AT&T's DirecTV Now online streaming service goes live tomorrow, and the best pricing will only be available for a limited time. That's a problem, because the service is missing key features at launch and it's not clear when they'll arrive.
The biggest technical limitations might be the lack of recording functionality and the inability to pause live TV for more than a few seconds. DirecTV Now won't have DVR functionality until sometime next year, according to several news reports. If DVR launches in January or February, then it isn't such a huge deal, but if the functionality only comes late in 2017 that would dramatically reduce the value proposition for customers who sign up right away to lock in the most favorable pricing.
It's not even definite that DVR functionality will come to DirecTV Now in 2017. When contacted by Ars today, the company said that "DVR and pause capability is coming in the future, likely next year." (For customers' sake, we hope "likely next year" doesn't turn into "2018.")
AT&T tells us that customers can pause live TV, but only for five or 10 seconds. After that, when customers hit play they will return to the live portion of the stream. You can pause video on demand.
Another limit that might concern families is that DirecTV Now only allows two concurrent streams per account. An additional subscriptionis needed for more than two simultaneous streams.
By contrast, PlayStation Vue already has a DVR featurethat lets customers save a show for up to 28 days. Sling TV announcedDVR functionality yesterday without the 28-day limit, though at first it will only be available in a beta and on Roku devices. Playstation Vue lets you stream on up to five devices at once, but there are some limits to that; you can't stream on two PS4 consoles or two PS3 consoles simultaneously. Sling TV allows one to three concurrent streams depending on which package customers buy.
AT&T is trying to out-do competitors by allowing DirecTV to stream on the AT&T mobile network without counting against data caps— while charging other companies for the same privilege. The Federal Communications Commissionalleged that this arrangement may violate net neutrality rules, but AT&T probably has nothing to worry aboutunder President-elect Donald Trump.
Limits on channels and live programming
A few weeks before the launch, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson boasted that DirecTV Now would offer 100 channels for $35 a month, including "all the premium" content consumers want. But as wereported yesterday, that offer will be available only for a limited time after the launch. The 100-channel package will cost $60 a month after that, while $35 will provide 60 channels and lack regional sports networks and other channels.
AT&T refuses to say how long the special pricing will be available and when exactly key features will be added, making it hard to decide whether it's better to wait for the service to add advanced functionality. There are no annual contracts, but customers would lose their special pricing if they cancel and sign up again later.
There were several good articles detailing DirecTV Now's limitations, including pieces in Consumerist, DSLReports, The Verge, and Yahoo Tech. We'll summarize some of the key points here.
While DirecTV Now's lack of DVR functionality is disappointing, "Certain stations willhave a 72-hour window of available content where you’ll be able to quickly jump back to anything that aired during the previous few days," and there will be an on-demand video library, Consumerist wrote.
DirecTV Now has several major networks but is missing CBS, which may be playing hardball in negotiations while it tries to direct customers toward its own CBS All Accessstreaming service. There's also no access to Showtime, though HBO and Cinemax are $5-per-month add-ons.
Even with ABC, Fox, and NBC, live network TV may be limited.
"Live streaming from the major networks (ABC, Fox, NBC) is also a mixed bag: you’ll be able to watch live programming in major cities where the networks themselves own the local station," The Verge wrote. "But where affiliates are involved, most users will have access to day-after on-demand replays of primetime shows. Verizon retains its exclusive mobile rights to NFL games on broadcast networks—so you can’t watch them on your smartphone but can stream them on other devices."
The city-by-city limits are related to what programming deals AT&T was able or unable to strike, the Consumerist article said. Markets such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia will get live network access, "but many people in smaller markets may not be able to watch live network TV (or their local news) on DirecTV Now." In Minneapolis, customers apparently won't have live access to NBC or ABC.
AT&T said that regional sports networks will only be available "in select markets," limiting the service's appeal to fans of local sports teams. DirecTV Now will be available only in the US.
While DirecTV Now will show some NFL games, it doesn't provide any option to add the NFL Sunday Ticket package that offers every live out-of-market game on Sundays, even though AT&T's DirecTV subsidiary has exclusive rights to carry it. Generally, Sunday Ticket can only be purchased if you have DirecTV satellite service, with exceptions madefor homes, apartments, and college dorms where DirecTV satellite dishes can't be installed. When contacted by Ars, AT&T did not comment on whether Sunday Ticket will come to DirecTV Now in the future.
DirecTV Now works over any Internet connection and thus doesn't require a satellite dish or set-top box, but the service simply won't provide all the programming offered by satellite and cable services. You can find DirecTV Now's full channel list in this 9to5Mac story.
DirecTV Now customers can watch on Web browsers, Amazon Fire TV and TV Sticks, iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, Android phones and tablets, Chromecast for Android, and certain LeEco and Vizio TVs with Google Cast. There are some missing devices, though AT&T said that in 2017 it will add support for Chromecast on iOS, Roku, Amazon Fire tablets, and smart TVs from Samsung and other TV makers.