More live TV for a lower price than ever

$35 per month for 100 channels. That’s what DirecTV Now delivers today. If that was all you needed to know, you could stop reading right now, cancel your cable or satellite service, subscribe and start saving.

Alas, it’s more complex than that.

For starters, you’ll need a compatible device and a fast-enough internet connection. Those aren’t big hurdles for a lot of people (compatible devices, if you don’t already have one, start at just $35), but the main issue is that TV and internet are often bundled together, and canceling your cable subscription could mean paying more for “just internet,” nullifying some of that precious savings.

Then you’ll have to consider channels and features. DirecTV Now has most channels you’re used to with traditional cable, but it’s missing CBS. (Full disclosure: CNET is owned by CBS). Other local channels (ABC, Fox and NBC) are only available live in a few major cities, and your favorite team’s sports network might not be available at all. NFL football games (on NBC, Fox and ESPN) are effectively blacked out on non-Verizon mobile devices, although you can watch them on TVs and PCs.

Unlike cable TV and competing service PlayStation Vue, there’s no DVR (yet) so you can’t record programs to watch later or skip commercials. You’ll have to depend on the service’s on-demand offerings for non-Live shows, and while DirecTV claims they’re substantial, they’re not comprehensive.

Finally there’s the biggest caveat: That $35 a month price is an introductory offer, only good for a “limited time.” DirecTV isn’t saying when the offer expires. Even after it does, however, people who subscribed for that price won’t lose any channels. In other words, early subscribers are grandfathered into that price and can keep the 100+ channel package for $35 a month, as long as they don’t cancel. If you decide to cancel and then resubscribe, you’ll have to pay the standard prices — which aren’t that much better than the competition, or much savings over a typical cable or satellite package.

But it’s not all bad news. One big advantage of DirecTV Now is that 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. And, like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, there are absolutely no contracts, so you can cancel any time.

Aside from the introductory price, all those aforementioned caveats and conditions are fairly common in the brave new world of multichannel live TV over the internet. DirecTV Now is a very important new addition to that world, and in many ways (especially sheer number of channels) it surpasses competitors like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. I still like Vue better overall, mainly because of its cloud DVR and its access to CBS, and Sling is much cheaper, but DirecTV Now holds its own. If you’re interested, it’s worth talking advantage of the free 7-day trial.

Editors’ Note: This review was conducted with pre-launch software over eight hours of testing on a single piece of hardware (Apple TV), and I expect to update it as I gain more experience with the service and try different devices.

The basics: What you need to know

Before we get too deep into it, here’s the basics on DirecTV Now, 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
  • Subscribers can watch numerous live TV channels using their internet connection
  • Prices range from $35 to $70 per month, depending on channels (see below)
  • A channel package that normally costs $60 per month is discounted to $35 for a limited time
  • One you download the app or visit the web site, you can watch on a TV, a mobile device like a phone or tablet, or a computer
  • To watch on a TV, you’ll need an Amazon Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, an Apple TV, a Chromecast (Android at launch; iOS in 2017), or a Google Cast-enabled TV (like LeEco or Vizio SmartCast TVs)
  • To watch on a computer, you can use Internet Explorer, Chrome or Safari web browsers
  • You can also watch on any any iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet
  • Roku, Amazon Fire tablet and additional Smart TV support is coming in 2017
  • Subscribers to AT&T’s cell phone service can watch without using their mobile data; Subscribers to other services use mobile 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 available as of November 30
  • It’s only available in the United State.

The channels: Lots and lots of live TV

DirecTV Now offers more live channels than competitors Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, and almost as many as a typical cable package. The big exception is CBS. That broadcast network is not available on DirecTV Now (and neither is CBS-owned premium channel Showtime). That said, there’s an easy workaround: To get CBS, you could subscribe to CBS All Access ($6 a month) or use an antenna to receive the local broadcast for free. The standalone Showtime app costs $11 a month.

Check out the article below for the full channel breakdown.

DirecTV Now vs. Sling TV vs. PlayStation Vue: Channel lineups compared

Another big exception has to do with where you live. To watch other broadcast networks, namely ABC, Fox and NBC you’ll need to live in or near certain major cities — and coverage isn’t great right now. Unless you live in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or San Jose you won’t get all three networks, and many major cities get only one. If you don’t live in one of those markets, shows from those networks will be available on demand with a 24 hour delay. Check out the chart below for details.

DirecTV Now local network availability (ABC, Fox, NBC)

The arrangement is similar to PlayStation Vue, although that service covers more cities, does include CBS and charges extra for people who live in those major markets. For its part Sling TV only offers ABC in a handful of select markets, and it costs another $5 a month.

DirecTV Now has four basic channel packages. Here’s how they stack up.

DirecTV Now packages

Package name Monthly price Introductory price Number of channels Highlights
Live a Little $35 N/A 60+ ABC, Fox, NBC (where available), most basic cable channels
Just Right $50 N/A 80+ Adds select regional sports networks, ESPN News, more
Go Big $60 $35 100+ Adds NBA TV, NHL Network, FXM, Sundance TV, more
Gotta Have It $70 N/A 120+ Adds 8 Starz/Encore channels, Boomerang, El Rey, more

The big deal here is the introductory offer of $35 a month for the 100-channel “Go Big” package. During the introductory period there’s basically no reason to subscribe to the two smaller packages, and very little reason to pay double for the full monty “Gotta Have It” package. Even after that deal expires, the cheapest tier of DirecTV Now has more channels than the basic tiers of Sling TV and PlayStation Vue.

Another 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. Unlike a service like HBO Go however, not every episode of every HBO series is included on-demand. For example, “Game of Thrones” only has one episode from season 6, and many episodes are missing from other seasons.
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. Other TV everywhere apps that will work with DirecTV Now at launch are Max Go, Watch ABC, Watch Disney Channel, Watch Disney Jr., Watch Disney XD, Watch Freeform and Watch ESPN. DirecTV Now says it’s planning to add more in the future (Vue, by comparison, authenticates with more than 60 apps).

Just like Vue, DirecTV Now offers select regional sports networks (RSNs) in its step-up packages. In the New York area where I tested the service, the only RSN I received was YES Network, which carries New York Yankees baseball and New Jersey Nets basketball games. A partial list DirecTV provided includes Comcast SportsNet: Bay Area, California, Chicago HD, MidAtlantic, New England; Fox Sports Southeast and Sun; FSN Arizona, Cincinnati, Detroit, Florida, Midwest, North, Ohio, San Diego, South, Southwest and West.

DirecTV’s fine print also stipulates “device may need to be in billing region in order to view” local channels and RSNs. That means you probably won’t be able to watch ABC, Fox, NBC or one of those sports networks outside your home region.

Finally, there’s no NFL Sunday Ticket, DirecTV’s signature sports package. To get it you’ll need to use the dish.

No DVR, and limited on-demand (for now)

Over the years you may have gotten used to your cable company’s DVR. It allows you to pause during a live show to make a sandwich or go to the bathroom, fast-forward through commercials, or schedule a recording of a show to watch later, on your own time. With DirecTV Now, you can’t do any of that.

Well, you can pause live TV, but don’t get too excited — it’s not as good as a regular DVR. If I left it paused for longer than say two minutes, resuming playback reverted to live TV again, rather than resuming with a buffer. That renders the function much less useful, especially for skipping commercials.

PlayStation Vue (and now Sling TV, in limited beta) has a full cloud DVR that does everything you’d expect, if not quite as well as a standard hard-drive based DVR. DirecTV says it will add cloud DVR to the service in 2017, but for now it’s MIA.

To help make up the shortfall you will find a handful of on-demand shows. You can browse or search for show titles or genres and many of the results will include shows that aren’t currently airing, but are available to watch immediately, on demand.

Currently most on-demand shows only have a few episodes. “The Walking Dead” only had three total episodes (one from the current season and two from season 3), for example, recent show “Speechless” was randomly missing episode 2, and I could only watch two episodes (out of seven seasons) of “Bob’s Burgers.” According to DirecTV that’s a temporary issue, however, and that catalog will include more than 15,000 on-demand titles by next week.

I did appreciate that I could pause, rewind and fast-forward through some on-demand titles (above), but as usual some are restricted.

So what’s it like to use?

It’s a lot like like watching regular live TV, but the differences take some getting used to.

I tested primarily it with an Apple TV since that was the device provided by DirecTV, so I can’t speak (yet) to how it performs with other TV or mobile devices. I did play a bit with the Amazon Fire TV version, however, and they’re basically identical in layout. My first impression was of Netflix, but for live TV.

Right away I encountered an issue. The main Home interface appears when you swipe up on the Apple TV remote’s touchpad (or press the down cursor on Fire TV), and a stripped-down menu appears when you swipe down or hit “Menu.” I wish that was reversed, and pressing Menu took me Home, because I find the whole swiping thing confusing. Maybe DirecTV will tweak it when enough people complain.

The main menu consists of horizontal rows of four or five thumbnail images for individual shows. It requires a fair bit of swiping since not many shows are displayed at once, but I prefer the show-centric feel for browsing, and response times were excellent on Apple TV.
The top row is “What’s On Now,” with a list of currently playing shows. It’s handy, but I detected little rhyme or reason for which ones get displayed. “Continue Watching” is on the next row, which lets you resume an on-demand title midway through. You can also place shows on a “Watchlist,” or browse curated rows like “New Shows,” “Returning Shows,” “Catch Up” and “Kids.”

You also get a standard grid-style program guide that lists every channel and what’s on each for a week or so, but since you can’t use it to schedule recordings it’s less useful. I liked the ability to create a separate favorite channels guide by starring certain channels. Overall it’s better than Vue’s guide, but not as good as something like TiVo for example.

While you’re watching, swiping/clicking left or right flips to the previous or next channel, which is a nice feature and again works very quickly, but unfortunately you can’t restrict flipping to only channels you’ve marked “favorites.” You can also search for individual shows or titles, although not via voice (yet).

Video and audio quality were fine. I haven’t had the chance to compare it to other services or to cable’s quality, but from what I saw it was good enough for most users. One pleasant surprise: on Apple TV and Fire TV you can get 5.1 channel surround sound from on-demand movies and shows (but not live TV broadcasts) that offer it. I checked out “Kingsman: The Secret Service” from Cinemax and an episode of “Game of Thrones” from HBO and both were in surround. Neither Vue nor Sling offers more than stereo sound.

I experienced some bugs in my brief test period, too. Audio dropped out a couple of times after pausing, playback stopped inexplicably once, and some thumbnail images appeared to be missing at times. At times channels failed to load, and I had to either wait or restart the app. Most major services like this exhibit at least a few bugs at first, and I didn’t have enough time to see whether any of the issues were chronic. Overall the Apple TV app was quite stable and dependable for a launch-day experience.

Worth a free trial, and $35 for live TV fans, but needs a DVR and CBS

My favorite cable-cutting service is still PlayStation Vue because of its cloud DVR, but DirecTV Now offers more channels for less money. It’s also better to use in some ways, particularly for people used to a traditional guide and flipping channels. At the end of the day your satisfaction will depend on which channels you watch, how much you value live (as opposed to on-demand) TV, and whether you can live with the caveats.