AT&T TV is a cable-like streaming alternative for cord-cutters

Terrific interface • Excellent stream quality • Easy to set up

Imperfect channel availability • Cable-like pricing structure • Hulu and Amazon Prime Video apps not supported

AT&T TV expertly blends old-fashioned live TV with streaming apps, but it can’t escape all of the pitfalls of the cable and satellite experience.

Streaming was supposed to help us cut the cord, but all it’s done is create new problems for folks who want to catch live TV. Most available options are either too expensive or can’t fully recreate the experience of sitting on a couch, aiming your remote at your TV, and settling in for a couple of hours of lazy channel surfing.

AT&T might just have the solution, though. 

After a trial run in about a dozen markets, the company is launching its new AT&T TV streaming bundle nationwide on Monday. It’s not a traditional cable or satellite subscription, nor is it a direct competitor to streaming alternatives like YouTube TV or Hulu with Live TV. Instead, it finds ways to mix the two with its own box, its own remote, and its own pricing structure.

After spending about a week and a half with it, I can say it’s as technically sound as any live TV streaming service I’ve seen. As always, though, its viability will be determined by its value and that’s where the biggest issues lie.

The Good: Easy setup, sublime UX, strong versatility

You’re probably wondering what exactly AT&T TV is. No, it’s not the similarly named AT&T TV Now streaming service. It’s also not a cable subscription, although it feels like one in both good and bad ways. Put simply, AT&T TV is a streaming service that primarily exists via a proprietary, nondescript set-top box that runs Android TV. It’s also 4K and HDR compatible. That said, you can run the app on compatible third-party devices, like Chromecast and Apple TV, as well as web browsers. 

In practice, it functions much like a regular cable box with some nifty modern features. The channel guide is elegantly laid out and quick to navigate, even if it’s not really doing anything new. If you turn it off and come back later, it’ll be right where you left it. You get 500 hours of cloud DVR storage that works just like you’d expect.

One of the most impressive aspects of AT&T TV is how quickly you can get it up and running. Plug the box in, log into your AT&TV TV account and WiFi network, and you’re golden. No need to scan for channels or anything like that. Within 20 minutes, I had a fully functioning internet TV box (with its own remote) that only took a few seconds to set up with my sound system.

AT&T TV's interface is straightforward and slick.

AT&T TV’s interface is straightforward and slick.

Speaking of the remote, it’s pretty standard fare. It has arrow buttons, a channel dial, normal DVR controls, a recording button, and all the other basics. Its best addition is a dedicated Google Assistant button. Say the name of a channel, show, or movie, and it’ll take you to it. Often, that means taking you to a separate streaming service, which is another perk that might set AT&T TV apart from a regular cable box.

Since this is basically an Android box with a channel guide instead of a standard system menu, it’s compatible with streaming services like Netflix and Disney+. There’s also an “Apps” button on the remote if you just want to browse everything you have installed. For what it’s worth, it can also play music from Spotify and Pandora, or show the feed from a Ring or Nest camera if you want.

None of this is revolutionary, of course, but you have to take my word that it all works extremely well. Everything fits together naturally. Netflix even shows up as one of the channels in the channel guide. Switching between live TV channels, recorded programs, and streaming shows only takes a couple of seconds.

It’s as pleasant a TV interface as I’ve used, even compared to real cable or satellite boxes. For what it’s worth, I exclusively used WiFi (there is an ethernet port) and never encountered anything resembling buffering, artifacting, or a dropped connection. It felt especially great to me as a frustrated sports fan who hates how many official streaming providers show games in low frame rates. When everything works, AT&T TV blends the best of both traditional TV and streaming apps. 

There isn't much to say about the box itself. You'll barely notice it.

There isn’t much to say about the box itself. You’ll barely notice it.

The Bad: Lack of affordable packages, typical TV pitfalls

Remember when I said AT&T TV feels like cable in good and bad ways? Unfortunately, the pricing structure hews a little too close to traditional TV for my liking. The packages themselves are between $50 and $70 per month depending on how many extra channels you want — and that’s just not acceptable. However, those figures are somewhat competitive with other services like YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV.

And while a competing service like YouTube TV doesn’t bind you to a contract or pack in hidden fees, it looks like AT&T TV does. Each package charges a monthly fee for 12 months with a 24-month agreement. There’s also a $20 activation fee and, if you decide to get rid of the service, a $15 fee you’ll have to cough up for each month remaining on your agreement, per the AT&T TV website

Your best bet value-wise is probably going to be bundling it with AT&T’s gigabit internet because of course AT&T wants you to be as deep in its ecosystem as possible. A TV-plus-internet bundle comes out to about $80 per month with the same 12-and-24-month caveat as before. That’s not bad, but it’s also not available everywhere; I can’t get AT&T fiber internet in my Brooklyn apartment, so I’d be stuck with just the TV service.

Sports fans can get most major national games with the basic package, but they might have to pay a bit more to get everything they want.

Sports fans can get most major national games with the basic package, but they might have to pay a bit more to get everything they want.

Image: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images

Inflexible pricing is going to make AT&T TV a less enticing deal for the anti-cable crowd because it emulates the worst part of having cable. AT&T TV also doesn’t fix the basic problem of channel availability that plagues these services. The network selection is generally fine and does include local affiliates, but some sports channels like ESPNU, NBA TV, and MLB Network aren’t available in the cheapest package. NFL Network does not appear to be supported at all.

It’s not egregiously worse than other services in this regard, especially after YouTube TV’s recent Fox Sports blunder. But it’s not exactly the standard-bearer, either. On a similar note, both the Hulu and Amazon Prime Video apps were listed as incompatible with the AT&T TV device in the Google Play Store during my time with it. For as great as the user experience is, it just doesn’t feel complete without two of the biggest streaming apps. I’ve reached out to AT&T about this and am waiting to hear back.

In all, I genuinely enjoyed my time with AT&T TV and if I were looking to jump back into the live TV market full-time, I’d give it real consideration. That said, it’s hard not to think about how something like YouTube TV or Sling might be a better fit for me financially, even if they don’t have the same bells and whistles as AT&T’s product. AT&T TV may not be the way forward for live TV in the streaming age, but it’s a compelling alternative in an increasingly crowded market.

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