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DirecTV Stream review: Expensive, but the best option for streaming NBA and NHL

With access to most regional sports networks on its $85 tier, DirecTV stream is the go-to choice for cable-cutting fans of basketball and hockey.

direct-tv-stream-logo-with-ipad
Sarah Tew/CNET

In its five-year history DirecTV Stream has been the most tumultuous of all of the live TV streaming services. After starting life as DirecTV Now in 2016, it's endured three different name changes, flip-flops on compulsory hardware and a series of price hikes. The current version of DirecTV Stream is separate from the DirecTV satellite service, which remains available, and instead competes against cord-cutter services YouTube TV and Hulu Plus Live TV.

DirecTV Stream is not cheap. A monthly subscription starts at $70, and to get access to your local regional sports network you'll need to pay for the $85 Choice package. Those local channels, which carry the regular season games of NBA basketball, NHL hockey and MLB baseball teams, are the best reason to subscribe to DirecTV Stream. No competitor has nearly as many RSNs, so for fans who want to catch all the action of their teams live, paying $85 a month to DirecTV Stream is often the only streaming option. (As a bonus, that price also includes three months of HBO Max.) A cable TV subscription, which typically also offers RSNs, is likely cheaper, however.

7.4

DirecTV Stream

Like

  • Offers most regional sports networks on $85 tier
  • Great for channel surfing
  • Live pause works well

Don't Like

  • Expensive
  • Not as many non-sports channels as competitors
  • Channel changing slow on Roku
  • No Google TV or Android app

Read more: NFL 2021: How to watch and stream football, RedZone this season without cable

In daily use the DirecTV stream app also feels more cable-like than any of its competitors, in part because you can easily flip channels. While it's compatible with multiple platforms, I liked it best on an Apple TV, which loads channels twice as fast as Roku. If you crave a familiar interface and want access to its extensive sports coverage DirecTV Stream is worth a look, but if you don't need your local RSNs, then YouTube TV -- which costs less and has more channels overall -- is a better choice, especially for NFL fans.

Multiple channel packages, with RSNs starting at $85

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DirecTV Stream is a live TV streaming service designed to replace a traditional cable or satellite subscription by streaming dozens of channels live over the internet. Its pricing is similar to competitors YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV and Fubo TV, and it's more expensive than Sling TV and Philo, which offer fewer channels. DirecTV Stream is available on multiple devices including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, Android and iOS, Samsung TVs and browsers. It doesn't currently support Android or Google TV devices, however.  

One of the benefits of choosing a streaming service over cable is that you're not tied to a contract, so you can cancel at any time without penalty. DirecTV Stream's basic package starts at $70 a month with 65-plus channels and a 20-hour DVR but it does miss channels such as MLB Network, NFL Network and Travel Channel found on the competition. 

If you're a cord-cutter and want to follow your local NBA, NHL or MLB team during the regular season, DirecTV Stream's $85 Choice package is a better option. It gives you access to almost all regional sports networks. RSNs are local channels devoted to showing the live, regular-season games of a particular local team. There are numerous such networks across the country, including YES Network (which carries the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets), NBA Sports Chicago (White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks) and Bally's Sports Sun (Tampa Bay Rays and Lightning). 

Unless you subscribe to cable or satellite, your only option for getting your local RSN, and the live games it carries for your team, is most likely DirecTV Stream. Other services like Hulu and YouTube TV used to carry more RSNs, and they still offer a handful (YouTube TV has five RSNs and Fubo has 10, for example), but DirecTV Stream has the most by far.

DirecTV Stream also has an Ultimate tier that costs $95 with more channels including Starz and Encore. The "whole enchilada" $140 Premier level adds even more channels including HBO (and HBO Max), Starz, Showtime and Cinemax.

AT&T TV

The DirecTV Stream set-top box costs an extra $5 a month, but you can also use devices like Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When it was still called AT&T TV, users had the option of entering a contract for a cheaper price with a streaming set-top box bundled in. Now that the service has been rebranded DirecTV Stream, the contract has been scrapped and the optional Stream box costs $5 a month. 

Premium live TV streaming services compared

Premium services YouTube TV DirecTV Stream Hulu Plus Live TV FuboTV
Base price $65 a month $70 a month $65 a month $65 a month
Total number of top 100 channels 78 61 73 60
ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels Yes Yes Yes Yes
Record shows for later (cloud DVR) Yes (keep for 9 months) Yes (20 hours, unlimited hours for $10 a month) Yes (50 hours, 200 hours plus commercial skip for $10 a month) Yes (250 hours)
Step-up packages with more channels No ($20 for 4K only)  Yes Yes Yes
Simultaneous streams per account 3 20  2 ($10 option for unlimited) 3

The service recently increased the number of concurrent in-home streams to 20, which is good news for households with lots of people who want to watch at once. The out-of-home concurrent streaming limit is three, which should still be plenty.

What's it like to use?

My favorite feature of DirecTV Stream is the ability to click (or swipe) left or right to quickly change channels, much like channel flipping on a cable box. Unfortunately the "flip" to a new channel isn't instantaneous, and how long it takes varies according to which device you're using. For instance, I found that changing channels via a web browser or an Apple TV 4K took about 3 seconds, while a Roku Ultra (2019) took 6 seconds. However, even though there is a lag before you can see video, the channel and current program do display immediately on a loading screen.

010-at-t-tv

DirecTV Stream comes with a grid-style program guide.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When using DirecTV Stream with a remote, the controls center around the direction buttons and the Enter/OK button. This makes it quick to pick up and use, and also means you don't need a complicated remote control to make it work, making the minimalist Apple TV clicker a great companion. If you want the full "surfing" experience on a universal remote, you could even program left and right arrows into your Channel up and down buttons.

The service loads straight into the last channel watched -- further enhancing its cable credentials -- and pressing down brings up the interface with a choice of the 14-day guide, Watch Now, My Library recordings and a Discover option. Navigation is intuitive and quick, unlike the painfully slow YouTube TV.

One of the major upgrades recently has been to the live pause feature. Previously only Apple TV could pause the action for up to 2 minutes. But now you can pause both Apple TV and Roku broadcasts seemingly indefinitely, just as with YouTube TV.       

026-at-t-tv
Sarah Tew/CNET

Depending on the tier you choose, DirecTV's cloud DVR offers between 20 hours and an unlimited number, while YouTube TV offers unlimited storage by default. YouTube TV lets you keep recordings for up to nine months, while you're limited to 30 days on DirecTV. 

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 and 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 $70 (or $85) a month?

The cable experience is what DirecTV Stream is all about -- the swipe left and right functionality is quite inspired. While the service has really bulked up on its content since 2019 -- when it had fewer than 50 of the most popular channels -- the service still lags behind every other rival in terms of breadth. The real reason to get it is if you're an avid sports fan -- the $85 Choice package with its numerous RSNs is unmatched by the competition.

If you don't need your local sports network, however, almost any other service offers a better value than this, and many cable packages will be cheaper too (and usually include your local RSNs). 

Channel comparison

Below you'll find a chart that's a smaller version of this massive channel comparison. It contains the top 100 channels from each service. Some notes:

  • Yes = The channel is available on the cheapest pricing tier.
  • No = The channel isn't available at all on that service. 
  • $ = The channel is available for an extra fee, either a la carte or as part of a more expensive package or add-on. 
  • Not every channel a service carries is listed, just the "top 100" as determined by CNET's editors. Minor channels such as AXS TV, CNBC World, Discovery Life, GSN, POP and Universal Kids didn't make the cut.
  • Regional sports networks -- channels devoted to showing regular-season games of particular pro baseball, basketball and hockey teams -- are not listed. 

Top 100 Channels

Channel Sling Blue ($35) FuboTV ($65) Hulu with Live TV ($65) YouTube TV ($65) DirecTV Stream ($70)
Total channels: 37 60 73 78 61
ABC No Yes Yes Yes Yes
CBS No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
NBC Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
PBS No No No Yes No
CW No Yes Yes Yes Yes
MyNetworkTV No No Yes Yes Yes
Channel Sling Blue ($35) FuboTV ($65) Hulu with Live TV ($65) YouTube TV ($65) DirecTV Stream ($70)
A&E Yes No Yes No Yes
ACC Network No $ Yes Yes $
Accuweather No Yes No No Yes
AMC Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Animal Planet No Yes Yes Yes Yes
BBC America Yes Yes No Yes Yes
BBC World News $ $ No Yes $
BET Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Big Ten Network $ Yes Yes Yes $
Bloomberg TV Yes No Yes No Yes
Boomerang $ No Yes No Yes
Bravo Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Channel Sling Blue ($35) FuboTV ($65) Hulu with Live TV ($65) YouTube TV ($65) DirecTV Stream ($70)
Cartoon Network Yes No Yes Yes Yes
CBS Sports Network No Yes Yes Yes $
Cheddar Yes Yes Yes Yes $
Cinemax No No $ $ $
CMT $ Yes Yes Yes Yes
CNBC $ Yes Yes Yes Yes
CNN Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Comedy Central Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Cooking Channel $ $ $ No $
Destination America $ $ $ No $
Discovery Channel Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Disney Channel No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Disney Junior No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Disney XD No Yes Yes Yes Yes
DIY $ $ $ No $
E! Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
EPIX $ No No $ $
ESPN No Yes Yes Yes Yes
ESPN 2 No Yes Yes Yes Yes
ESPNEWS No $ Yes Yes $
ESPNU No $ Yes Yes $
Channel Sling Blue ($35) FuboTV ($65) Hulu with Live TV ($65) YouTube TV ($65) DirecTV Stream ($70)
Food Network Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Business $ Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox News Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Sports 1 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Sports 2 $ Yes Yes Yes $
Freeform No Yes Yes Yes Yes
FX Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
FX Movies $ $ Yes Yes $
FXX $ Yes Yes Yes Yes
FYI $ No Yes No $
Golf Channel $ Yes Yes Yes $
Hallmark $ Yes No No Yes
HBO/HBO Max No No $ $ $
HGTV Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
History Yes No Yes No Yes
HLN Yes No Yes Yes Yes
IFC Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Investigation Discovery Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Lifetime Yes No Yes No Yes
Lifetime Movie Network $ No Yes No $
Channel Sling Blue ($35) FuboTV ($65) Hulu with Live TV ($65) YouTube TV ($65) DirecTV Stream ($70)
MLB Network $ $ No Yes $
Motor Trend No Yes Yes Yes Yes
MSNBC Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
MTV $ Yes Yes Yes Yes
MTV2 $ $ $ Yes Yes
National Geographic Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Nat Geo Wild $ $ Yes Yes $
NBA TV $ $ No Yes $
NBC Sports Network Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
NFL Network Yes Yes Yes Yes No
NFL Red Zone $ $ $ $ No
NHL Network $ $ No No $
Nickelodeon No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Nick Jr. Yes Yes Yes Yes $
Nicktoons $ $ $ Yes $
Olympic Channel $ Yes Yes Yes $
OWN No Yes No Yes $
Oxygen $ Yes Yes Yes $
Paramount Network $ Yes Yes Yes Yes
Channel Sling Blue ($35) FuboTV ($65) Hulu with Live TV ($65) YouTube TV ($65) DirecTV Stream ($70)
Science $ $ $ No $
SEC Network No $ Yes Yes $
Showtime $ $ $ $ $
Smithsonian No Yes Yes Yes $
Starz $ $ $ $ $
Sundance TV $ Yes No Yes Yes
Syfy Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Tastemade $ Yes No Yes $
TBS Yes No Yes Yes Yes
TCM $ No Yes Yes Yes
Telemundo No Yes Yes Yes $
Tennis Channel $ $ No No $
TLC Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
TNT Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Travel Channel Yes Yes Yes Yes $
TruTV Yes No Yes Yes Yes
TV Land $ Yes Yes Yes Yes
USA Network Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
VH1 $ Yes Yes Yes Yes
Vice Yes No Yes No Yes
WE tv $ Yes No Yes Yes
Channel Sling Blue ($35) FuboTV ($65) Hulu with Live TV ($65) YouTube TV ($65) DirecTV Stream ($70)