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AT&T Watch TV review: Great freebie, not-so-great cable TV replacement

At just $15 per month -- or free for certain AT&T Wireless customers -- it's the cheapest multichannel live TV service. But competitors offer better functionality, including Roku support and a DVR.

What's the main reason cable subscribers cut the cord? They want to save money. While the price of some live TV streaming services rivals that of cable itself, there are still some budget options. The cheapest is AT&T Watch TV. It costs just $15 a month and AT&T Unlimited wireless customers get it for free.

Watch TV is a cut-down version of DirecTV Now. It has a lot fewer channels, however, and lacks key features, including the cloud DVR. AT&T pitches Watch TV primarily as an add-on for its mobile subscribers. That said, the ability to watch the service on an actual TV via Apple TV and Fire TV devices, in addition to phones and tablets, greatly enhances its appeal. And at this price its channel lineup is pretty solid.

Overall AT&T Watch TV is not as robust as either Philo or Sling TV, its top two budget live TV competitors at $20 and $25 per month, respectively. If you're OK with its channel selection and downsides, however, it could be the budget service for you. Especially if you get it for free anyway. 

How it compares

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The user interface is very similar to DirecTV Now

Sarah Tew/CNET

AT&T Watch TV is a live TV streaming service that offers dozens of "cable" channels streamed over the internet. It's watchable on iOS and Android phones and tablets, PC browsers, Fire TV and Apple TV streamers and smart TVs running Fire TV. The experience is different on different devices, however. The mobile app has the ability to search and bookmark favorites, for example, while the Apple TV app has a program guide.

Competitors Philo and Sling TV offer more platforms including the most popular of all -- Roku -- in addition to Android TV, and other smart TVs systems. More important, both Philo and Sling have a cloud DVR to record show to watch later, a feature Watch TV lacks. 

Budget live TV streaming services compared


AT&T Watch TV ($15) Philo ($20) Sling TV Blue ($25)
Number of top 100 channels 37 58 49
Locals included No No Yes (NBC and Fox)
Simultaneous streams 1 3 3
DVR No Yes Yes
DVR storage -- Unlimited 50 hours

Mobile video quality on AT&T Watch TV can vary depending on your plan. Both the paid ($15 per month) and "free" versions (for most AT&T Unlimited plans) are locked at standard definition on mobile phones (480p). If you trade up your mobile plan to the AT&T Unlimited & More Premium plan, however, mobile video quality ups to 1080p. The Apple TV and Fire TV apps can still show up to 1080p on the basic plans, however.

It's all about the channels

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Sarah Tew/CNET

How do budget services like Watch TV keep things affordable? By omitting local channels and sports, that's how. To its credit, however, AT&T Watch TV peppers its lineup with plenty of popular channels.

Both Philo and Sling TV win over Watch TV in total number of channels, but more channels doesn't guarantee that it is "better." When compared against the 100 most popular streaming channels the number is a lot closer -- AT&T has 35 of these versus Philo's 38 and Sling TV Blue's 39.

Here's how all three stack up. 

Top channels on AT&T Watch TV vs. Philo vs. Sling TV


AT&T Watch TV ($15) Philo ($20) Sling TV Orange ($25) Sling TV Blue ($25)
NBC (select cities) No No No Yes
Fox (select cities) No No No Yes
A&E Yes Yes Yes Yes
AMC Yes Yes Yes Yes
Animal Planet Yes Yes No No
BBC America Yes Yes Yes Yes
BBC World News Yes Yes $ $
BET Yes Yes $ Yes
Boomerang Yes No $ $
Bravo No No No Yes
Cartoon Network Yes No Yes Yes
Cheddar No Yes Yes Yes
CMT No Yes $ $
CNN Yes No Yes Yes
Comedy Central Yes Yes Yes Yes
Cooking Channel No Yes $ $
Destination America No Yes $ $
Discovery Channel Yes Yes No Yes
Disney Channel No No Yes No
DIY No Yes $ $
E! No No No Yes
ESPN No No Yes No
ESPN 2 No No Yes No
Food Network Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Sports 1 No No No Yes
Fox Sports 2 No No No Yes
Freeform No No Yes No
FX No No No Yes
FXX No No No Yes
Hallmark Yes Yes $ $
HGTV Yes Yes Yes Yes
History Yes Yes Yes Yes
HLN Yes No $ $
IFC Yes Yes Yes Yes
Investigation Discovery Yes Yes Yes Yes
Lifetime Yes Yes Yes Yes
Lifetime Movie Network Yes Yes $ $
Motor Trend Yes Yes Yes No
MTV No Yes $ $
MTV2 Yes Yes $ $
National Geographic No No No Yes
Nick Jr. No Yes $ Yes
Nickelodeon No Yes No No
Nicktoons Yes Yes $ $
OWN Yes Yes No No
Oxygen No No No $
Paramount Network No Yes $ Yes
Science No Yes $ $
Sundance TV Yes Yes $ $
Tastemade No Yes No No
TBS Yes No Yes Yes
TLC Yes Yes No Yes
TNT Yes No Yes Yes
Travel Channel No Yes Yes Yes
TruTV Yes No $ Yes
Turner Classic Movies Yes No $ $
TV Land No Yes $ $
VH1 Yes Yes $ $
Viceland Yes Yes Yes Yes
WE tv Yes Yes $ $

$ = Sling TV offers this channel as part of a more expensive package.

Using AT&T Watch TV

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AT&T's Watch TV "Discover" tab lets you search by channel.

Screenshot by Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The AT&T Watch TV app on Apple TV should be very familiar to anyone who has used the DirecTV Now app -- it has the same easy-to-use interface. Swiping left and right works in the same way, letting you "surf," and the results are much zippier than the Roku DirecTV app -- only a 1- to 3-second delay between each channel. 

Watch TV users can "bookmark" some shows from within the TV guide but it only works with content that is also available on-demand. The lack of a DVR means you can't rewind (although you can restart some shows) and pressing pause only saves about two minutes' worth of programming. 

Meanwhile AT&T Watch TV's mobile interface is clean and a lot more "fun" than Philo's more powerful, though more confusing, menus. While both mobile apps lack a program guide, AT&T's ability to drill down to a specific channel is more intuitive than Philo's Search text box. 

Streaming from an iPhone using Chromecast to an Android TV worked ok, but you miss out on advanced features such as the guide. The stream failed to work at all when I tried to AirPlay from an iPhone to an Apple TV. For big screens the Apple TV app provides the best experience.

Should you get it?

If you can get the service for free, AT&T's Watch TV is great. But for $15 a month its lack of Roku support and DVR extras will make it a non-starter for many people. A couple of key channels buoy its fortunes, though, especially if you only watch TV on your phone anyway.

Philo has a DVR and more channels overall, although it lacks some of the Watch TV heavy hitters like CNN, TNT and TBS. Sling TV is a better choice than either one, however, thanks to a superior channel lineup and range of choices. For many cord cutters it will be worth the extra money.