Like most people you have probably seen at least some of the flood of advertising that AT&T has been using to promote their "new" U-verse television service and may be thinking about giving it a chance in your home.
Recommend this product?
Well, I've actually been a customer with AT&T's U-verse for a little over three years now and I'm going to take a moment to detail out our experiences (both good and bad) with U-verse and hopefully help to make your decision a bit easier.
1. What is it?
U-verse is AT&T's relatively new entry into the "cable" television market.
As a TV service, U-verse offers up to 390 cable channels with several additional sports and international options, using an interactive DVR system capable of recording up to four programs at once (2 HD/2 SD) all streamed to your home over the internet.
With U-verse, AT&T is able to offer television (IPTV), high speed internet and VoIP phone services either individually or all bundled together and delivered to your home essentially over the telephone lines using Internet Protocol services. They have done this by spending the past few years upgrading a considerable amount of the conventional telecommunications infrastructure from copper lines over to fiber optic ones which can handle larger amounts of data and by installing new local servers in many neighborhoods to manage and distribute all of this information.
That is not to say however that AT&T's U-verse is a totally fiber optic based system, because it is not. AT&T's fiber optic upgrades have typically only gone as far as to these new data servers that they have installed and in many cases have left the lines which cover the remaining distance from those servers to the home as traditional copper phone lines. Thus U-verse differs from say, Verizon's FIOS service in that it is considered to be Fiber to the Node (local server) or FTTN, as opposed to Fiber to the Premises (Your home) or FTTP. This means that U-verse has a lower overall bandwidth capacity than a truly fiber optic system might claim and that that there are more severe distance limitations as to how far a given residence may be from the local server in order to qualify for U-verse availability.
This is why many people who may request U-verse service find that it is "currently unavailable" in a given area as this means that AT&T has either not brought those upgrades into the area in question or in the cases where they have, that a specific customer may still be considered to be too far from the nearest node (local server) to be able to qualify for a U-verse installation.
2. What is offered
AT&T's U-verse service offers the options for Television, Telephone (VoIP) and internet data services. The various packages can be subscribed to separately or bundled together. There is usually some discount offered if you subscribe to multiple services at the same time. For example we receive a $10 discount per month for using both the Television and Internet services provided by U-verse. As with most television providers these days, the U-verse offerings are bundled together in various "packages" with each package containing more channels and a higher cost associated with it than the previous one. As of the time of this review, these are the packages offered by U-verse for TV service:
U-Basic: up to 20 channels (DVR service is $15/month extra; HD is $10 extra)
U-Family: up to 70 channels (DVR service is included; HD is $10 extra)
U-100: up to 130 channels (DVR service is $15/month extra; HD is $10 extra)
U-200: up to 230 channels (DVR service is included; HD is $10 extra)
U-300: up to 300 channels (DVR service is included; HD is $10 extra)
U-450: up to 390 channels (DVR and HD service is included)
As you can see, there are quite a few options available but if you are interested in High Definition content there will be an additional service fee for that on all packages except for the highest one, the U-450.
U-verse also has several A La Cart selections available for sports and international television programming outside of the packages listed above. These foreign language, ethnic and special interest options are available and can be added (at additional costs) to any standard package that is selected.
U-verse differs from conventional cable offerings in that it uses the internet to stream everything (television programming, telephone and data services) to your home. For the TV service this means that traditional television tuners, even the new digital tuners, will be unable to process the television signals sent to your home via U-verse and that only the proprietary DVR and set top boxes that U-verse provides can be used to watch television programming. There are no "cable cards" or other options available at all to allow the use of any existing tuners. This means that you are required to have one of AT&T's tuner boxes for every television in your home that you plan on accessing U-verse services with. Also note, that each extra TV box past the first one will cost you an additional $7 per month so having one in every room of the house can quickly add up to a considerable additional expense.
AT&T U-verse also offers various internet data packages of varying speeds and prices. The current speeds available are:
Pro: up to 3mbps
Elite: up to 6 mbps
Max: up to 12 mbps
Max Plus: up to 18 mbps
Max Turbo: up to 24 mbps
These packages range in price from an additional $35 to $65 per month over what you would be paying for your television service.
U-verse also offers a telephone VoIP service which can add an additional $25 (for 250 minutes per month) to $35 (for unlimited calls) to your monthly bill.
However as this review pertains specifically to the U-verse Television services I will refrain from commenting further on the internet and VOIP phone offerings here and may address them more fully in a future review.
Installation at our home was reasonably painless although it did require a technician to be here for most of the day as he had to not only splice the U-verse service into the existing cable lines in the house but also to run new lines into two rooms which up to that point had not been setup for cable. We were charged extra to have those added lines which he ran over and above the basic installation service (which was free as part of the promotion that they were running at the time).
The setup in our home consists of the 2-Wire, wireless router (provided by AT&T) in my study, the DVR in our living room, one set top box in the den and another in a bedroom upstairs. The 2-Wire router acts as the entry point for all data incoming to the system with all the programming going out to the various television boxes from there via the cable lines (RG6) in the house.
As we have only HDTVs in our home, all of the various sets are hooked up to the U-verse system via HDMI cables, however the DVR and tuner boxes may also be connected to your sets using component cables (High Definition), s-video or composite cables (standard definition) as well.
The U-verse system was setup and tested by the technician and he spent about ten minutes with us explaining the basic functions of the service before he left. Due to the offer at the time there were no fees associated with the installation (except to have the cable dropped to the two additional rooms) and no contracts. Essentially we are free to drop the service at any time and if we do our only responsibility would be to ship back the equipment to AT&T.
At the time that we had the U-verse system installed, we had been Dish Network customers for several years and I made certain that the U-verse technicians left the existing Dish satellite system fully functional so that we would be able to make direct comparisons between the two after the U-verse system was up and running.
4. The Equipment
In order to setup this service in our home, AT&T provided us with the following pieces of equipment:
~ The 2-Wire 3800HGV-B Home Gateway
~ A Motorola VIP1225 Total Home DVR
~ 2 Motorola VIP1200 set top boxes
~ 3 U-verse remote controls
The 2-Wire 3800HGV-B acts as a wireless access point (802.11g), firewall, 4-port Ethernet switch and provides all DNS and DHCP services for the U-verse system.
The 2-Wire 3800HGV-B is fully accessible by the home user and can be configured to suit your needs. In our home the 2-Wire router is hooked up to the television boxes with a patch to the existing RG6 cable lines however it can also easily be connected to run the television system using standard Cat-5 Ethernet if your home is wired for this.
In the three years that the 2-Wire 3800HGV-B has been in use in our home it hasn't caused us a bit of trouble with the exception that if it has to be reset or booted back up after a power interruption that it tends to take between five and ten minutes for the system to fully come back up and reestablish the connection to the AT&T server down the street.
As a wireless router, the 2-Wire 3800HGV-B has proven to actually be superior to the Lynksys one that it replaced in broadcast distance and the sensitivity of its reception allowing us to have "excellent" wireless connection levels from all areas of the house.
The Motorola VIP1225 Total Home DVR is the "total home DVR" which you hear about in all the commercials from AT&T. It is this box which acts as the heart of the U-verse television system.
As a DVR it has all the usual functions one associates with the technology, such as the ability to pause, rewind or fast forward live programming and to be able to not only record one event but up to four programs at the same time. For us, this means that we can record up to two high definition and two standard definition programs at one time however you may experience different recording abilities depending upon the market you live in and how far your home may be from the local server (node). For example, some people whose homes are on the edge of AT&T's limits for service report that they are only able to receive one HD and two SD signals at most at the same time. This is why AT&T states "up to" four programs at once in their advertising.
The Motorola VIP1225 is equipped with a 250 gigabyte hard drive which is enough to record 60+ hours of high definition programming or over 200 hours of standard definition content however you should know that there is currently a hard limit in the U-verse system of 200 total programs which can be recorded/stored on the DVR and as such you may find that some of your recordings are erased over time even if you still have room available for more on the HDD.
As programs are recorded digitally to the DVR the quality of the programming is essentially identical in appearance to what was seen from the same event as it was shown live through the machine.
Recorded programming can be sorted by either date or program title. As a "Whole House" DVR, recorded programming can be accessed from any of the tuners in the home and not just from the set that the DVR is connected directly to. However the DVR functions available to the other tuners are limited to being able to setup or erase recordings and to playback programming that has already been recorded and does not include the ability to pause, rewind, Etc. live content from any tuner except for the set connected directly to the DVR itself which can be annoying at times.
The guide on the U-verse DVR covers upcoming content for up to two weeks in advance and is generally very accurate as to what will be broadcast. There are options to record individual episodes of a given show or to set the DVR to record any airing of a particular program in a given timeslot with options to either "record first run & reruns" or to "record first run" only. However we have found that the U-verse system does seem to have issues at times in determining if a given episode is in fact a "first run" or a "rerun" and have missed more than a few shows when the guide didn't have a "first run" episode flagged correctly. Based upon this problem we have taken to setting the DVR using the record "first run and rerun" option for any series which we are interested in recording and just manually deleting the episodes that we have already seen when they are re-recorded. There are also options available for setting the DVR to start and end recordings additional minutes before and after a program is scheduled to allow you to compensate for oddities in the broadcast schedule.
The DVR also has the option to search by either a program's or by an actor's name which brings up options to list the upcoming programming which will be featured with those items searched for in the next two weeks or that may be available through Video on Demand services. There is also the option available to log into your U-verse account over the internet and to setup or remove programs from your recording schedule remotely.
As with all modern television services, Video on Demand features are available through the U-verse system. Some offerings are available for free however the majority either require a subscription to one or more of the premium channel line-ups (HBO, Showtime, STARS, Etc.) or are accessible as Pay Per View options only. In any case, none of the programming available via VOD services can be recorded or stored on the U-verse DVR but all of the VOD features which we have watched have allowed the DVR to pause, rewind, FF etc. during the viewing without issue.
Due to Digital Rights Management (DRM) issues, programs recorded to the DVR can only be accessed and watched if the U-verse service is "active", meaning that if your service is interrupted you will be unable to watch any recorded programming until the U-verse system is up and running again. There is also no way at this time for you to move or view recordings from the DVR to devices other than the U-verse set top boxes, meaning that there is currently no ability for you to watch these recordings on say your computer, laptop or smart phone. However the option to view recordings on alternate devices is on AT&T's to-do list and may become available further down the road.
The U-verse remote fits fairly comfortably in our hands and the buttons are laid out in an effective and intuitive placement which we found that we could quickly adjust to. The DVR's responsiveness to the remote is generally good, taking less than a second to process commands sent by remote to the DVR directly but signals sent to it remotely from other tuners in the house can take noticeably more time (2-3 seconds) before the command is processed by the DVR and you see a response on the local machine. We have also found that the remotes themselves are generally effective from a distance of no more than 12-15 feet and so if you need to be able to control the set from further away than that you may need to purchase a more powerful universal remote control. If you do need to program a secondary remote to work with the U-Verse system we have found that the codes listed for Motorola cable boxes seem to also work for setting up a universal remote to work with the U-verse system.
5. Quality of the TV service
Overall we have found the quality of the U-verse television service to be "satisfactory" however there is still room for improvement. The Standard Definition programming looked very good on our sets and was in most cases superior in overall image quality to the same channel on Dish network. High Definition content however was another matter.
High Definition content on U-verse seems to suffer from data compression issues to a greater extent than the same content did on Dish Network. While U-verse HD content still looks considerably better than standard definition television, it does not hold up to close scrutiny when compared to Dish HD or off-air programming. These problems are especially evident in action or sports scenes where there is a high degree of motion on the screen or when certain objects are moving very quickly. In these situations the image tends to break up with blockier, "pixilated" graphics which tend to mar the overall quality of the image until the action on the screen calms down.
While similar issues can occur with digital content from other providers, these problems seem to be more obvious and noticeable with U-verse HD programming than we had seen from the same content when watched with either our Dish network system or from our local stations via our television's digital tuner. Conversely, image quality in scenes with less motion is typically excellent and comparable to that we observed from our other samples. It would appear that the issue with U-verse and "fast motion" HD programming may stem from some bandwidth limitation inherent to the method that AT&T uses to transmit the data to the subscriber which forces their system to throttle the amount of data sent per channel. This in turn forces scenes which would normally require greater amounts of data (those typically with lots of motion) to end up starved of information thus causing the image to suffer.
That having been said, the majority of the time there isn't enough action on the screen to create these issues and thus for us these problems are annoying but tolerable, however if I were more of a sports fan then I might feel differently regarding this as it is during sporting events that these problems tend to be most in evidence.
Also note that the same limitations as to recording programming (2 High Definition and 2 Standard definition feeds) that are found in what can be recorded are also the overall limits of what may be watched system-wide throughout your home, meaning that no more than four total (2 HD/2 SD) channels may be watched/recorded simultaneously in the home at one time no matter how many tuner boxes you may have. So for example, if you and your wife are currently watching NCIS (HD) while recording Lost (HD), the kids in another room will have no HD channels available to them and would have only the standard definition streams (2) available to them to either watch or record for so long as the two HD feeds were in use. The only exception to this would be that any number of different sets in the house are able to stream/watch the same channel simultaneously without issue. So in the case above everyone would theoretically be able to still watch NCIS (HD) while Lost (HD) was being recorded.
Sound confusing? Well it definitely takes a little while to get used to but once you do it does become a bit easier to get used to juggling the various programs in order to be able to allow everyone to record/watch what it is that they want at the same time. AT&T is also working on ways to increase the number of program streams which are available to consumers. Currently they are getting ready to change the limits in 2010 to 3 High Definition, 1 Standard Definition stream in areas where the system will permit the added bandwidth and hope to be able to add more feeds as time goes by.
Update: As of Oct. 2010, here in Houston they pushed through the new system update and we are now provisioned for up to 4 simultanious HD video feeds. So far everything is working as promised.
Keep in mind that as an internet based television service, U-verse's ability to stream programming into your home is entirely dependent upon your internet connection being up and running. If your internet connection is down you will be unable to watch any television programming or access recorded content from the DVR until after the U-verse service comes back up. Over the course of the three years that we have had U-verse, our service has been a mixed bag, starting off with very poor reliability at first and gradually increasing in quality over time.
During the first months that we had U-verse we would experiences outages of varying duration at least once per week and if was only due to credits offered against our monthly bill by AT&T's customer service reps on the phone that made enduring these problems tolerable. However as the months went by, these outages became far less frequent in both occurrence and duration and over the past year have been nearly non-existent.
Keep in mind though that my wife and I were basically some of the first subscribers to the U-verse system back when the service was just starting out (with less than 10,000 total customers at the time nationwide) and was essentially in its infancy. We understood that there might be problems at first (and there were) but the promise of more HD channels than were available from other providers (at the time) and being able to record multiple programs simultaneously was enticing enough to keep us interested in continuing the service and to let them work most of the bugs out of their systems. As such, the reliability issues that we experienced in the beginning are not really typical of what new customers today should expect to see from a new U-verse installation.
That is not to say that there are no interruptions in service whatsoever, as AT&T does need to take down their systems occasionally for maintenance or to remotely reset the 2-wire routers in the homes for updates. However these maintenance interruptions usually take place once a month, late at night (between 2am-4am) and on average only last for 5-10 minutes and so are not terribly disruptive to most customers.
7. Customer Service
One area where AT&T's U-verse has shined has been in their customer service both in person and over the telephone. In all of the times that we have spoken with them, the AT&T people have been courteous, helpful, understanding and reasonably quick in responding to any issues or problems which we may have experienced.
The cost of U-verse television service is very comparable to the pricing that you find with most cable and satellite providers. In fact, the costs between the different providers in our area are so close as to be almost identical between similar offerings. So if that is the case then what is it that may motivate someone to go with U-verse over other, more conventional options?
The fact that there are no long term contracts or equipment to purchase may appeal to many people as well as the use of the "whole house DVR" and its ability to record up to four different shows at the same time which are very nice features to have available. The ability to program the DVR remotely over the internet is also something which we have found has come in handy from time to time.
Nevertheless, I still have to look at AT&T's U-verse as a work in progress more than a finished product and would have to advise people considering it to be prepared to experience some growing pains as AT&T continues to update their systems and modify their service and features. Also, if you are a fan of watching sports or action features in High Definition then you may find the overall quality of U-Verse's HD programming to be a bit too compressed to be truly enjoyable.
Update Sept. 2010: One other thing to note. I found out the hard way that if you have any discounts on your account that are no longer offered in their current promotions, if you change your existing account in any way that you will lose the no longer offered features/discounts.
Due to the fact that our account is over three years old, our account was setup back when there were no additional charges for having multiple settop boxes (today U-Verse charges new customers $7 per month per box).
When we decided to take ATT up on an offer for "Free" HBO for three months I found out on the next bill that I was now being charged for all of the settop boxes in our home. After calling I was informed that since the original promotion I subscribed with was no longer offered that any change to the account will result in a loss of the old terms. Since I was NOT informed of this by their Customer Service rep prior to accepting the HBO Promo offer I was able to finally convince them to reset the old terms of my account and get rid of those extra charges however it took multiple calls to ATT over three months to get them to finally do it.
My advice to you... Read the terms of the offers currently available VERY CAREFULLY before allowing ATT to make ANY changes to your existing account or else you will be at risk of losing any features/promotions that you originally had which may no longer be offered.
Copyright L. J. Monaghan ~ 2010
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Amount Paid (US$): 83/month