DIRECTV Now: A Good Start, Hoping For More Later

DIRECTV Now is a service I’d really like to succeed. After dropping Comcast there were a few channels that I missed. Like Science and BBC America. (We’ll ignore the little detail that one of the reasons I dropped Comcast, aside from their ever-increasing prices, was their seeming inability to actually deliver a reliable signal in the first place…) DIRECTV Now seemed like a godsend. Their initial promotion had the Go Big package for $35/month. No hidden taxes or fees. No years-long commitment. Plus, no cables to run or satellite dishes to mount.

I eagerly signed up for DIRECTV Now soon after it launched in late 2016, and was initially quite impressed. The video quality via AppleTV on a 55″ TV or on my iPad was quite good. No buffering or other issues which one might associate with streaming. There was the occasional bout of block noise, but these were infrequent and transient. But after waiting patiently for a year and a half for a decent DVR service, I finally cancelled my subscription. DIRECTV Now is a great solution for those of you who like to watch linear TV linearly. But it’s not so great if you’re used to trick modes or do a lot of time shifting.

Update May 28, 2018: Those of you who are looking for an  alternate DVR solution to pair with DIRECTV Now may want to take a look at PlayOn.

The Good

Don’t get me wrong. Though I ended up dropping DIRECTV Now, there’s a lot to like about the service. Among them…

When $35 Really Is $35!

Those of you subscribing to cable services know what I’m talking about here. That advertised $49.95 package has an amazing tendency to turn into a $64.95 bill. Equipment rental fees, the “Broadcast TV fee” for that otherwise free OTA programming, various other taxes and fees… I dug up a rather old Comcast bill from 2014. Back then my consulting work involved developing digital cable DVRs, so having cable service was part of the “dogfooding” process. Here’s the breakdown:

Standard Cable70.49
Digital Preferred18.00
CableCARD (3)4.50
Broadcast TV Fee1.50
Franchise Fee5.43
PEG Access Support1.41
State Sales Tax0.62
FCC User Fee0.06
TOTAL102.01

So that $88.49 package, already on the pricey side, had hidden fees of $13.52. While I haven’t looked into Comcast’s current pricing I can’t imagine things have turned for the better.

It’s refreshing to see a provider advertise a package at $35 or $50 and then to actually have that amount charged to your credit card each month. No hidden taxes or fees. No equipment rental fees. Just an honestly advertised price.

Packages

DIRECTV Now is offered with four packages – Live a Little at $35/month for 60+ channels, Just Right at $50/month for 80+ channels, Go Big at $60/month for 100+ channels, and Gotta Have It at $70/month for 120+ channels.  As an early adopter I was fortunate enough to be grandfathered into the Go Big package at $35/month. The base Live a Little package is surprisingly adequate, but as is often the case there’s always that one channel that may entice you go up a tier. For example if you want Science,  some of the Discovery channels, Nicktoons, or MLB Network you need to move to Just Right. And if you’d like BBC America or NHL Network you’ll have to Go Big. These packages are the type that really make you wish for ala carte programming. Having the Live a Little as a base package wouldn’t be much of a problem – especially at $35/month. However having to fork over another $15 to get one or two channels  is a bit cringeworthy.

In addition to the various networks, the packages also include local channels for ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and CW, though they’re only available when you’re in your billing area (i.e. your home territory). So if you happen to live in Los Angeles and go on a  trip to Las Vegas, you won’t have access to your Los Angeles local programming. This is a common restriction having to do with programming rights.

UPDATE May 15, 2018: It appears that you can now access local channels from your home market while travelling.

Picture Quality

In my viewing experience the picture quality was quite good and rivaled what I got from Netflix when viewing on an iPad. I didn’t stream much via AppleTV, but on those rare occasion when I did the picture quality was comparable to cable HD. That is to say, not quite as good as 1080i OTA channels but still quite adequate.

Once in a while I did see the picture break up into block noise while streaming. Those of you with OTA feeds or satellite dishes experience this during reception errors (e.g. rain fade for satellite or multipath issues for OTA).This seemed a bit odd for a streaming service – it’s not something you see with Netflix or YouTube. Even more interesting was that the video would break up in the exact same spot when streamed from the cloud DVR. I’d hazard that DIRECTV Now had a problem receiving the feed from the network provider, so the broadcast was already damaged by the time it got it. These were fortunately rare.

One annoyance on the picture quality front is that when you start streaming a channel the picture quality is very low for a few seconds then will pop crisper. This appears to be some sort of misconfiguration with the HLS playlist. The playlist should contain the preferred quality first, then list the other qualities. Perhaps DIRECTV Now wanted to improve streaming startup time at the expense of initial picture quality – the iOS player can decide to shift up/down before playback begins, which means that it’ll end up throwing away some of the stream that it fetched and have to re-fetch it at whatever quality level it settles on. But the annoyance of a picture quality shift isn’t worth the small improvement in latency. Hopefully DIRECTV Now will correct this in time.

The Bad – Trick Modes

To be fair, the lack of trick modes isn’t something limited to DIRECTV Now. The type of fast-forward and fast-reverse trick modes that you get from a local DVR are simply not supported by streaming protocols such as DASH or HLS. Even TiVo wasn’t able to implement this with the TiVo Stream. 3x, 10x, and 30x trick modes were implemented in Project Entangle, but only by jumping through a number of hoops to get HLS to do things it simply wasn’t intended to do.

But…fast forward is incredibly important if you’re watching regular TV programming with commercials. The simple reason is that you don’t know when the commercial break ends, so trying to scrub through it is rather painful. It’s much easier to fast-forward through at 10x or 30x and then hit the Play button once the commercial break has ended. (Hopefully overshoot correction has been implemented as well…) As an added bonus, as you skim through the commercials at warp speed you might actually see a commercial or two you might want to watch. For example the trailer to the latest Avengers movie which you didn’t even know was about to hit the theaters.

The Deal Breaker – DVR Recording Options

While the lack of DVR trick modes is annoying, the real deal breaker is the lack of reasonable options for managing recordings. This might not be so much of an issue if you have a ton of recording capacity, but the DIRECTV Now DVR  presently limits you to 20 hours. And that 20 hours can fill up fast.

When the DVR first appeared, it had no recording management options. You could schedule series recordings or individual shows, and the oldest recording was always deleted first. The problem is that a series marathon can fill up your entire DVR and wipe out other shows. For example a local station used to run Simpsons marathons periodically. The Simpsons is one of those shows where I like to have a few episodes around. But I don’t need to have 48 hours of it. But with the non-existent recording management in DIRECTV Now, if I elected to record the Simpsons I’d end up with the entire marathon.  A marathon of the Simpsons is an extreme case, but if you look around you can often find networks airing several episodes of a series back-to-back.

It seemed that DIRECTV Now finally realized that this was a problem, but their solution was to provide an option to record only “new” episodes.  This is an improvement but doesn’t address the series marathon problem.

What’s needed is an option to keep the most recent N episodes – say 2 or 5. It appears that the Android and Fire TV apps got this option in February 2018 -you can keep 5, 10, or 15 recordings. Oddly this feature didn’t seem to make it to iOS. As an iOS user this became the deal breaker.

To be fair, DIRECTV Now still advertises the DVR as “beta”, and is free for 20 hours of storage. So one can hope that they’ll get around to making it usable before they start charging for it.

Conclusion

From the perspective of delivering a set of good bundles with high picture quality and at a very reasonable price, DIRECTV Now is an excellent choice.  Those of you who don’t require time shifting should really give it a good look. But it’s feature-lacking cloud DVR is its Achilles heel. The situation is all the more unfortunate when you consider that DIRECTV has feature-rich DVR offerings for its satellite service. Hopefully DIRECTV Now can remedy this deficiency. When that day comes I’ll be in line to rejoin the service.

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