Editor's note: This review was updated in its entirety on July 16, 2017 to reflect our current experience with DirecTV Now after AT&T fixed a number of the service's shortcomings.
The past seven months haven’t been stellar for DirecTV Now. AT&T’s streaming bundle crash-landed last November with a load of glitches and missing features, earning it poor reviews and a reportedly stagnant subscriber base.
AT&T has made DirecTV Now more reliable since then, and it launched a Roku app alongside the existing Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, iOS, Android, and web versions. And while DirecTV Now has nixed its original promo rate of $35 per month for 100 channels, it’s sweetened the deal for AT&T wireless subscribers with streaming TV plans starting at just $10 per month when bundled with an unlimited data plan.
At that price, DirecTV Now is worth considering over Dish’s Sling TV, Sony's PlayStation Vue, FuboTV, and Hulu with Live TV. But without an AT&T service plan, DirecTV Now’s high cost for regional sports, lack of DVR, and occasionally confusing user interface still make it a tough sell.
Channels: The not-so-skinny bundle
Without AT&T’s wireless tie-in rate, the basic "Live a Little" package costs $35 per month for more than 60 channels. For an entry-level streaming bundle, that's same price as YouTube TV and FuboTV, and $5 per month cheaper than both Hulu with Live TV and PlayStation Vue. (Sling TV still has the cheapest basic packages overall, starting at $20 per month.)
DirecTV Now's basic plan, however, does not include regional sports networks such as Fox Sports and Comcast SportsNet. For that, you’ll need the "Just Right" package, which at $50 per month is more expensive than any other service with those channels. DirecTV Now also lacks CBS (and CBS-owned channels such as The CW and CBS Sports) and the NFL Network, so it's not the best all-around option for sports fans.
For those who want heaps of other channels, however, DirecTV Now's maximalist approach might pay off. A $60 per month "Go Big" package includes 100 channels, while a $70 per month "Gotta Have It" package tips the scales at 120 channels including Starz Encore feeds. HBO and Cinemax are each available as $5-per-month add-ons with all packages, a much cheaper rate than other bundles.
Hit this link for the full DirecTV Now channel list.
Features: What you get, what you don't
Channel lineups aside, DirecTV Now’s strongest feature is video quality. The service is consistently crisp at 720p for live broadcasts, with 60 frames per second video on every sports, news, talk, and reality TV show I tested. High frame-rate playback is still a rarity in streaming bundles, so AT&T deserves credit for matching the cable experience when streaming on Apple TV, Fire TV, and Roku.
AT&T has also eliminated the glitches that dragged down the initial launch. User complaints seem to have died off, and I’m no longer seeing the error codes that once prevented me from getting through on-demand episodes.
For platform support, DirecTV Now runs on Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, iOS, Android, Chrome, and Safari. (The Roku app, which recently launched as an "early release" for newer players, is a pleasant surprise in that it achieves design and feature parity with other platforms. Sony, with its substandard PlayStation Vue app for Roku, should take note.)
Unfortunately, DirecTV Now has one glaring omission: There's no way to record shows for later. That might've been excusable last year when DVR was the exception, not the rule, in streaming bundles, but today DirecTV Now is the only streaming bundle that lacks a DVR feature.
In its absence, subscribers have a few options for catching up on shows: Some channels offer a selection of on-demand video, and some offer access to cable-authenticated TV everywhere apps. DirecTV Now also offers a "72 Hour Rewind" feature that lets you catch up on programs that have aired over the past few days. But not every channel supports all those features, and the on-demand selection can be unpredictable from one channel to the next. Without DVR, you can't be sure that the episode you missed will be available.
DirecTV Now’s stream limit is also on the stingy side, allowing two devices to stream at the same time. YouTube TV and Sling TV Orange allow three steams at a time, and PlayStation Vue allows up to five (with some additional restrictions on location and device type). And while Hulu with Live TV also has a two-stream limit, users can upgrade to unlimited in-home streams and three out-of-home streams for $15 per month more. No such family-friendly option exists for DirecTV Now.
Interface: Strong vision, flawed execution
Look past the pricing and features, and DirecTV Now does take a smart approach to bridging live and on-demand TV. The home screen shows what's on your favorite channels, followed by quick access to your watchlist and any on-demand shows you haven't finished watching. Scroll down a bit further, and you'll find curated lists of movies and shows to watch. It’s a straightforward layout that doesn’t try to do too much, and delivers most of the functions you might need.
AT&T also provides a traditional channel guide for those who just can't let go, and it's better than the one you'd find on a cable box. Channels appear in alphabetical order along the Y-axis, and air times appear on the X-axis (PlayStation Vue's guide switches the axes for some reason), and you can quickly toggle between all channels or just your favorites.
Unfortunately, DirecTV Now undermines these smart ideas with an array of minor frustrations.
Navigation, for instance, is fraught with contradictions and redundancies. To see the main program menu, you must press or swipe up. But to scroll through that menu, you must change direction and press or swipe down. If you press or swipe down while watching a video, you'll get a different and altogether less useful menu, whose only unique function is access to the app's settings.
DirecTV also tries to bring back the antiquated notion of channel-flipping, letting you swipe left or right to cycle between live TV feeds. This leads to lots of inadvertent channel changes on Apple TV, and it's inconsistent with DirecTV Now's on-demand videos, which use left and right scrolling for rewind and fast forward. A mini-guide that you could scroll through would be much more helpful.
There's also some inexplicable isolation between DirecTV Now's live and on-demand listings. While viewing a live show, you can’t add it to your watchlist or look up on-demand episodes, and while watching an on-demand show, you can’t see if it’s currently airing live. This makes a chore out of basic tasks, like seeing what you can actually watch from a given show.
Wrap up: More work to do
It’s worth noting that the timing of this updated review was prompted in part by AT&T's PR folks. The company is well-aware that it botched the initial DirecTV Now launch, but it now feels confident enough in the subsequent improvements that it’s been offering more free trials to the tech press so they can give DirecTV Now another shot.
Yet for all the gains DirecTV Now has made in reliability, it‘s still missing some fundamental features, and has yet to resolve its worst navigational tics. Those issues might be worth tolerating if you have one of AT&T’s newer unlimited wireless plans, in that DirecTV Now could at least serve as a cheap path to smooth sports streaming. But on a level playing field, rival streaming bundles still come out ahead.