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EDITOR'S NOTE: AT&T TV is now “DIRECTV Stream!” The “new” service has a lot in common with the old AT&T TV service, but there are a few exciting changes, so keep an eye out for our DIRECTV Stream review. We're testing the service right now, and we'll have all the details for you very soon. In the meantime, check out our review of AT&T TV below — it'll give you a good sense of what to expect from the new and improved DIRECTV Stream.
In the world of live TV streaming services, DIRECTV Stream looks a little different for one big reason. While many live TV streaming services try to beat cable by going “slim” — offering smaller channel bundles at lower prices — DIRECTV Stream is unapologetically cable-sized, offering a true “cable replacement” for the folks who want every channel they can get their hands on. But is bigger better? In our DIRECTV Stream review, we put the service to the test.
What we found was that DIRECTV Stream is a competent streaming option with some rough corners. It’s big, bold, and worthy of being called a cable replacement. It’s not cheap, and it could use a little polish, but it’s still the best bet for cord-cutters who want a truly comprehensive selection of live TV channels without having to return to cable or satellite providers.
DIRECTV Stream is a live TV service. The idea here is that you can flip between live channels, just as you can with cable. DIRECTV Stream definitely succeeds in this sense — of all the streaming services we've reviewed here on CordCutting.com, I don't think we've ever seen one that felt quite as similar to cable as DIRECTV Stream does.
The reason is because of the sheer breadth of what's available to watch. When live TV streaming services like this first emerged, they often tried to undercut cable by trimming down the big channel bundles and offering fewer channels for a lower price (that's why we sometimes call these services “skinny bundles”). But DIRECTV Stream doesn't really do this. Unlike Sling TV or fuboTV, DIRECTV Stream offers channel bundles that are pretty much indistinguishable from the cable versions. There's nothing “skinny” about these bundles!
The good thing about this is that there’s lots to watch on DIRECTV Stream. I'd be hard-pressed to name a single TV channel that wasn't available on this service.
All the usual suspects are here, of course. Channels like AMC, HGTV, and Cooking Channel are available on DIRECTV Stream, just as they are on competitor services like Sling TV.
But while some other live TV services have trouble landing certain channels, DIRECTV Stream has it all. All of ViacomCBS's networks are here, including Comedy Central, MTV, and CBS itself. Turner's networks are all present and accounted for, too, including TCM and TBS. That makes for a flattering contrast with services like fuboTV.
I was delighted to see that DIRECTV Stream has its regional sports networks covered well, too. RSNs can be tricky for any pay-TV service to hold onto, but they're especially tough to track down with streaming services. DIRECTV Stream had all my regional networks, including MSG, SNY, YES, and even spin-off networks like MSG Plus. Yours may be different, of course, but you can be pretty confident that DIRECTV Stream will carry the channels you need in order to watch your favorite MLB, NBA, and NHL teams.
You can get premium networks through DIRECTV Stream, too. That includes HBO Max, of course, which shares a parent company with DIRECTV Stream. That’s great news, because we gave that service high marks in our HBO Max review.
The live TV is definitely the headliner here, but don't sleep on DIRECTV Stream's on-demand content. Recently aired programming is available on-demand, and you can also create your own on-demand content by using the service's DVR feature. In addition to the DVR recordings, there's a “bookmark” feature that lets you create watchlists from the on-demand content. (Note: the availability of all the on-demand content makes the DVR feel a little less essential, but there are some differences — like the fact that DVR recordings can be saved for 90 days, while the on-demand library changes regularly.)
DIRECTV Stream has its pros and cons, but its content is clearly one of the best things the service has going for it. DIRECTV Stream goes big — really big — and ends up having the most robust channel selection and the most content I've ever seen in a live TV streaming service.
I found DIRECTV Stream pretty easy to use and very enjoyable to watch. Fire up the DIRECTV Stream app (on any platform) and you'll see a pretty familiar-looking home screen. Like most streaming services of its kind, DIRECTV Stream tries to blend easy access to live TV with a bonanza of what-to-watch-next suggestions. The latter can feel a bit chaotic, but most of the suggestions seemed earnestly relevant to me — DIRECTV Stream's algorithm seems at least as good as the ones I'm used to from Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV, and the rest of the live TV streaming options.
I'm not much of a “recommendations” guy (at least not when the recommendations are coming from algorithms), so I made my way right to the channel guide screen, hoping to decide for myself what to watch next. DIRECTV Stream's channel guide menu is very straightforward and easy to use — AT&T seems to have resisted the urge to add too many features into the classic menu, which I appreciate. There is one great feature in the channel guide menu, though: a simple “favorites” system, which allowed me to mark my favorite channels with hearts. I liked that marking favorites didn't change the order of channels. There's an option to view only your favorites, but the full view of all channels leaves favorites sorted into the main channel list (sports channels with other sports channels, movie channels with other movie channels, and so on), which I liked a lot.
I did encounter one issue with the TV guide screen, though. In some of my trials — particularly those that relied on Wi-Fi and underpowered devices — the information in the TV guide menu was slow to load. If I scrolled quickly enough, I'd see blank bars where the programming should have been. The information would appear a moment later, but it slowed down the experience in a way that could get a little annoying if you're used to the lightning-fast loading of most cable and satellite TV guide screens.
Live TV isn't the only thing to watch on DIRECTV Stream, of course. The on-demand content is impressive, too. DIRECTV Stream eagerly shows this content off in its recommendations and other menus in a way that can feel a little disorganized but can make browsing aimlessly very rewarding. If you have a specific show or movie in mind, you're probably better off using the search feature, which works well.
You can also add your own bit of organization by “bookmarking” on-demand content. This feature works more or less like a “watchlist” feature on a typical on-demand streaming service.
DIRECTV Stream also comes with a cloud DVR feature. From a user perspective, the cloud DVR works very much like a regular physical DVR: you can schedule recordings of individual programs or entire series (with the option to record all episodes or just the new ones); you can also play back the programs whenever you feel like it and fast-forward through commercials. That last thing is a nice touch, since some cloud DVRs these days force commercial breaks back into recorded programs. I love that DIRECTV Stream avoids this. DIRECTV Stream’s cloud DVR measures up pretty well against the cloud DVRs we praised in our review of Hulu + Live TV (not to be confused with our review of on-demand Hulu) and our review of YouTube TV.
On a practical level, you can use the DVR and watchlist features more or less interchangeably — the main difference is that DVR recordings last 90 days, which temporarily protects you from the possibility that your favorites leave DIRECTV Stream's ever-shifting on-demand selection. DIRECTV Stream did a good job of lumping these two features together in its menus, so you don't necessarily have to remember which shows you DVR'd versus which ones you bookmarked; everything is easy enough to find. It doesn't always feel super organized or streamlined, but it works out well in the end — which is also how I'd describe the DIRECTV Stream user experience overall.
Most of the live streaming I did on DIRECTV Stream seemed to top out at around 720p, though AT&T says quality can hit 1080p. There's no 4K content here — not even in the on-demand library — but that's fairly typical for a live TV service like this. By and large, DIRECTV Stream looks pretty much the same as Hulu + Live TV or Sling TV does.
I tested DIRECTV Stream's streaming quality and reliability under a range of different conditions, from can't-miss setups like a PC with a wired connection to trickier circumstances like mobile devices and Wi-Fi-only streaming sticks. By and large, I was very happy with the quality. I saw no skipping or stuttering in my streams on any devices — even on the shakiest connections, DIRECTV Stream kept streaming smoothly. There was one exception to this rule: I once saw my DIRECTV Stream livestream’s video and audio go out of sync, with the audio outpacing the video by a small but noticeable amount of time. Happily, this issue disappeared as soon as I flipped away from the channel and then back to it.
I did notice a little extra loading time on shakier connections, likely a result of DIRECTV Stream's attempts to buffer out enough of the video to keep things smooth (that's a tricky task with live TV, since lots of buffering requires a more delayed stream). Oddly, shakier connections seemed to affect menus more than the streaming. Fast enough scrolling could make the menus seem laggy, as programming details and schedules took another second or two to load. The streams themselves, though, worked just fine after a couple of seconds of loading.
DIRECTV Stream's cloud DVR feature is a nice perk with a few familiar limitations. Like most services, DIRECTV Stream caps the amount of content you can record and how long you can keep recordings that you save. The default DVR option limits you to 20 hours, but the $10 per month DVR upgrade removes that restriction and gives you unlimited DVR hours. Recordings expire after 90 days. A more obscure restriction in the fine print limits you to 30 episodes of a given title — if you record 31 episodes of the same show, the DVR will delete the oldest one to get you back down to 30. That struck me as a little odd, but it's probably a rule you're unlikely to run afoul of.
DIRECTV Stream has really good platform support, which is great news — as well as a bit of a relief.
Before DIRECTV Stream, there was “AT&T TV Now,” a very similar service with some leaner bundles and a nasty habit of losing support for major streaming platforms like the Roku platform and Amazon's Fire TV. And DIRECTV Stream is also descended from another “streaming TV” service with a very cable-like issue: A required, dedicated box that was effectively a cable box in all but name (confusingly, this older and more cable-like service was also called “AT&T TV”).
Happily, these problems were all left behind when AT&T merged its two streaming TV services to form the DIRECTV Stream service we know today. Like the old version of DIRECTV Stream, this service can run on a dedicated AT&T streaming box — but it's strictly optional. Like the old AT&T TV, the new DIRECTV Stream can run on other brands of streaming devices and platforms. And, so far, there aren't any big issues with compatibility: DIRECTV Stream has apps available for all of the streaming platforms we recommend on CordCutting.com, including our two favorites, Roku and Fire TV.
For this review, I tested DIRECTV Stream on Roku, Fire TV, Mac, PC, and iOS. I didn't use AT&T's own streaming box this time around, but I remember it well from our review of DIRECTV Stream's predecessor just over a year ago. It's a decent little box, but it doesn't top our old favorites — I'd recommend sticking with Roku or Fire TV.
The DIRECTV Stream pricing scheme is unusual for a streaming service, and it makes it a little tricky to decide what kind of value the service offers. The key thing to understand about DIRECTV Stream is that there are two ways to subscribe: with a contract, or without one.
Without a contract, DIRECTV Stream looks a lot like its streaming competitors. It becomes a month-to-month service that you can cancel at any time, just like Sling TV, Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV, and the rest of the gang. DIRECTV Stream stands out for being relatively expensive, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a poor value — DIRECTV Stream also has way more channels than the “skinny bundle” crowd does. On a per-channel basis, DIRECTV Stream is a pretty great deal.
But you can also get DIRECTV Stream with a two-year contract. This is the cheaper option, both in the short and long term, but it feels very unusual for a streaming service. DIRECTV Stream's contract option has introductory rates, early termination fees, and even — gasp! — bundling options, which can save you money on AT&T Internet plans.
Some might think that the contract option defeats the whole purpose of cord cutting. I get the sentiment, but I don't necessarily agree. For me, cord cutting was always about getting out of the controlling monopolies that characterize cable. DIRECTV Stream may have a very cable-like contract option, but it also has a month-to-month option, which is virtually unheard of with legacy pay-TV options like cable or satellite. There's no cable box or satellite dish, either. And, most importantly, DIRECTV Stream is delivered over the internet, so you can get it anywhere. Even if every cable giant comes out with a service just like this, we won't be back in the “bad old days” of cable — because those bad old days were defined by regional monopolies and a lack of competition. Back when I was a “cord-haver,” I had Time Warner Cable (remember them?) simply because it was the only service I could get. DIRECTV Stream may emulate a lot of things about cable, but it's nearly universally available. Similar services that come out in the future probably will be, too, so they'll all have to compete with each other — as well as with “skinnier” options like Sling TV, fuboTV, Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV, and Philo.
So yes, I think DIRECTV Stream is still a “cord-cutting” service. It's not a “skinny bundle” by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a streaming service. And if you're after a hefty cable-style bundle, there's definitely value to be had here. DIRECTV Stream is not cheap, but it's a good deal for the right type of consumer.
DIRECTV Stream is not your typical skinny bundle. But it’s also not a cable or satellite TV service: it allows you to subscribe month-to-month, it streams over the internet, and (unlike its predecessor) it doesn’t require any kind of dedicated hardware. DIRECTV Stream takes what I loved about cable and gets rid of almost everything I hated — with the exception of a relatively steep price tag, which DIRECTV Stream definitely has.
TV can be expensive, though, and I don’t think that was ever really the problem with cable. What I hated about cable was the way it boxed me in with long-term contracts, trapped me with early cancellation fees, and misled me with too-good-to-be-true introductory rates. Since DIRECTV Stream is available month-to-month, these huge objections of mine go away, and I’m left with truly cable-like entertainment that doesn’t compromise my cord-cutter freedom.
If you’re looking for a lean, mean streaming TV service that will keep your TV budget tight, DIRECTV Stream isn’t for you. But if you want a lot of great channels and don’t mind paying a fair price, I think you’ll like DIRECTV Stream. It’s not perfect, but I’d take its minor flaws over cable’s major restrictions any day.