First Look: DIRECTV Now

Parting ways with Comcast hasn’t been as traumatic as I’d feared. Netflix’s library of Star Trek episodes has filled my “background TV” needs. And Prime Video along with Netflix have sufficed for those times when I couldn’t find anything to watch OTA.

However every now and then I get that yearning for Discovery and the History Channel. So I was quite intrigued to hear that DIRECTV was launching an IP streaming service. Even better, as part of the early adopter promotion, I could get the “Go Big” package for $35 for life. And to sweeten the deal even more, by pre-paying the first three month’s subscription I could also get the new AppleTV free. Needless to say I signed up as soon as the service was available.

Channel Selection

The DIRECTV Now “Go Big” package had the vast majority of the channels I’d be lost when dropping Comcast. BBC America, Syfy Channel, Science, and History to name a few.

DIRECTV Now also carries the major OTA networks. At least for the San Francisco Bay Area, DIRECTV Now carries the local broadcasts for these channels, for example KBCW (CW), KNTV (NBC), and KTVU (FOX). In some areas the major networks may be provided via a national or east/west coast feed instead. Notably absent is CBS. DIRECTV has so far been unable to seal a deal which would allow them to carry CBS on DIRECTV Now. Having the major OTA networks is a boon for those cord cutters who don’t have an antenna.

Picture Quality

Picture quality of the channels is quite good and, at least when streaming within my home, stable. There have been some reports that users are experiencing stalling, however so far I haven’t experienced any. It may help that my broadband provider is Sonic, and they’re actually reselling AT&T ADSL. So the trip from the DIRECTV Now servers to my home might be a short one. Users on other ISPs might face greater hurdles depending on peering relationships (ADD LINK – PEERING).

The one hiccup with picture quality is that, for some reason, when you first tune to a channel playback begins with a rather low quality stream. Within a few seconds it adapts to a higher quality. Once that happens any changes in quality are subtle enough that I haven’t noticed.

This suggests that there’s something awry in how the preferred streaming quality is specified. At least on iOS devices, it’s likely that DIRECTV is using HTTP Live Streaming (HLS),  if for no other reason than that Apple requires it. For HLS, the preferred quality is indicated by listing it first in the m3u8 playlist. Other qualities then follow – order for these don’t matter. The player will decide which to use based on the bitrate associated with each.

When you select something to play, the player will start pulling the stream for the preferred quality. However if it’s immediately obvious that your broadband connection is much faster or slower than is required, then the player may switch to an alternate quality stream. This all goes on in the background before any video is displayed. The most you’ll notice is that it takes a little longer for playback to start if the player settles on something other than the preferred quality.

Trick Modes

As with all other services streaming television, trick modes are limited. You can pause live TV and scrub within the window your player has buffered.

However there’s no fast-forward/rewind as found in typical DVRs. For someone used to fast-forwarding over commercials, this is a major annoyance. Scrubbing over commercial breaks is much more difficult since you have to try to figure out where the commercial break ends. The couch potato in me really likes pressing one button to start fast forwarding and then another button to go back to normal viewing. Plus, there’s the added value that I don’t really miss any commercials. While there are a lot of commercials not worth watching, every so often you’ll come across a movie trailer you want to watch, or a promo for a new TV series. And there are some commercials that are just fun to watch.

DVR Service

DIRECTV Now isn’t launching with a DVR service. This is another source of frustration for those of us used to watching TV on our schedules. Some shows end up in the VOD catalogue shortly after they’ve aired. But what if you get home 15 minutes into the airing of The Amazing Race? The Amazing Race episodes don’t end up in the VOD catalogue. And besides, everyone will be talking about it the next day at work. So you need to watch now! Perhaps this is a case where the “NOW” in DIRECTV Now is a bit too literal. DIRECTV Now And Later would make a lot of users much happier.