DirecTV Now falls short of competitors with its beta DVR, high price and poor Roku app
Editors' note, August 20: This review was last published on Feb. 20, 2019 but is no longer being updated. DirecTV Now has since changed its name to AT&TV Now, and announced an increase in price to $50 a month and reduced its channel count by a third. For more information on DirecTV Now go here.
With a bunch of live TV streaming services competing against cable TV, the main differences are price and number of channels. DirecTV Now wins the channels game, with more top channels in its base package than every competitor.
On the other hand its price, now that AT&T's steep discounts are at an end, is similar to the competition. DirecTV Now costs $40 per month, the same as YouTube TV and $5 less than competitors PlayStation Vue and Hulu with LIve TV. Among major alternatives only Sling TV costs less at $25 per month, but it lacks local channels like ABC and CBS as well as Fox and NBC in most markets.
Read more: Compare the best live TV streaming services for cord-cutters
DirecTV Now's interface integrates the all-important cloud DVR offered by all of its competitors. The cloud DVR is still in beta, however, and it shows with only 20 hours of storage. If you prioritize DVR functionality, YouTube TV is a better choice.
Roku is the most popular streaming device platform but unfortunately for its owners, DirecTV Now on Roku is hardly the zippy, reliable cable-cutter you might expect. For example, there's no pausing live TV at all, and "Record" may or may not work -- even on channels where it's available. On the other hand, the Apple TV version is pretty much "cooked" and everything works better.
Before we get too deep into it, here's the basics on DirecTV Now , including how it's different from TV you may know, pricing, device support and other important stuff.
|Hulu with Live TV||YouTube TV||Sling TV||PlayStation Vue||DirecTV Now|
|Base price||$45/month for 60+ channels||$40/month for 60+ channels||$25/month for 30+ channels||$45/month for 55+ channels||$40/month for 60+ channels|
|ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels||Yes, in many markets||Yes, in many markets||Fox and NBC only in select cities||Yes, in many markets||Yes, in many markets|
|Video on demand from local channels||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|Step-up packages with more channels||No||No||Yes, an extra $5/month each||$50/month, $60/month or $80/month||$55/month, $65/month or $75/month|
|Simultaneous streams per account||2 ($15 option for unlimited)||3||1 or 3||5||2 ($5 option for 3)|
|Family member/user profiles||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||No|
|Pause, rewind, fast-forward||Yes||Yes||Yes, except for Disney or ESPN channels||Yes||Yes|
|Record shows for later (cloud DVR)||Yes||Yes (keep for 9 months)||Yes ($5 per month, can't record Disney or ESPN channels)||Yes (keep for 28 days)||Yes (20GB, keep for 30 days)|
|Fast-forward through or skip commercials with cloud DVR||No (Yes with $15 option)||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|DVR show replaced by on-demand version||No||Yes||No||No||No|
|Video on demand/3-day replay||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
DirecTV's long history of running a satellite service shows through on DirecTV Now. Our favorite example of this heritage is the ability to swipe left or right to change channels quickly (or not so quickly for Roku users -- see below). If you want the full "flip" experience, you could even program left and right arrows into your Ch +/- buttons on a universal remote.
Beyond the service's strong channel lineup, including most local broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) in 99 of the country's major TV markets, a big deal is the ability to add HBO or Cinemax for just $5 extra (each) to any package. That's a substantial discount ($10) off the normal premium channel rate, and something competitors don't offer. Unlike a service like HBO Go or HBO Now, however, not every episode of every HBO series is included on demand.
You can use your DirecTV Now login credentials to sign in (authenticate) the HBO Go app, however, and gain access to the full library of shows that way. DirecTV Now currently authenticates with more than 60 other apps, including NBC, ABC, ESPN and Showtime.
AT&T subscribers who stream DirecTV Now on their phones won't have the data count against their monthly cap. You can also run two independent simultaneous streams on a single DirecTV Now account, or pay an additional $5 per month to get a third simultaneous stream. More streams means more people can watch on different devices using the same account at the same time.
When using DirecTV Now with a remote, the controls center around the direction buttons and Enter/OK. This makes it relatively quick to pick up and use, and also means you don't need a complicated remote control to make it work. Something like the deliberately minimalist Apple TV clicker, perhaps.
When you first fire up the app it begins playing your last channel immediately -- a departure from other live TV services, which begin in the menu. Pressing the down arrow summons DirecTV Now's menu, with options for Watch Now, My Library, Discover, Guide, Search and Settings. Watch Now brings up thumbnails of a selection of current programs, My Library is your recordings both past and future, Discover lets you search by type (TV Shows, Movies or Networks) or popular, while the Guide brings up the program grid.
Are you an Apple TV user? You're well-placed to get the most out of a DirecTV Now subscription. We found it was the quickest of all the streamers we used, starting up fast and taking between 4 and 6 seconds when swiping through the channels. It was also pretty zippy when navigating the guide, though not as responsive as YouTube TV.
On the Roku, however, it took much longer for the DirecTV Now app to fire up, and switching channels took roughly twice as long. Twelve seconds is simply way too long to wait for a channel to change -- even Netflix doesn't take that amount of time to load. We anticipate this is due to teething problems particular to the Roku operating system, and while we have reached out to DirecTV, we have yet to hear back. For the record, we used a Roku Premiere Plus, Roku Streaming Stick Plus and an Apple TV 4K for testing.
In addition there's no live TV pause on Roku. Instead, pressing pause freezes the screen but the program keeps playing in the background. Apple TV's live pause is better but not great. After 2 minutes it cuts to the live feed and pauses again, and will keep skipping forward and pausing each 1-2 minutes until you press Play. In comparison PlayStation Vue lets you pause up to 5 minutes and then will play back from the moment you pressed pause, and YouTube TV lets you pause indefinitely, just like a normal DVR.
DirecTV Now's 20-hour DVR is certainly better than none at all, but storage is unlimited on Vue and YouTube TV (although the former only gives you 28 days to watch before shows disappear, compared to 30 on DirecTV Now).
Some programs do give you the option to restart, and pressing down on the Apple TV remote will bring up show info, a recording option and Restart if available. Pressing the Select button will pause the program. In contrast, pressing the middle button on Roku brings up a different menu with similar functionality, but no pause, but there is the ability to restart.
I briefly used a Fire TV and found the experience closer to Apple TV than Roku. If you don't have an Apple TV, the Fire TV is my next choice choice for using the service. Using an iPhone (an iPhone 6 Plus on AT&T, to be specific) also offered a smooth experience with quick channel changes.
While the recent changes to the service are welcome, if you're a Roku user it's not worth jumping ship just yet. There are still seemingly some problems that need ironing out. Even if you're an Apple user, other services offer a better experience overall -- despite the zippy user interface -- but with its solid channel lineup it might be worth at least the seven-day free trial to see if it's for you in the long run.