If you are in the market for a cable alternative, please read our DirecTV vs Dish review that compares the two satellite television services.
DirecTV first launched service in 1994 and celebrated their one millionth customer about a year-and-a-half later in November, 1995. Today, they serve approximately 20 million TV subscribers across the US. The company is based in El Segundo, CA, just walking distance to LAX International Airport (although does anyone walk in LA?). DirecTV is a public company, and traded on the NASDAQ market as DTV. DirecTV’s official brand is all capital letters as in “DIRECTV,” but publications typically use the less blaring upper and lowercase rendition as in “DirecTV.”
DirecTV offer 5 different TV packages: Entertainment, Choice, Xtra, Ultimate and Premiere. The packages range from $29.99 per month to $91.99 per month for new customers, and DirecTV is currently offering $5-off per month for the first 12 months in a 12-month contract. (Those prices range from $54.99 to $124.99 per month for existing customers.) Of course, there are also additional costs per month depending on what equipment, services or channels you want to add. HD, international, and niche sports channels will definitely cost you extra. And, even with the top-of-the-line service you’ll need to add in equipment rental fees. DirecTV only offers television service, but you can get some good deals when bundled with local cable or fiber-optic phone and internet providers.
DirecTV offers 190 full-time HD channels, which is “more than anyone” according to the company. (Although, competing satellite provider Dish claims to have over 200 HD channels.) DirecTV was one of the front runners in launching more HD channels than anyone else, and still has a few channels that many other providers don’t have such as 3net, beIN SPORT (in English and Spanish), and MSG+. What’s nice about the DirecTV channel guide is HD channels and their SD counterparts are located on the same guide number. This makes it much easier to remember and find the hi-def channels, in contrast to providers like Verizon FiOS TV and AT&T U-verse that have separate locations for HD and SD versions.
Watch Anywhere via apps
DirecTV has apps for tablets and smartphones on both Apple iOS and Android platforms. The recently updated apps allow you browse and set your DVR to record, purchase movies and events, and view certain programs. Why can you only view certain programs remotely? Some distribution licenses for content only include in-home viewing, so you need to be on your own home network to watch some networks. The DIRECTV app interface shows you a listing of all the programming available on your TV, but not all are clickable.
The DIRECTV tablet app interface is much more elaborate than the smartphone app. In the tablet interface you’ll find columns of content that can be customized to create your own user experience. The three default columns immediately visible to users include Currently Watching, Live TV Streaming, and What’s Hot. But, a horizontal swipe on the screen reveals a bunch of new columns that can moved into different positions.
DirecTV’s GenieGo software (formerly called DIRECTV nomad) works with the Genie HD DVR enabling you to download TV shows to watch anywhere on your device (PC, Mac, Android or iOS) without an internet connection. With a Wi-Fi connection, you can also stream programming immediately after the program starts recording to your DVR.
We’re not looking at SD for this review, because what’s the point? 480i is 480i and looks like junk on any TV bigger than 13-inches. As far as HD, DirecTV’s picture quality is generally good. But check out this still from the first Sunday Night Football game between the Cowboys and the Giants. Notice how jagged and mushy the text looks. Sometimes you can blame bad picture quality on the camera feeds, but only if the graphics look sharp. But this particular game looked terrible overall. You’d think DirecTV would be interested in maximizing picture quality for live primetime programming such as SNF.
As far as On Demand, an option DirecTV offers with some titles is the ability to choose between Faster HD quality and Highest Quality HD. The downloads will take longer for the Highest Quality, but it’s worth the wait. I’ve compared a Game of Thrones episode in both HD Quality and the Highest Quality, and there is definitely a noticeable difference. Game of Thrones has very dramatic cinematography that can easily get destroyed with over compression. If you want to test out HD quality on any broadcast, choose a submarine film like U-571 (or the German film Das Boot), and you’ll see what over compression does to those deep ocean shots. When watching high key programs, such as news casts and sporting events, it can be harder to see video breakdown.
For even better HD quality, DIRECTV CINEMA offers titles in 1080p/24fps. Of course, your HDTV needs to support 1080p, and, you might have to check your HDTV’s settings to be sure the high quality is enabled. 1080p is supported by select HD receivers and HD DVRs (models H20/HR20 and above).
DirecTV says they provide 285 channels with more than 170 HD channels in Dolby-Digital 5.1 theater-quality sound. Sound quality can change depending on programming, but movies sound pretty darn good on a 5-channel surround sound. Keep in mind though, that if your audio doesn’t sound that great it could be the settings in your TV, rather than your DirecTV broadcasts.
Although DirecTV’s guide is easy to use, changing channels in DirecTV can be very slow. If you’ve only had DirecTV you might not know the difference. But, when comparing to Verizon FiOS TV or over-the-air DTV switching channels on DirecTV can seem like a lifetime. But browsing video-on-demand titles (because of the sheer number) might make you pull your hair out. Here’s some advice for you. When going to On Demand try to stay away from selecting the “All” option, because you might be waiting several minutes for them to load. DirecTV, there has got to be a better way.
DirecTV’s channel guide has several options when you choose the “Info” button on your remote, a horizontal bar with Messages, Info, Last 4, Favorites, CC, Parental, and one tab you may never have looked at called “Audio/Video.” Audio/Video actually gives you picture format information and the ability to change resolution and format, and audio formats (if available). A few options include 1080i and 720p, cropped, and trimmed.
There’s also the Menu screen, giving you options for My DIRECTV, Search & Browse, Recordings, Extras, Settings & Help. My DIRECTV gives you options determined by what you frequently watch. Search & Browse lets you search through movies and TV shows using letter keys and suggested searches, titles On Demand, and Adult’s Only.
Another nice option from DirecTV is something called ScoreGuide. When on certain sports channels, you can press the red button on your remote to display the ScoreGuide, with current scores and upcoming schedules from all sports. The recently updated ScoreGuide can take a few seconds to load, so, be patient while the software gathers all the data it needs to display.
DirecTV’s customer service is generally pretty good, and wait time hasn’t exceeded a few minutes every time called when researching for this article (especially when it appears you want to order something extra). The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) rated DirecTV only second to Verizon in their annual report released earlier this year, scoring 72/100 in delivering the best experience. However, I will say that after purchasing just a portion of the NFL Sunday Ticket last year (when the price dropped towards the playoff season), DirecTV starting automatically billing me for the entire season of the NFL Sunday Ticket this year. After arguing with the customer service rep that I never consented to autopay for the NFL Sunday Ticket (and more specifically the entire season), I was finally credited the amount charged after about 15 minutes of waiting. Advice: Keep an eye on your monthly billing, especially if you opted for paperless billing.
For satellite television service, it’s hard get much better than DirecTV but read our other post to compare dish and direcTV to ensure you’re making the right decision. Billing is simple to understand, service package pricing is competitive, and customer service is decent. DirecTV’s Genie equipment is certainly not outdated, but both Dish and Cox now offer 2TB HD DVRs that record twice the amount of programming. DirecTV offers plenty of HD options to choose from, including live, recorded and On Demand. But as a stickler for high quality video, I would suggest DirecTV keeps an eye on how much video compression is being used especially for live broadcasts. HDTVs are getting bigger and cheaper every day, so it’s becoming easier to notice when 720p or 1080i video is breaking apart.
Lots of HD choices, good equipment, TV Everywhere options, NFL Sunday Ticket
Slow channel switching, HD quality not always great, gets pricey after promos expire
Jeff Chabot has a background in web development and design, as well as working in broadcast television as a studio engineer, lighting director and editor. He frequently writes about technology, broadcasting, digital entertainment, and the internet.