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DirecTV Now review: Live TV streamer strong on channels and discounts, weak on DVR

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The Good DirecTV Now offers a breezy interface with some welcome "cable-like" features like swiping between channels. It has more channels for the money than competitors and includes local channels for most markets. DirecTV offers special deals including "free" Apple TVs and discounts for AT&T wireless customers.

The Bad The cloud DVR is still very much in beta, falling well short of competitors in size and poorly implemented live TV pause. The Roku app is less responsive, with slow boot-up and channel changes.

The Bottom Line DirecTV Now delivers an impressive mix of channels for the money, but people who prioritize a cloud DVR should look elsewhere.

7.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Ecosystem 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Value 8

With a bunch of live TV streaming services competing against cable TV, the main differentiators are price and the number of channels. And DirecTV Now wins the raw numbers calculation, with more channels in its base package than every competitor and the lowest price after Sling TV -- which has a much slimmer channel lineup and lacks local broadcast stations (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC). 

DirecTV Now, fresh off parent company AT&T's mega-merger with Time Warner, has also topped the marketing efforts of competitors. The most compelling is a free Apple TV 4K with a three-month commitment, but you can also score deals that tie together DirecTV Now and AT&T wireless plans, and even get a discount on HBO and Showtime.

Having just finished rolling out its new interface that was initially available on Apple TV and now live on Fire TV and Roku, too, DirecTV Now finally integrates the all-important cloud DVR offered by all of its competitors. DTVN's cloud DVR is still in beta, however, and it shows. There's only 20 hours of storage and some basic functions, for example pressing pause during a live TV broadcast, don't work as you might expect.

Roku is the most popular streaming device platform but unfortunately for its owners, DirecTV Now is still a work in progress -- hardly the zippy, reliable cable-replacement 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.

In the last two years we've seen a lot of changes in this market, and each service continues to improve its content offering and features. With the most recent overhaul, DirecTV has become more useful, but it still has some way to catch up with the interfaces and DVRs of YouTube TV and PlayStation Vue. But neither one does discounts like DirecTV Now.

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The basics: What you need to know

Before we get too deep into it, here's the basics on DirecTV Now ($35 at AT&T Wireless), including how it's different from TV you may know, pricing, device support and other important stuff.

  • It's separate from DirecTV, the satellite service, but both are owned by AT&T.
  • Unlike a cable box or satellite service, DirecTV Now is streamed remotely from an Internet server, and you can access it from a mobile device, web browser, media streamer or TV. 
  • Prices range from $35 to $70 per month, depending on channels.
  • The price includes a DVR to record up to 20 hours of programming, which is stored in "the cloud."
  • To watch on a TV, you'll need an Amazon Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, a Roku streamer or Roku TV, an Apple TV ($179 at Walmart), a Chromecast (Android and iOS), or a Google Cast-enabled TV (like Vizio SmartCast TVs).
  • To watch on a computer, you can use Chrome or Safari web browsers. Firefox and Internet Explorer can manage your account settings but cannot stream content.
  • You can also watch on any any iPhone ($1,099 at Walmart), iPad ($330 at Amazon) (iOS 10 or better) or Android (4.4 KitKat or better) phone or tablet.
  • Xbox One and Samsung Tizen Smart TV are "not yet available."
  • Subscribers to AT&T's wireless service can watch without using their mobile data, but other services use data as normal.
  • There's a free 7-day trial available.
  • There's no contract or early termination fee, so you can cancel at any time.
  • It's only available in the United States.

Features Compared

Hulu with Live TV YouTube TV Sling TV PlayStation Vue DirecTV Now
Base price $40/month for 50+ channels $40/month for 50+ channels $20/month for 20+ channels $40/month for 40+ channels $35/month for 50+ channels
Free trial Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Availability Nationwide Most major markets (99 so far) Nationwide Nationwide Nationwide
Live local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels Select cities Select cities FOX and NBC only in select cities (Sling Blue), ABC for an extra $5/month (Sling Orange) Select cities Select cities
Step-up packages No No PLUS $5/month each (5 or more Sports, LifeStyle, Movie, News, etc. channels per package) PLUS $10/month (some regional sports), $20/month (26 additional channels) $70/month for 120+ channels
Simultaneous streams per account 2 3 1 or 3 5 2
Family member/user profiles Yes Yes No Yes No
Pause, rewind, fast-forward Yes Yes Only select channels Yes Yes (not Roku)
Record shows for later (cloud DVR) Yes (skipping commercials costs an extra $15/month) Yes (unlimited, keep for 9 months) Yes ($5 per month, only Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV) Yes (unlimited, keep for 28 days) Yes (20GB, keep for 30 days)
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What does DirecTV Now have going for it?

DirecTV's long history of running a satellite service shows through on DirecTV Now. Our favorite example of this heritage is the ability 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, however, not every episode of every HBO series is included on demand. For example, the final episode of Game of Thrones season 6 and half of season 5 are missing. 

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.

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