Hands on: AT&T's DirecTV Now service provides a reason to cut cable TV

AT&T's DirecTV Now streaming service offers more than 60 channels for packages starting at $35

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AT&T's DirecTV Now service being demonstrated at an event in New York City on Nov. 28, 2016.

Credit: Agam Shah

I cut cable TV earlier this year and switched over to online streaming services. I've tried Dish's Sling TV and Sony's PlayStation Vue, but will switch to AT&T's new DirecTV Now service after it starts streaming on Nov. 30.

The service was demonstrated at a media event in New York City on Monday, where I tried it out. You don't need a cable box for it; broadcast content streams over the internet to streaming TV devices like Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast or Amazon's Fire TV. It also works on PCs and mobile devices with Android and iOS.

You pay for the service on a monthly basis, much like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. In a way, it's a different kind of DirecTV -- you don't need to sign a two-year contract, pass a credit check or have a satellite receiver.

For US$35, users can get more than 60 channels, around 80 channels for $50, about 100 for $60, and more than 120 for $70. The channel list is more comprehensive, and includes some not available on Sling or PlayStation Vue.  

For one, AT&T's basic $35 package has channels like Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and MTV, which were cut earlier this month from PlayStation Vue. It also includes local broadcasts from ABC, Fox and NBC, and regular cable TV channels like ESPN, Discovery, TNT, TBS, USA, Disney and AMC.

Additional channels are added as the pricing go up. While the channel lineups are impressive, the more expensive packages don't seem to add value.

You can also add HBO and Cinemax for $5 apiece. That's better value than the standalone HBO Now service, which is priced at $14.99.

AT&T is negotiating to add CBS and Cinemax, and said the channels could come soon. But until the channels are added, that's a big hole in the lineup. PlayStation Vue already offers local CBS broadcasts.

The conventional DirecTV satellite service is popular for NFL Sunday Ticket, which streams all NFL football games to TVs. That service won't be available with DirecTV Now, though AT&T is talking to NFL about adding that service. There's no time-frame as to when that will be added.

Also lacking in DirecTV Now is a cloud DVR service, where selected shows could be saved to be watched at a later time. Sling is adding that service, and PlayStation Vue already has it. AT&T says it is looking to add that feature, but hasn't said when.

Despite some shortcomings, there's a lot to like with DirecTV Now.

The DirecTV Now interface is clean and intuitive, with large icons showing live shows and videos on demand. Programs can be surfed based on shows, movies or networks. One can search for programs or there's also a guide option that lists programs.

I surfed through the list of TV programs based on category, and the video-on-demand and upcoming shows were easy to distinguish. An AT&T representative said that thousands of programs were available on demand.

Over time, the service tracks users viewing habits and provides recommendations on shows to watch. That should make surfing for programs easier.

The movies section categorized films based on subject matter, and none seemed to be on demand. But it's a handy way to add movies to a watchlist so users know when it will play on a channel.

I found the TV guide handy. I didn't have that on Sling TV or my PlayStation Vue on Roku, and DirecTV Now offers an easy way to figure out the shows coming up.

The user interface is consistent on the mobile phone and TV, so it's easy to adapt. AT&T has set a limit on two concurrent streams per account, so you can stream to two separate devices simultaneously.

Initially, content will stream in full HD, not 4K. Also, Dolby audio won't be available, though the features are in the works. Ultimately, AT&T wants to make its streaming service a fully functional cable TV replacement.

The company is providing an incentive for its mobile phone customers to sign up for the service. If you have an account with AT&T Wireless, using the DirecTV Now service won't affect data usage.

AT&T is targeting about 20 million homes that currently don't pay for TV. But with DirecTV Now, the company could very well find more people cutting cable and moving over to streaming TV.

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