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 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.
- 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.
- 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.