AT&T has a lot of TV services. There's satellite broadcaster DirecTV, cable service U-Verse, live TV streaming services AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now) and AT&T Watch TV and on-demand streamers HBO Now and HBO Go, as well as soon-to-launch Netflix competitor HBO Max. Now you can add another, called simply AT&T TV.
After a limited launch in 13 markets including New York, Seattle and El Paso, AT&T TV is available nationwide on Monday.
AT&T TV is designed to replace DirecTV or traditional cable TV with a package of live TV channels -- including locals such as ABC and Fox, as well as cable channels such as ESPN, TNT, Nickelodeon and HGTV -- streamed over the internet. Unlike DirecTV the service won't allow you to subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket, but HBO is included with all packages and customers will be upgraded to HBO Max at no additional charge when that service launches in May. And just like similar premium live TV services aimed at cable TV cord-cutters, such as YouTube TV, it starts at $50 a month.
It has plenty of similarities to cable, however, starting with the fact that it requires that you sign a two-year contract. And that enticing $50 price is only for the first year; after that, the monthly cost jumps to $93 for the base package. As usual, you can opt for more expensive packages that have additional channels.
While AT&T will be pushing AT&T TV as its new option, people who already subscribe to one of its many other TV services will still be able to keep using their current service and all will still accept new customers. In other words, AT&T isn't shutting DirecTV down. Yet.
Hello, new (required) Android TV box
AT&T TV subscribers will need at least one of the service's set-top boxes connected to a TV to watch. Like Comcast's Flex TV box for Xfinity customers and standalone streamers such as Nvidia Shield, the AT&T TV box is powered by Google's Android TV system. In addition to AT&T TV, the box will also run other apps like Netflix or Disney Plus. You can also issue Google Assistant voice commands by speaking into the included remote, allowing you to call up things like weather reports on-screen or control smart home devices like lights and appliances -- as well as search for TV shows and movies.
The box is 4K- and HDR-capable and can stream apps like Netflix in the higher resolution. At launch there are no live 4K AT&T TV channels, though the company says it may add them in the future.
Unlike a standard satellite or cable set-top DVR the Android TV box doesn't have a hard drive built-in. Instead the service relies on a cloud DVR, with 500 hours of storage time included.
Subscribers can also stream live TV via the AT&T TV app on iOS or Android phones and tablets, the web, or on TVs with Amazon Fire TV devices, Apple TV and some Samsung TVs. Roku users with the AT&T TV app installed already can also stream the service, but a fight between AT&T and Roku has prevented new AT&T TV app downloads on the platform.
AT&T allows for three devices to be streaming at once, similar to Google's YouTube TV streaming service. The first AT&T TV box is included in your subscription, additional boxes are $120 (or $10 a month for the first year).
Hands-on first impressions
I got the chance to use the service over the last week in New York and it was mostly smooth sailing, despite some lag. Even with my 400 megabit-per-second internet connection, I experienced minor delays when summoning Google Assistant and when changing channels. Response times weren't as fast as many TV devices I've used.
Then there's another kind of delay: live content lags a few seconds behind cable or satellite. This may not matter for some, but if you watch live sports or follow Twitter while watching your favorite drama, be prepared to be a bit behind everyone else.
The interface boots directly into AT&T TV, as opposed to an Android TV apps page. It's clean, with big tiles throughout showcasing what's on now or different films or episodes I could watch.
Google Assistant voice controls worked well. Speaking into the remote I could tell it to switch directly to a channel like HBO or ESPN, or have it search for a particular show or film regardless of whether it is on live TV, on-demand or inside apps. When I asked to watch The Irishman, for example, a pop-up from Google Assistant appeared on-screen, letting me know Netflix had it available.
The Google Play Store gave me access to a large assortment of apps, though for some reason Hulu wasn't available on the AT&T TV box during my testing. Luckily there is a pretty easy way around this, as the box doubles as a Chromecast for streaming off of your phone, tablet or computer.
Bandwidth, bundles and incentives
Beyond the required contract and box, AT&T TV shares another similarity with standard cable: bundling. You'll need home internet to use AT&T TV -- the company recommends a speed of at least 25Mbps -- and in areas that AT&T offers internet service the company will bundle gigabit service together with AT&T TV.
The bundle starts at roughly $80 a month for the first year with a two-year contract on the base TV plan. Just like with the standard service, however, you are going to be locked into a two-year contract and prices on the TV side will go up after the first year.
As it often does, AT&T also offers an incentive for subscribers to its wireless service, who can knock $10 off their AT&T TV package.
There are also other fees associated with AT&T TV, such as taxes and regional sports fees of up to $8.49 per month. There's no monthly rental fee for the required box or remote, but there is a $20 one-time "activation fee." AT&T's home internet service also has a monthly $10 internet equipment fee.
With all of its fees and gotchas, especially the required contract and price hike after 12 months, AT&T isn't my first recommendation for people looking to quit cable or satellite. In fact you may very well get a better deal from your cable provider. When it comes to choosing a TV streaming service in 2020, price is often the deciding factor and no-contract options such as YouTube TV or Hulu with Live TV are better values. At least for now, AT&T TV will have many looking elsewhere.