouTube Unplugged have in store
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  • Ken_72
    I bought the Direct TV Now $35 package on 11/30/2016 and opted to receive the free Apple TV. Notified yesterday that Fedex is delivering it on 12/7/2016. There were a few bugs initially but I find the service to be ok and would buy it again. Give Direct TV Now a break and stop whining about every little itsey thing. I like Direct TV Now and strongly recommend it. Be thankful for a forward looking company.
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  • Marc_43
    It's been great for me - the promotional 100 channel package for 35.00 is a far better value than anything currently out there. I actually bought the package because I had to buy a new Apple TV, so basically you pay $105.00 for the Apple TV (instead of 150 plus tax) and you get 3 months free service to try out. No brainer if you are in the market for an Apple TV obviously.
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  • jhill101985
    Folks who buy into "Directv Now" now aren't doing it for today. We understand we will have to endure the growing pains. I specifically got in now while the service is only 35 bucks. I expect over the next two years, the service will have matured significantly. The best thing about it is that if it hasn't matured to my level of expectancy, i can just cancel my subscription at the drop of hat without any associated fees. Its literally the best thing available for me today. The best part about it all is I haven't even experienced the widespread issues mentioned in this article so its a win.
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  • rood17
    I ordered this the day it was available and started watching it on my ipad. I have had no problems with the DirectTv Now service. There were a few glitches on opening day but everything has worked fine since. I like how it displays the guide on my ipad and I can search for something else to watch while I am watching a show. A good line up of channels for the price and I can watch my favorite networks on the go. I am sure that the service may be lacking for people that have had HD boxes and DVR boxes but for those of us who previously only had cable with Time Warner using only the cable and not a box with no HD channels or DVR, this is a good service. Just make sure you have the internet capabilities to support it, including a good modem and fast wifi router.
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  • Power_to_the_People
    I completely agree with this review. I think it's accurate and right on. I also jumped the gun and will be keeping Vue even though I prepaid for DirecTv Now. Actually now that Sling is testing DVR on Roku I may go back to that them. Sling seemed to improve every few months adding more and more channels without adding cost, and more and features. Considering how bare-bones it was when it first launched I assume the DirecTv Now will also make major improvements. Their On-Demand is absolute trash right now. Sling didn't have DVR but at least it offered almost everything on-demand so that made up for it. Vue of course lets you access just about everything which is awesome.
    DirecTv now is just too raw, buddy, inconsistent, needing to fix a lot of these issues. They should also allow "tv everywhere" logins. I don't understand how their on-demand content is so terrible (unless they are building their library or something) because regular DirecTv is much better.
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  • Power_to_the_People
    ** Sorry for all the typos
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  • cmarcoux
    What would be useful would be reviews of streaming interfaces on different platforms. As a Roku user, my experience with PS Vue has been entirely with their brutally bad Roku app. I recently saw it on Fire TV, and it actually seemed quite nice. As a consumer, it would be useful to know these things in advance. As it is, I only discovered it because I canceled Vue, signed up for DTV Now, got a Fire TV, and decided to see Vue on Fire TV for kicks.

    If I had known the trick to enjoying Vue was to use it on something other than Roku, I wouldn't have canceled. I may go back after my DTV trial. Or I may decide that I like having Viacom channels and stick it out w/ DTV Now.
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  • Joseph_143
    I don't think this person is giving an accurate or fair account of the service. The claim that there is no on demand from ABC is not true, as Designated Survivor and Speechless are both offered (that's just off the top of my head) AND you can unlock the ABC app to access all their shows that way.
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  • Joseph_143
    Also the $35/month is for life, as long as you say subscribed you are paying that price.
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  • UberStCrew
    "On a home Wi-Fi network that averaged 15 Mbps"

    While technically this should be more than enough for quality streaming video, I would have some doubts that a Wi-Fi network with that low amount of bandwidth would be consistent enough for streaming video especially if other devices are utilizing the same network. What type of Wi-Fi router are you using. Have you tried Sling TV , PS Vue and other services on the same network? Do those services have similar issues?

    While Wi-Fi is the most convenient way to connect streaming devices it is not the most reliable way. Sometimes people put the blame on the service instead of considering that their own setup may be to blame. Not saying that DirecTv Now hasn't been buggy but just consider that there are other issues that factor into this as well.
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  • IdleWanderlust
    I haven't tried VUE, but Sling SUCKS. There is no nice way to say it. If you think it's better than DirecTV NOW can I have some of the drugs you're on? DirecTV NOW isn't perfect not by a long shot, but it's worlds ahead of Sling, I wasn't even able to get past the free 7 days with sling since half the time the channels wouldn't load, when they did they would buffer constantly and if I made it to the end of the show I would have to keep hitting play for every episode. The worst part of Sling was it would keep playing 10 seconds of a show on a loop over and over and that's all it would do most of the time.

    DirecTV NOW is new and will have bugs, but Sling has been out for years and is still awful.
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  • MEMcGovern
    I'm looking at this as I bought a discounted Apple TV (that I wanted anyway) and get to try out their service for 3 months. No harm, no foul. I do hope they work out the bugs before my prepaid usage is over though.
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  • IdleWanderlust
    Anonymous said:
    I'm looking at this as I bought a discounted Apple TV (that I wanted anyway) and get to try out their service for 3 months. No harm, no foul. I do hope they work out the bugs before my prepaid usage is over though.


    I agree with you. Saved 44 bucks on something I wanted anyway and get free tv for 3mo. Done and Done.
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  • Chris_366
    Direct tv now sucks, I did the one month and got a fire stick free. Now that the month has ended I have cancelled and went back to sling. Just like the person in this article said, it has buggy issues. I have gig byte internet speed and all my direct tv now did was buffer, and it got worse when I changed the channels from the guide or in general. Every time I changed the channels I got a channel whose sound was off it sounded like chipmunks on speed, and the channel's program was speed up, to where you couldn't understand it, or when you looked at it it was as if you were fast forwarding a program with the sound on. Also I couldn't get it to work right on my computer as well. Now with that being said they have an awesome channel line up, plus they are the only streaming service that offers elrey, and chiller channels in their top package, the other providers offer either elrey or chiller and not both. If direct tv ever gets their bugs out I might come back for that factor, but just for the fact of losing out on one channel to deal with technical issues, and never being able to watch tv for a service you pay, is not worth it. I recommend staying away from direct tv now, you will see several complaints on them in Facebook forums, and all over the web. I think they should of took their time and fixed these issues before ever launching. I will also say one other thing is that Direct tv now doesn't have a help service, their chat service never works, I waited a half hour on a chat line to reach someone to only get an error message after that timeframe, that says that the only way to communicate is through the direct tv now forum, which they also never answer. Also if you call direct tv, the representatives their act like they don't know what you are talking about, and what direct tv now is, but they try to sell you direct tv equipment and programming through direct tv, so you don't get any customer service at all. I feel sorry for the people that paid three months to get an apple tv, yeah they got an apple tv, but they don't have a tv provider to watch it on that doesn't buffer or have sound issues, they could of bought the device cheaper somewhere else, and then had vue, or sling. Trust me direct tv is not worth the free device, while i do like my fire stick, and am enjoying it as well , between my roku, and fire tv, I am happy with sling for now. I am interested to see hulu's deal when they come out though. hopefully they won't have bugs like direct tv now, but from what I heard they are taking their time to get everything right on launch day, so we will see about hulu than.
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  • Gary_100
    The service will improve in time. Those customers who got in on the $35 Go Big promo will stand to beneift from improved service and solid channel selection at the $35 promo price.
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  • Craigslist_1
    I have to install and uninstall the Direct Tv Now app serveral times a day. You can't change channels with uninstalling the app, freezes and buffering constantly. This is ridiculous? My case has been escalated 3 times in 3 weeks and it's not any better at all. If you read the reviews on Direct TV Now website, many many others are having the same issue. I wish I would not of left PlayStation Vue. No issues at all. Direct TV Now please get tech support, real live tech support and fix these issues.
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  • sputtering
    Works fine on my amazon fire stick, but as of today the guide is broken on the apple tv. Can't access a lot of channels through the guide, it refuses to scroll at some points. Tried unplugging, checking for updates, but still doesn't properly work.

    There have also been Error 40 issues, but I think that can be avoided by closing the app when it's not in use.
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