Last month, Gizmodo attended a press briefing for a new, soon-to-release streaming service from AT&T. No, not its forthcoming HBO Max service, or AT&T TV Now service (formerly DirecTV Now). This one would be a separate live TV streaming service called AT&T TV—a service primarily powered by Google. It looked neat during the demo in February, but while trialing the service, its hardware, and its associated app, I’ve struggled to pin down who this is for. Not only is AT&T TV’s branding incredibly confusing, but the service itself is a little clunky, sometimes frustrating, and very, very expensive.
First, let’s cover what exactly this is: AT&T TV is different from the company’s AT&T TV Now. It’s the company’s first hardware-based streaming product and runs on Android TV. You pay for a TV subscription and get an Android box with built-in support included. You don’t need to subscribe to AT&T internet to use the TV box (but AT&T would really like you to). With Google Assistant built into the product’s remote, the idea is that users can seamlessly switch between live television, streamed over the internet, and their various other apps like Netflix, Starz, YouTube, etc.
It’s an Android TV box so AT&T TV touts more than 5,000 apps available through the Google Play store, including Spotify and Pandora. Smart home app integrations allow you to control your various IoT devices with Assistant, including dimming the lights or changing the temperature on your thermostat.
The AT&T TV is not a traditional server provided set-top box though. There’s no input for a coaxial cable (it has ones for USB, HDMI, Ethernet, and digital audio). Instead, it’s all cloud-based. You use the built-in AT&T TV service which offers support for up to 500 hours of cloud DVR storage with unlimited simultaneous recording as well as three concurrent streams (so you can stream from an additional TV box, phone, computer, or tablet).
The setup is pretty straightforward—one of the service’s perks—with visual instructions for the hardware and on-screen prompts for pairing the remote and other features. (You’ll need to stand pretty close to the box to get it to pair, it took me several minutes to get mine to pair.) And AT&T TV’s accompanying app for mobile, tablets, and web was pretty intuitive and easy to use. Both the TV and app interfaces make the discovery of live, as well as on demand, shows and movies (up to 55,000 titles) pretty seamless, with sections for things like featured shows, new-this-month content, kids content, reality TV, and respective sections for tv and movies by genre. For apps like Netflix, 4K streaming is supported as well.
Chromecast comes built into the box as well, so users are able to cast video or audio from their phone. That means that app support for services like Spotify and Pandora is great news for people who have their TVs hooked up to a speaker system but don’t expect too much help from the remote on this front. The Google Assistant-powered remote didn’t seem to be able to help me do things in these apps like search for artists or genres.
Nothing really matches the special kind of rage you feel when dealing with a streaming product that requires you to enter each individual letter with a remote control and on-screen keyboard to find the content you want, particularly if you’re hopping around quite a bit with what you’re listening to. And AT&T TV struggles to do things that come easy and standard with, say, Apple TV, including search with dictation on apps like Spotify and Netflix. The ability to cast, though, comes through for these kinds of apps on AT&T TV. It just means you’ll need to have your phone handy as a kind of second remote if you want to avoid the infuriating process of manual entry.
The Google Assistant remote did do what it was supposed to most of the time, if the streaming service didn’t crash. And crash it did—on multiple occasions while I was doing things as basic as switching the channel or asking the Assistant to help me find a channel. To be clear, all services are susceptible to the occasional crash. But this is AT&T’s third service, if you count AT&T WatchTV and DirecTV Now. Taken together with a frequent lag time in the Assistant’s responses to my inquiries, it made for a sometimes frustrating user experience. On a couple of occasions, the Assistant got overwhelmed and seemed to give up entirely, ignoring whatever it was I asked of it. (And folks, these were not tough requests—a digital assistant built into a TV remote shouldn’t be confused by requests to pull up content or switch between live TV and apps.)
But the big failure of AT&T TV is its contractual pricing. One of the biggest reasons users typically opt to switch to streaming from traditional cable are lengthy contracts and hidden fees. And with this new service, users may find some of those traditional cable headaches crop up in the fine print. AT&T TV has three primary price tiers: Entertainment for $50, Choice for $55, and Xtra for $65 per month. But those prices are contingent upon a two-year agreement and only apply to the first year of service, after which those prices can double to up to $93 for Entertainment, $110 for Choice, and $142 for Xtra. That’s before the additional monthly add-on fee of $8 for regional sports with the Choice and Xtra plans.
And if you do decide to take the jump, you better be willing to commit or prepared to pay. In its offer details notice, AT&T said it applies an early termination fee of $15 per month for each remaining month on the agreement. That’s the equivalent of paying for a Netflix subscription every month just to tell AT&T to fuck off. And that’s especially steep considering there are considerably cheaper alternatives to live programming—Sling and YouTube TV immediately come to mind—that don’t come with so many strings attached.
There is such a thing as too many services, and with AT&T TV, we have an example of one that’s nice in theory but ultimately doesn’t make a lot of sense when considering the long-term costs to users. Why anyone would opt for an expensive service that locks them into long-term agreements when they could simply buy a streaming box that supports apps with live TV subscriptions isn’t clear. If this is the future of TV streaming we’re screwed.