Editor's Note (6/1/18): DirecTV Now got a major update with Cloud DVR and increased on-demand in 2018. Tom's Guide Senior Writer Caitlin McGarry found similarly poor performance when she subscribed to the service.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.