DirecTV Now review: Live TV streamer is stronger on channels, weaker on DVR

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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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Apple TV and Roku: Two different worlds

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 PlusRoku Streaming Stick Plus and an Apple TV 4K for testing.

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DirecTV controls on Roku (bottom of the screen)

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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).

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DirecTV's playback menu on Apple TV is accessed by pressing down

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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.

Is it worth your $40 a month?

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.  

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