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DirecTV Now is a good start for AT&T but nothing truly original

Choosing a streaming-TV service just got a lot more complicated.
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If you've seen Sling TV or PlayStation Vue in action, AT&T's DirecTV Now streaming service won't offer many surprises. Like the competition, it'll let you stream live TV and on-demand content across a wide variety of devices -- all you need is an internet connection. But right now, on the day of DirecTV Now's launch, that's pretty much all it does. There's no cloud DVR functionality, which Vue has had for a while and Sling will soon start beta testing. And strangely, there's no support for Roku devices yet, which excludes a significant chunk of its potential audience.

Gallery: DirecTV Now hands-on | 7 Photos

Despite those issues, there's a good chance DirecTV Now will find some footing in the newfangled streaming-TV ecosystem. It has the full backing of AT&T, after all, which is positioning the service as the start of an entirely new video platform (alongside its mobile Fullscreen and FreeVIEW services). The company plans to push DirecTV Now in all of its retail locations, which gives it more exposure to mainstream consumers than Sling. It's tempting subscribers with deals featuring the new Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV Stick and LeEco TVs. And it won't count DirecTV Now streams against AT&T wireless customers' data caps, which is a direct affront to net neutrality. DirecTV Now might just be too big to fail.

I took an early look at the service's Apple TV app, and for the most part it delivered a solid streaming-TV experience. I didn't go through the entire setup process (it came pre-installed on an Apple TV from AT&T), but upon launching it for the first time, it loaded New York City's ABC station in under a second. Moving to other live shows via the channel guide generally took two seconds at the most. It's not as instant as some TV services, but it's a lot better than the performance I saw at last night's launch event.

DirecTV Now's video quality looked good for the most part, though I noticed some artifacts in scenes that were very dark or featured fast motion. Those are generally areas where most streaming services fall flat, though. As a test, I compared a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown via CNN's on-demand selection against their iTunes counterparts. (What can I say? I'm a fan.) The iTunes files were clearly superior, thanks to a significantly higher bitrate. But DirecTV Now's version still looked decent on my 4K OLED TV, and notably the episodes looked on par with what I've seen on Sling TV.

Swiping down on the Apple TV's remote brings up the app's top menu, which points you to the search feature, channel guide and settings. By swiping up, you can reach what's airing live, the list of shows available on demand, movies on demand or the channel guide. You certainly won't be lacking ways to find binge-watching options. DirecTV Now's interface might take some time to learn, but it's a lot less clunky than Sling TV's UI, which sometimes feels baffling. Another plus: It appears that DirecTV Now also has more on-demand offerings than Sling, at least based on what I've seen available on CNN, HGTV and FX.

While AT&T executives made a big deal about its content deals during DirecTV Now's launch event, you can expect the same sort of channel limitations as you would on Vue or Sling. Some channels might prevent fast-forwarding and rewinding of content, for example. And whenever AT&T implements cloud DVR, you can also expect similar limitations to affect that feature, as on competing services. DirecTV Now also doesn't have CBS or Showtime aboard yet, though AT&T says it's "actively" working to sign them on. And unfortunately, there's no support for NFL Sunday Ticket either.

Aside from the baffling choice to launch without Roku support, the most disappointing aspect of DirecTV Now is that its pricing is nowhere near as aggressive as AT&T originally implied (execs were floating the figure as $35 per month). Sure, the promotional $35 plan for 100 channels sounds good, and early adopters will be grandfathered into that price going forward. But future subscribers will get 60 channels for that price, while the 100-channel option will go for $60 per month. PlayStation Vue, in comparison, starts at $30 per month for around 45 channels (depending on your market, it might be more), while Sling TV starts at $20 per month with fewer channels. At the least, AT&T says it's willing to rework its plans depending on consumer adoption.

For now AT&T has basically proved it can build a decent streaming-TV service. But with Vue and Sling already having a head start and similar services supposedly in the works from Apple and Google, it's looking like there will be plenty of competition ahead. AT&T will probably find some sort of toehold through sheer force of marketing alone, but it's unclear if DirecTV Now will be able to thrive, or just survive.

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