The Red Zone

I’ve been a cable TV subscriber for a few years now, and have missed DirectTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket. This year I noticed DirecTV and NFL are offering a package for online live streaming (no satellite dish required!), so I picked up a Roku3 and purchased the cheapest package.

The initial setup was clear and easy. Created my account and connected it to my Roku3 without problem. Loading the NFL Sunday Ticket app on the Roku3 takes under 10 seconds, which impressed me. My TiVo can often take 30 seconds or more to load an app (eg. YouTube), so the Roku3 did well. Once in the app, the controls are simple, listing all in-progress games ordered my kickoff time, showing current score and game time for each game. Selecting a game does show a “retrieving” blank screen for 10 seconds, so you’re not going to be switching games as you might change channels on cable.

Some disappointments, so far:

  1. By far the biggest, most unexpected aspect of the service has been the low video quality. I’m a critical viewer, but the marketing material does make a point that the quality is “HD”. Of course HD is minimally 720p, which sets the upper-bound on quality, but with all the compression, filtering, etc. along the way, the video you get may be far less. And obviously network speed will be a critical factor. The end result (from what I can see) is a highly compressed 720p image at best, and at worst, 480p. The image quality does seem to vary fairly widely, switching between what I would rate a 5/10 to 7/10 (rated for an expected HD signal), with 10/10 a 1080p BluRay. Artifacts are visible on every edge, colors are muted, contrast is low, and FPS feels low.
  2. No pause or replay. I wasn’t expecting full DVR-like controls, but a simple, small replay window would help justify the price and technology behind the media. Yes, it is a “streaming” service, but once you get used to sports on TiVO, local replays are hard to forget.
  3. Loading, please wait” during game. Probably due to network slowdowns, but regardless of the cause, getting an uninterrupted game is an order of magnitude more difficult than when watching “normal tv” on cable. I have seen this 5-10 second pause three times over two weekends.
  4. Local blackouts still apply. That’s right, if the game is owned by a local network, you are unable to view the game stream. Usually this means you can watch it on cable, but not always. And switching from Roku to cable is a heavyweight task, something to be avoided. For the price of the package, I would expect to be exempt from the blackout rules.
  5. Too many tiers of streaming packages. There are at least three tiers, with each tier limiting what type of device can be used to view the stream as well as some non-game streams (Red Zone, etc). I would rather an à la carte setup, where you are charged for what/how you view. Picking a package and later finding it has more/less than you need is not a great experience

Overall, I’m happy with the basic features of the streaming package and it does offer a very good way to watch out-of-market games, but it’s got some rough edges and it not ready to replace the tried-and-true DVR+Cable/Dish.