U-verse in Atlanta: An early review

As of this morning, our household is fully up and running with AT&T’s U-verse TV and Internet service. This after having been an ardent supporter and customer of Dish Network for nine years.

I didn’t fall out of love with Dish. In a number of ways, U-verse TV is a step backward from what I had with Dish, and in some ways it’s an advancement. So my impressions of the TV service are going to be colored by a long history with advanced Dish Network equipment. And I’ll present the pros and cons from that perspective. But for somebody coming from Comcast or other cable providers, I have to think there are very few cons to U-verse.

My flirtation with U-verse started a couple of weeks ago when I received a promo kit in the mail announcing its availability in my neighborhood. The technology looked impressive, pricing was good, it was clear they were not out to screw you with equipment and installation charges – and they were offering a $200 rebate and $132 in TV/Internet discounts for signing up online.

But I was hesitant. I wanted to see the equipment in action before I made a decision. So off to an AT&T Store I went where a demo was promised. I checked out the semi-live demo and my interest remained (especially after confirming the 30-second skip function). Then a sales girl got me and said if I wanted to sign up they would really prefer I did it there. She took the $200 rebate to $225 (and ultimately $300), offered me an additional $80 credit on my wireless bill and showed me the secret to bringing down the cost of having a two-iPhone Family Talk plan since I was considering that as well.

Money, unfortunately, is a concern for us these days, so I couldn’t ignore the option of what seemed like a pretty good TV service and super-fast Internet that I would be given nearly $500 in cash, credits and discounts to sign up for (with no contract) and which that would cost me about $40 less per month from what we currently spend to get TV and Internet now. I went for it.

I won’t go through the details of the install headaches (expect some), so on to my initial impressions.

The setup:

The U-verse technology is all IP (Internet Protocol) based, so there’s a fat 25Mbps pipe coming into the house. That pipe carries video and Internet data. Right now I have the 18Mbps Internet service, but it could be that in real-world usage the video coming in consumes enough bandwidth that 18Mbps isn’t likely. I’ve been hitting speedtest.net a lot and see a lot of 13-14Mbps and have had as high as 17Mbps.

The system has a main gateway that is a router both for video signals and Internet (wired or wireless). There is a hard-drive DVR to record shows, and a networked box for our second TV on which live TV can be watched and programs from the DVR pulled. All of the wiring from the phone box outside is coax cable; with existing cables from Dish used.

The good:

- On-Demand. I’ll admit being jealous of cable subscribers when I was on Dish. Satellites don’t do on-demand well at all. U-verse has a deep supply of on-demand stuff, especially when you have the Showtime package like we do. I can’t even say yet what all is on there. Also includes NBC shows you can buy for a buck. Good response time loading shows and all that.

- DVR sharing. It’s a pretty seamless to pull up a show upstairs that lives on the DVR downstairs.

- Video quality. It’s at least on par with Dish Network.

- Online scheduling. A Yahoo-powered system with mobile versions; it’s done right. Doing it in a browser is preferable to doing in through the DVR (more on that later). I believe you have to be an AT&T Internet subscriber to do this, but if you have U-verse TV, you’d be stupid not to have their Internet.

- Non-HD recording capacity. Up to four non-HD channels can record at once. No concept of a “tuner” with IPTV.

- Value. Compared to Dish, where we had a pretty strong channel lineup, HD and the HBO package, we’re saving about $20 a month on programming with U-verse (not including the promotional discount). And here we have a really strong channel lineup, HD and the Showtime package. Having to pay $8.99 for locals on Dish is a real ripoff. And Dish’s equipment costs are higher, so for a very comparable setup we save about $32 a month.

The not-so-good:

- Dumb second box. It’s a pretty ridiculous notion that I can use my Mac’s browser or my iPhone’s browser to schedule and manage recordings, but I can’t use the non-DVR box itself. Everything in this system is “the Internet” – that DVR commands can go out of my Internet connection to some Yahoo server and then come back down my Internet connection to my DVR but they can’t simply go from Box B to Box A on the same network is stupid. Maybe the stupidest thing ever. And apparently you can’t pay extra and just get a second DVR on the system.

- Too-small hard drive. I don’t feel like looking up gigabytes, but my old Dish DVR did 55 hours of HD; this one does 33 hours. And I had two Dish DVRs. Seems like AT&T favored a small box over a high-capacity DVR. They should have come out of the gate with bigger capacity than Dish, not smaller.

- Poor timer / conflict management. On Dish, I could set up a series timer that basically says “get all new episodes”. Then you could manage priorities of timers to handle conflicts. And if a conflict caused one recording to be skipped, Dish would automatically get that episode if it came on again. With so many networks re-running shows for west-coast prime time and later in the week, the system worked great. Not with U-verse. If I tell the system to record new episodes of a show that airs at 8 p.m. Eastern and there’s a conflict, game over. The system doesn’t recognize that the same episode comes on again at 11 or anything like that. Very poor.

- No picture-in-picture. Somewhere in the bulk of marketing materials I read about U-verse, it talked about some kind of advanced 16-view PIP. We don’t have that here – or any PIP functionality.

- Jerky 30-second skip. You hit the jump and it sort of skips forward, showing you bits of what happened in those 30 seconds. That makes it hard to quickly skip past a block of commercials.

- Old-school remote. I don’t remember the last time I had to point my Dish remote at the receiver to control the box. But this is a line-of-sight remote. Again, you’re talking about new technology; put an IR remote on this thing.

- HD channel organization. Dish works its program guide so that an HD version of a channel appears right below the non-HD version. U-verse only shows HD channels in their own section. That makes it difficult to cruise channels and then decide if you want HD (to view) or maybe SD (to record).

That’s my impression after about 24 hours with the system. In short, the content is great; the pricing is good but the technology leaves a lot to be desired. And as a “high tech” system, that’s bad. My understanding is that most U-verse customers are cable-switchers, and the system seems designed to make somebody with Comcast think it’s awesome. It could be so much more.

If money didn’t matter as much as it does right now, I’d keep the super-fast U-verse Internet and stay with Dish until the U-verse TV technology improves. But I’m at a place where throwing about $500 in incentives at me and saving me $32 a month on TV going forward matters more than it used to. And all Dish would offer me to stay – after nine years as a customer – was a six-month discount and free movies for three months.

But I’m not taking down my Dish dish. I imagine U-verse will improve over time, but right now I think it’s just sub-par compared to Dish.

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11 Responses to “U-verse in Atlanta: An early review”

  1. Steve S. says:

    Good initial analysis. Can you to give us an update in about thirty days? What about AT&T customer service? Or – what customer service!

    What’s he cost if you wanted video only service? How would that compare with what you were paying with DISH? What if you wanted stand alone internet service?

    Did you mean RF(radio frequency) when describing the Dish Networks remote? All CE remotes are IR, unless otherwise noted.

    Lastly, what’s the secret of having 2-iphones on the AT&T family plan?

  2. Cap'n Ken says:

    Steve,

    I’ll definitely be providing updates on my impressions. They are very much colored by having been on Dish and their DVRs for so long.

    I have no complaints about customer service yet. Obviously the sales experience was a good one since they really wanted to get my business. Two installers are involved – one guy doing the house wiring and equipment; the other doing the outside line work. Outside guy made a point of saying hi and letting me know everything was done on his end even though he didn’t really need to. Inside guy was young but knew what he was doing. Snags came with finding the right paths for my existing coax and dealing with bad equipment that he ultimately swapped out. I had to send him away at 8:30 Monday night and he was back at 9:30 Tuesday morning.

    Cost for what I have now and what I had with Dish is thus:

    - On Dish I had two HD DVRs, their “250″ package plus HD networks plus HBO plus locals. Total monthly outlay was $128.
    - On U-verse I have their Total Home DVR with one other receiver, the “300″ package plus HD plus Showtime networks. Total monthly outlay will be $96.

    I also noticed last night that U-verse has a ton more HBO / Cinemax channels than Dish had. I think the Showtime package is 31 channels, with tons of that stuff being on demand.

    The 18Mbps Internet is $65 per month. Not bad at all if you ask me. Best thing about that is that it does not require a phone line like regular AT&T DSL does in Atlanta. So I’ve been paying about $75 a month for 6Mbps DSL and the home phone line. I need to get wireless alarm monitoring, but ultimately I’ll probably end up paying $10 – $20 more for 18Mbps Internet (and wireless alarm monitoring) that I’ve been paying for 6Mbps DSL and a home phone line I’d rather not have.

    My Dish remote is the 5.3 IR, which I assumed meant infrared. These have little LED-looking eyes on the front, so maybe it’s just that they beam infrared in a wider spectrum or something. All I know is I don’t have to point the Dish remote in any particular direction for it to work.

    On the iPhone plan, they have an unpublicized level of Family Talk that’s I think 450 minutes for $59.99. And they looked up my wife’s company and found them having a 20% employee discount. So that’s $48 a month for two lines that can tap this huge bucket of rollover minutes I have (I don’t talk much). And what I’ll be doing (when they get more 3G S phones in) is making my current first-generation iPhone the wife’s line and buying me a new 3G S. Online they indicate that Family Talk with iPhones means you have to buy a family-type iPhone data plan, which would increase the cost from my $20 original iPhone data plan. But that won’t be the case. I’ll have the more expensive data plan for my line, but the wife will keep the current data plan and rate on my old line. And the new contract only applies to my new line; the existing one will be free and clear … maybe for an iPhone update next summer.

    So we’ll end up paying about $100 a month for two iPhone voice/data plans (one old, one new) and be able to burn some of those rollover minutes. That’s a pretty sweet deal compared to what AT&T normally pitches, which is a base of $130 per month without a text-message package – $160 with unlimited text. If I go with unlimited text ours will be $125.

  3. TCL says:

    Interesting. More into “Weeds” than “Boxing After Dark,” eh?

    So when my laptop connex wirelessly to my home network, which is fed by Comcast Internet, it says

    [Network Name] Operational
    Speed: 54 Mbps

    But when I go to speedtest.net, I get speeds of 11 or 12 Mbps. So is the “54 Mbps” a supposed maximum or something?

    Guess I need to look up on my Comcast bill and see for what speed I’m supposedly paying.

  4. Cap'n Ken says:

    The 54Mbps is the connection speed between your laptop and your router; does not relate to the speed between your router and the Internet.

    Good to hear from you, btw. We should get lunch.

  5. TCL says:

    Doh.
    Yes. At lunch can you also show my how to program my VCR, stop the light on my microwave from blinking, and navigate voicemail? I’m a little waif in this modern word.

  6. Todd says:

    I had At&t last year and switched to comcast. I ran the speedtest.net and it shows my transfer rate at 23.73 mbps and 5.85 mbps. I am considering changing back to At&t because I am leaving Comcast as my cable provider and they will increase my monthly internet service fee. Will I have a similar speed when I switch to At&t’s fastest speed (U-verse currently unavailable in my area)?

    P.S. I thought what I was sold through Comcast is much less than what Speedtest.net shows.

  7. Cap'n Ken says:

    Todd – U-Verse’s fastest Internet speed in Atlanta is 18Mbps (down). I get close to that pretty consistently (typically in the 16.5 – 17 range). Up speeds don’t seem to top 1.4Mbps.

    If you’re not in a U-Verse area, I don’t think AT&T offers DSL anywhere as close to those speeds (I had 6Mbps DSL).

    If you can stand to deal with Comcast, it sounds like you’re getting pretty nice speeds, especially if you’re not paying for their ultra-fast service.

  8. Alice in Cameron Park says:

    Thanks Cap’n Ken!
    I found your website while on the phone with a young ATT sales guy, who accidentally called me “sir.” I had never heard of u-verse and I don’t have cable or dish, just internet, so I needed some other input. Sounds like way more money than what they initially want you to believe it will be. Thanks for all your informative posts!

    Alice

  9. delilah says:

    O.K. Cap’n
    I am in a dilemma Like any other normal comcast person in the atl area I am enraged and have been for the 3 years I have been with them. I have their “triple bs” package so I have been a total slave.

    A guy from AT& T was in my yard so I am “assuming their “new” univers is coming soon.

    I like comcast’s cable, their internet and their phone occasionally works now too. I HATE their “service”, pricing and lies.

    Years ago, I had switched from Direct TV to Comcast due to the outages (weather related) with them ( I need to see the whole program if I am watching).

    So, all in all – HATE versus Technology or will I be happy with the U-versie since I use all the “extras” (showtime, HBO, DVR – everything).

    Really looking forward to your response (or anyone elses)!!

  10. Kirstie Wixon says:

    I think that Dish Network customer service might be the worst in the industry

  11. Erin Sellers says:

    I have several friends that are all enjoying Uverse, but unfortunately I live in the East Atlanta “Dead Zone” and it is STILL not available in my area. Does anyone know where I can find the ‘expansion time-lines’? I HATE HATE HATE comcast, but as of now it’s the only option for cable and internet.

    Please let me know if anyone knows if uverse plans on expanding to East Atlanta any time soon.

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