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AT&T TV Now review: Great interface and HBO don't make up for missing channels

The streaming service formerly known as DirecTV Now is easy to use, but mandatory HBO and a smaller selection of other channels is a tough sell.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Editors' note, Feb. 24, 2021: AT&T TV Now has now been rolled into AT&T TV with prices starting at $70. The original review, which was last updated Sept. 14, 2019, follows.

Live TV streaming for cord cutters continues to evolve and AT&T TV Now is the perfect example. It started life as DirecTV Now in 2016 by offering 100 channels for $35, rolled out updates including a cloud DVR and a new interface in 2017 and 2018, roped in subscribers last holiday season with free Apple TV hardware and other offers, lost subscribers early in 2019 after which it raised prices, dropped channels and made HBO mandatory and finally changed its name in July, dropping the "DirecTV" entirely.

Unfortunately, neither a new name nor the inclusion of HBO makes AT&T TV Now a good deal, especially after its most recent price increase to $65 per month. All of the other premium options, including Hulu with Live TVYouTube TV and PlayStation Vue, offer more channels and better cloud DVRs.

In its favor the interface is fun, with a unique swiping channel-change mechanic, and if you own an Apple TV the service is pretty much "cooked" and everything works as you'd expect. Meanwhile the Roku app lags behind and despite some improvements like faster responses, there's still no pausing live TV at all. If you crave a cable-like interface and consider HBO a must-have, AT&T TV Now is potentially worth a look, but both YouTube TV and the cheaper Sling TV are better overall values.

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3 flavors of AT&T TV

AT&T hasn't made things easy for itself or its customers with three similarly named live TV streaming products. Here's the breakdown.

  • AT&T WatchTV: A budget service offering a similar experience to the more expensive options, just with a cut-down channel list and few options. AT&T Unlimited & More mobile customers can use the service for free while everyone else can sign up for $15 a month.
  • AT&T TV Now: The service we're reviewing here, it requires no contracts or proprietary boxes and just like its competitors, you can cancel at will without penalty. 
  • AT&T TV: The only one that still requires a contract and a set-top box supplied by AT&T, this one seems the most like traditional cable. As of March 2020 the service is now available nationwide. It starts at $50 per month, or $90 bundled with an AT&T Internet plan. Both it and AT&T TV Now use the new AT&T TV app.

AT&T streaming services compared

Base cost per month $15 $65 $50
Contract required No No Yes
Proprietary set top box required No No Yes
ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels No Yes, in many markets Yes
HBO included No Yes Yes
Record shows for later (DVR) No Yes Yes

The all-important channel lineup

Sarah Tew/CNET

AT&T TV Now's big hook, of course, is the inclusion of HBO in the base package, which means you don't have to pay another $15 per month for HBO Now -- assuming you want HBO. And the service's channel lineup still includes most local broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) in many TV markets nationwide.

The downside is that compared to the other premium live TV streaming services at $45 and above, AT&T TV Now offers the least number of our top 100 "must have" channels at 44 in its base package. You can pay extra for more channels if you want.

You no doubt have your own list of non-negotiables, but losing classic cable staples like AMC, BBC America and Animal Planet -- to name just three -- seems like one more reason to opt for YouTube TV instead. See the list at the end of the article for a full comparison between AT&T Watch TV, AT&T TV Now and the competition of the top 100 channels.

The interface 

Sarah Tew/CNET

AT&T TV's long history of running a satellite service shows through on AT&T TV Now. Our favorite cable-like feature is the ability to swipe left or right to change channels, even if it's not quite instantaneous with between three and five seconds of loading time.

When using AT&T TV 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. If you want the full "surfing" experience on a universal remote, you could even program left and right arrows into your Ch +/- buttons.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

When you first fire up the app it begins playing your last channel immediately -- a departure from other live TV services, which usually begin in the menu. Instead, pressing the down arrow summons the 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. For the record, we used a Roku Premiere PlusRoku Streaming Stick Plus, TCL Roku TV and an Apple TV 4K for testing.

Are you an Apple TV user? You're well-placed to get the most out of an AT&T TV Now subscription. We found it was the quickest of all the streamers we used, starting up fast and taking between four and six seconds when swiping through the channels. It was also pretty zippy when navigating the guide, though not as responsive as the YouTube TV service.

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Until recently, Roku users would have to wait up to 12 seconds for the channel to change, but it appears recent improvements to the app have brought it up to speed with the Apple TV. Unlike Apple TV, however, there's still no live TV pause on Roku. Instead, pressing pause freezes the screen while the program keeps playing in the background. Meanwhile Apple TV will allow two minutes until it cuts to the live feed and pauses again, and will keep skipping forward and pausing each minute or two until you press Play. In comparison, YouTube TV lets you pause indefinitely, just like a normal DVR. 

AT&T TV Now's DVR has been upped to 500 hours from a meager 20 hours, while YouTube TV offers unlimited storage. YouTube TV lets you keep recordings for up to 9 months while you are limited to 30 days on AT&T TV Now. In addition, the service now offers three simultaneous streams without the need to pay extra.

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 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 $65 a month?

Despite the name change, AT&T TV Now is sadly still a bad deal in live TV streaming. Its interface may be the most fun, with the swipe left and right functionality being quite inspired, but in this business content is king. With its ace card already dealt -- Game of Thrones has come to an end -- the service simply doesn't offer enough channels compared to all of the others. Even if you're an Apple user, other services offer a better experience overall. 

Channel lineup compared

Channel AT&T Watch TV ($15) YouTube TV ($50) Hulu with Live TV ($55) Fubo TV ($55) AT&T TV Now ($65)
Total channels: 37 67 59 64 43
ABC No Yes Yes No Yes
CBS No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox No Yes Yes Yes Yes
NBC No Yes Yes Yes Yes
PBS No Yes No No No
CW No Yes Yes Yes Yes
MyNetworkTV No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Channel AT&T Watch TV ($15) YouTube TV ($50) Hulu with Live TV ($55) Fubo TV ($55) AT&T TV Now ($65)
A&E Yes No Yes Yes $
ACC Network No Yes Yes No No
AMC Yes Yes No Yes $
Animal Planet Yes Yes Yes No $
BBC America Yes Yes No Yes $
BBC World News Yes Yes No $ $
BET Yes No No Yes $
Big Ten Network No Yes Yes Yes $
Bloomberg TV No No No No $
Boomerang Yes No Yes $ $
Bravo No Yes Yes Yes $
Channel AT&T Watch TV ($15) YouTube TV ($50) Hulu with Live TV ($55) Fubo TV ($55) AT&T TV Now ($65)
Cartoon Network Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
CBS Sports Network No Yes Yes Yes $
Cheddar No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Cinemax No No $ No $
CMT No No No Yes $
CNBC No Yes Yes Yes Yes
CNN Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Comedy Central Yes No No Yes Yes
Cooking Channel No No $ $ $
Destination America No No $ $ $
Discovery Channel Yes Yes Yes Yes $
Disney Channel No Yes Yes No Yes
Disney Junior No Yes Yes No Yes
Disney XD No Yes Yes No Yes
DIY No No $ $ $
E! No Yes Yes Yes Yes
EPIX No $ No No No
ESPN No Yes Yes No Yes
ESPN 2 No Yes Yes No Yes
ESPNEWS No Yes Yes No $
ESPNU No Yes Yes No $
Channel AT&T Watch TV ($15) YouTube TV ($50) Hulu with Live TV ($55) Fubo TV ($55) AT&T TV Now ($65)
Food Network Yes Yes Yes Yes $
Fox Business No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox News No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Sports 1 No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Sports 2 No Yes Yes Yes $
Freeform No Yes Yes No Yes
FX No Yes Yes No Yes
FX Movies No Yes Yes No Yes
FXX No Yes Yes No Yes
FYI Yes No $ Yes $
Golf Channel No Yes Yes Yes $
Hallmark Yes No No Yes Yes
HBO No $ $ No Yes
HGTV Yes Yes Yes Yes $
History Yes No Yes Yes $
HLN Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
IFC Yes Yes No Yes $
Investigation Discovery Yes Yes Yes Yes $
Lifetime Yes No Yes Yes $
Lifetime Movie Network Yes No $ Yes $
Channel AT&T Watch TV ($15) YouTube TV ($50) Hulu with Live TV ($55) Fubo TV ($55) AT&T TV Now ($65)
MLB Network No Yes No No $
Motor Trend Yes Yes Yes Yes $
MSNBC No Yes Yes Yes Yes
MTV Yes No No Yes Yes
MTV2 Yes No No $ $
National Geographic No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Nat Geo Wild No Yes Yes Yes Yes
NBA TV No Yes No Yes $
NBC Sports Network No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Newsy No Yes No $ No
NFL Network No No No Yes No
NFL Red Zone No No No $ No
NHL Network No No No No $
Nickelodeon Yes No No Yes Yes
Nick Jr. No No No Yes Yes
Nicktoons Yes No No $ $
OWN Yes Yes No Yes $
Oxygen No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Paramount Network No No No Yes $
Channel AT&T Watch TV ($15) YouTube TV ($50) Hulu with Live TV ($55) Fubo TV ($55) AT&T TV Now ($65)
Science No No $ $ $
SEC Network No Yes Yes No $
Showtime No $ $ $ $
Smithsonian No Yes Yes Yes No
Starz No $ $ No $
Sundance TV Yes Yes No Yes $
Syfy No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Tastemade No Yes No No No
TBS Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
TCM Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Telemundo No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Tennis Channel No Yes No $ $
TLC Yes Yes Yes Yes $
TNT Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Travel Channel No Yes Yes Yes $
TruTV Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
TV Land Yes No No Yes $
Univision No No No Yes $
USA Network No Yes Yes Yes Yes
VH1 Yes No No Yes Yes
Viceland Yes No Yes Yes $
WE tv Yes Yes No Yes $
Channel AT&T Watch TV ($15) YouTube TV ($50) Hulu with Live TV ($55) Fubo TV ($55) AT&T TV Now ($65)