As I started the DirecTV Now app on my Apple TV, Storage Wars spilled across my screen — and I couldn’t change the channel fast enough.
My reflex wasn’t related to my feelings about the A&E show. Rather, it’s a critique of DirecTV’s new cord-cutting service. Whether you watch its live television service through your Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, or computer’s web browser, the video feed comes on instantly — just like it would if you were watching a normal TV. And that’s both a great decision and terrible design, because through over-the-top services like DirecTV Now, television essentially works like a utility. So, just like your water faucet or lights, beware of leaving the TV running, as I’ll explain.
But first, it’s worth explaining what DirecTV Now actually is. Pulling video from DirecTV (without needing a satellite dish), the service takes aim at cable companies by delivering television programming over the Internet. DirecTV Now offers four packages ranging in price from $35 to $70 per month, which include between more than 60 to at least 120 channels of live and on-demand video, along with some local stations. Though I only tested the service on Apple gear, it’s also accessible via Amazon, Android, Chrome and Google’s Cast devices.
With no installers giving me a four-hour setup window, wonky company-owned gear, or annoying contracts, DirecTV Now’s setup is advertised to be a snap. Despite a couple of hiccups, that claim held true.
Still, immediately after plugging my credit card information into DirecTV’s website, my computer’s web browser required an update of Microsoft’s Silverlight software and a restart in order to view the video stream. Once that software was in place, the first show I pulled up, ESPN’s SportsCenter, froze, displaying an error message: “Hmm… this video is taking a little bit longer than usual to load. Thanks for your patience!” Given that it was launch day, it’s likely new users were rushing to the service, thus the clogged pipes. But since then, other errors have interrupted my viewing, something I never experienced while watching cable TV.
And when it came time to watch my favorite shows, I encountered another unpleasant surprise. It began by me searching the service for “Colbert” and finding nothing. I looked for “Late Show” instead and found 15 shows and three movies, but not The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (And demonstrating DirecTV’s unsatisfying search capabilities, the movies Clean Slate and 28 Days Later were two of the results). Turns out Colbert isn’t available on DirecTV Now, because CBS is surprisingly not included in the package, opting to go direct to consumers with its own subscription-based app instead.
With more than 120 channels, it’d be exhaustive to list every offering here. So instead I performed some highly unscientific research of asking my friends what their appointment TV-viewing shows are. HBO’s shows were a popular response, and the pay channel (as well as Cinemax) are available as add-ons or a rock-bottom price of $5 per month. Sports fans will delight that the MLB, NHL, NBA, and SEC’s respective networks are included, though DirecTV’s NFL offering is not. Reality TV connoisseurs will lament the lack of Survivor and Amazing Race, since CBS isn’t offered. Drama watchers get a mixed bag, missing out on shows like NCIS (CBS, again) but getting all of AMC’s award-winners. And kids make out great in the deal, with three different Disney channels and two Nickelodeons.
Another major selling point is DirecTV Now’s ability to stream local channels, which makes it good for people who enjoy their regional newscasts. But less publicized is that the local TV stations it offers are from major markets only, and vary wildly in consistency. For instance, if you live in Chicago, you’ll get local ABC and NBC, but not FOX. And it gets worse from there — there’s not a a single local station to be found where I live in the Pacific Northwest.
DirecTV Now’s video has mostly streamed crisply and quickly, nearly equaling the responsiveness of my Comcast setup on my television and my iPad. But it’s worth noting that the resolution of the DirecTV video, while clear, didn’t appear to be high definition. Testing it on a 43-inch HDTV, the image looked slightly blurry, and I don’t have high expectations for better image clarity on a larger screen.
And speaking of that big screen experience, DirecTV Now’s Apple TV interface is a mess. When you launch the app, you’re thrust into whichever show is on the channel you left off watching. Swiping down on the touch pad reveals a bare-boned menu, the same display that appears when you press the remote’s ‘menu’ button. But if you swipe up instead, up pops a richer menu full of channel and show options. Swiping left and right changes the channel, which I wish I had known at the outset.
Curiously, though you can use the Siri Remote’s microphone button to dictate search terms, you can’t use Siri to select a program on DirecTV Now, like you can with Hulu and other apps. I’d expect this to change in the near future, but Apple TV still feels like a hobby to the company, despite its claims to the contrary.
You can also pause live television on DirecTV Now, but you can’t fast forward or rewind it, at least not that I could tell. Some live programs let you rewind them completely to watch from the start, while others give you no such option. And there’s no obvious reason why this is the case — it’s probably due to obscure contract negotiations, but to a user it feels utterly random.
This odd twist doesn’t seem to involve DirecTV Now’s on-demand library. The service boasts more than 15,000 videoes, which may seem like a solid number until you start digging in to the offerings. For example, my wife hunkered down to watch the previous night’s episode of This Is Us, only to discover that the most recent episode available DirecTV Now was from Oct. 31., making it three episodes behind terrestrial TV. So while this over-the-top service may be good for people who like live television, DirecTV Now subscribers better not be late to the couch.
Then again, a key selling point for this cord-cutting package is that AT&T wireless customers don’t need to watch TV on the couch at all. Though customers of any wireless provider can subscribe to DirecTV Now, AT&T customers get their data “zero-rated,” meaning it doesn’t count against their monthly data limits. The arrangement comes after AT&T acquired DirecTV in 2015 in a $49 billion deal.
That’s a sweet deal for AT&T users. But it’s a controversial one, too. While telecoms like AT&T love zero-rating deals because they can provide a competitive advantage, detractors argue such deals can make it harder for upstart services to compete, as users will opt to stream content via a service that won’t kill their data budget. It’s a bit of an abstract debate, but it’s worth considering as you weigh your streaming options.
Even if zero-rating doesn’t bug you, DirecTV’s impact on your high-speed Internet bill just might. Just like years ago when mobile data providers started to clamp down on unlimited data caps, many broadband carriers recently have started doing the same. In the past, Internet Service Providers like Comcast have throttled the Internet speeds of customers who downloaded huge quantities of data. Now the country’s largest ISP is charging its customers higher rates when their monthly downloads exceed one terabyte. Today’s DirecTV Now customers may not have to worry about hitting that limit, but as more people stream 4K video (which is not currently available on this service, but is the future of video, and is not being earnestly deployed by data limit-free cable television services), this will be an issue to sweat.
So, when I say that I couldn’t turn off Storage Wars soon enough, this far off digital doomsday is what I was eyeing. While it’s nice to ape old school television with instant-on video feeds, it’s also entirely unnecessary, and will only eat up precious megabytes. This may seem like a minor point, but like DirecTV Now in general, it will be a major shift in how we think about television. People who leave the tube on for background noise or like to fall asleep watching television will need to change their ways if they subscribe to DirecTV Now. Forget Storage Wars. Bandwidth wars are up next.