Saturday, June 14, 2008

Review: AT&T U-verse
Fiber Optic Service

Note this was written on May 3, 2008 but I am justgetting around to posting it now......

I recently switched from my current phone, Internet, and TV providers. I used to have AT&T DSL for Internet and AT&T for local/long distance using traditional phone service. Dish Network was my TV provider.

On April 30th I went with AT&T's U-verse offering which is all three of these services delivered over a fiber optic cable. One service, one bill each month.

It should be noted that Dish Network served me well for the going on the five years I have had the service at the previous and current house here. It is also worth mentioning that you can't miss what you've never had!


Installation:
AT&T showed up in their allocated service window, around 9:15 AM. They tell you to allow 5 to 8 hours when having all three services installed, but my network, since I am a geek, was all setup for them to drop there equipment in place, and my phone wiring easily accessible and some of the existing cabling that the Dish Network was using could be reused as well. The total install took just over 4 hours and was very professionally done. The X wife was having her house done too, and while she is no computer expert, she was up and running quickly too. The folks that come on site are highly trained for those with little to no computer skills.

So, how does it compare with my previous services? Read on to find out!

Comparison: Dish Network .vs. U-verse TV:
Dish Network was running me $75/month, I had no major premium channels such as Showtime, no HD service and a total of 250 channels, and a DVR for recording. I did have a smattering of lesser tier movie channels like IMC, Encore, and TMC.

Under U-verse, the TV portion of my fiber optic service is 300 channels, 39 of those in HD including all my local channels which Dish could not offer in HD. I have a PVR that can do 120 hours. Using a web browser from anywhere in the world I can tell the PVR to record as show right off the program guide, see what is scheduled to record, and see a list of all items already recorded. All TVs now do picture in a picture; none of them did that before. As I said this is $5/month cheaper but to really see the value of it you'd have to add in about $20 a month for the HD service from dish (again though no local channels in HD), plus another $15-$20/month for all the movie channels I am getting now, such as Showtime. So value wise I am saving $45 or so a month.

The new service has video on demand, Dish Network did too but it was pitiful compared to the number of films, shows, specials, and such that are available free on this service, plus of course you can rent movies as well. Many of the free offerings are items that are available for rental at local places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video; I am seriously thinking of cancelling my Blockbuster monthly (Netflix type) service; there is just no need with this.

Another point worth making is that the visual quality of regular non-HD channels is so much better than it was with Dish Network.


Comparison: Internet (DSL .vs. U-verse Fiber )
On the Internet side, for the same cost of my previous service it is faster. Previously I had a 2.5 Mbps download and 512K upload and now I have 3 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. On fast web sites pages just flash onto the screen. There are some decent offerings on their portal but nothing major enough to note mention over my previous AT&T DSL Portal.


Comparison: Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) .vs. U-verse IP Phone Service
On the phone side for the same cost there are so many features I did not have before such as voice mail (which I can also access with a computer and forward voice messages to others), Call Screening, Call Forwarding, Do Not Disturb Me (People calling, unless on an approved list, will get a busy signal), Locate Me (the system will try me at up to four other numbers), Anonymous Call Blocking, and more. I can also place calls from the computer if I wanted to or dial off of the TV too. Call accounting which shows calls in and out, missed calls, etc. can be done on the web or TV. An interesting note: I just got an email while posting this that I had a voice mail message waiting so I listed to it from my PC.


The Hardware:
Tying these three services together is a Residential Gateway which you can log into. It features four traditional wired Internet ports, 802.11 g wireless access point capability, and a bridge for your current phone systems so you retain your current phone equipment. There is also a USB port. You can login to this gateway on your home network using a web browser and control many settings, including firewall, from this interface which will also display a map of your home network and allow you to setup file sharing between devices that support that. The interface can be set to experts, for example being able to tweak all settings for the firewall, add routes, etc. or a wizard based one, when you would pick a game you might play on-line, and the system automatically sets up the firewall for that.

The units that connect to the TVs are so much smaller than the Dish Network units and each of these have USB ports and a full complement of A/V outputs including an HDMI port. The Dish Network DVR records 100 hours while the AT&T unit does 120.

The pictures below show the DVR and non-DVR units; note the AT&T units are the same size while the Dish Network units are different and, particularly in the case of the DVR units have a much larger foot print.



Negative Points:
I have to be fair, while I am deliriously overjoyed and thrilled with this service far beyond my expectations, there is some minor nitpicking I can do.


Dish Network .vs. U-verse TV
You can tell the U-verse in still relatively new. While the hardware is indeed state of the art, the firmware needs work. For example, the program guide is not as polished nor is the search facility. On the Dish Network you could be watching a show, or highlight a show on the program guide, hit the search key on the remote, and then all occurrences of that show would be listed which made it much easier to tag them for recording. On the U-verse setup you have to bring up a search window and enter each character using the remote. While it does start auto-populating possible shows for you to choose from with each character you enter, depending on what you are searching for you may have to enter quite a few characters before the show shows up in this list.

On the other hand though once you have a show or movie selected, there is an option on U-verse where you can search on the listed characters real names and then bring up a list of anything else, be it from the program guide or video on demand, that they are in.

Changing channels is instantaneous on U-verse, there can be several seconds delay on Dish Network, but, Dish Network periodically caches the program guide, so moving day by day forward for the 8 days it stores is much quicker. Once you get a day ahead of present time with U-verse the guide has to obtain the information and this takes several seconds.

On the other hand, U-verse's guide goes for two weeks into the future .vs. the almost 8 days the Dish Network does. There is supposed to be a major upgrade to the gateway and TV units by the end of the summer; I will write of my experiences with that when it is available. One feature I am eagerly looking forward to the ability to watch recorded material off of any TV in the house instead of just the TV with the DVR attached to it.

Another negative point of the U-verse experience is you can't watch TV in slow motion which you can do on the Dish Network; a minor point to be sure, but a minor point nonetheless.


Phone System:
One downside of the phone system is its IP; if your power goes off so do your phones. Te be fair, AT&T installs a battery backup system that will provide 4 hours of power. Beyond that though and you would not be able to dial out. Of course if you have a cell phone this should not be a major emergency, but, it is a point worth noting.


Conclusion:
If you have this service available, go for it! There are different tiers, so, for example I could be saving more. If I did not get HD service, that would save me $10/month, and I could have gone with less channels. But, since the next channel offering is 200, and I had 250 with Dish Network, I did not want less, and let's face it, for a few dollars less that what I was paying I am getting so much more. I did not do this to save money but to enhance my services. You could certainly save more than I did or spend more since they have packages with 400 channels and Internet as fast as 10 Mbps downstream.


June 14th Update: As mentioned above I had originally wrote this over a month ago. Revisiting my decision I am still happy with it, though the immaturity of the interface and the shortcomings mentioned above for the guide and searching can be quite annoying when used to the features Dish Network have. I can only expect AT&T's interface to get better, but, I must say that after having it six weeks without any tweaks thus far makes me worry their top priority is of course sales and existing customers will just have to wait patiently.

14 comments:

Steve from NJ said...

Chris:

I have seen similiar results with Verizon FIOS here in NJ. The cable company awarded the monopoly in the township (until last year) REFUSED to carry the Turner Classic Movie Network, and I always was grousing to them about not being able to see "Cacablanca" or the Marx Brothers like I was once able to do on old-style broadcast TV (WNEW TV channel 5. I'm sure you remeber it well.)
My installation took a lot longer than yours did, but when the TVs came on the picture quality was so improved I thought I had new TV sets. I've seen "Casablanca" several times since then. (They also refused to carry Boomerang on the non-digial analog service I had since 1981. What nerve!)
I also have the battery back-up for my phone. It will save an hour of reserve after it runs for 5 hours without the power coming back, and you need to hit an override button to release that last bit of power. They call this an 'Emergency Override'.
As for the internet speed, the 20 meg Adobe update was downloaded in about 20 seconds compared to 4 hours+ using dial up.
One thing though: The fiber optic connections are a weak point in the network. For an individual location like your house, they're about the diameter of a hair at the central hub. Even though they're encased and protected, hot/cold cahnges, storms, etc. and break them.

Anonymous said...

Great report. Two questions:
1) How many TVs are connected to the Uverse and what was the cost of each additional room or is that even possible?
2) You mentioned dish network infrastructure in place, if u had international programming does that stick (european channels through dish network) or do u buy it from someone other than AT&T uverse?

Thanks!
- Zug, AnnArbor, MI

Chris said...

Zug, I have three TV's and at the time I signed up there was no additional charge for up to three TV's, but $5 for each set above that.

They also offer a full suite of international channels far beyond what I saw on my Dish Network setup. With the U300 TV service I get at least 12 channels (possibly more) from outside the US, and there are many more I do not get which would be available on their U400 TV service. I also have a variety of Spanish TV stations that I do not watch as I don't speal Spanish.

Chris

Cyndie said...

It sounds like I have the exact same scenario as you: AT&T phone and DSL and Dish satellite TV, and I'm upgrading to AT&T's fiber optic UVerse for all 3, also saving about $25/month. Since this is a fiber optic upgrade, do they actually install new wiring in your home or use the existing phone wiring?

Also, when you cancelled Dish, did you have to jump through any hoops? Do they have this option online anywhere? Thanks!!

Chris said...

Cyndie, for the phone they use the existing wiring in your house and this is connected to the residential gateway which also provides your TV (using coax cable) and internet, via wireless or wired (UTP) connection. So, unless your wiring is substandard they will use existing wiring and run coax as needed for your TVs.

Dish wants to keep you! They will want to transfer you to the customer retention department most likely. I told them I would give them one shot at their best deal, and then after I chuckled at the deal the offered, I said that was enough discussion, please close the account now and they did.

Rajni said...

Thanks Chris, Great Info. I have similar setup, AT&T Phones & DSL, and Dish Network with VIP611 2 TV DVR. I signed up for Uverse all 3 services including U200 & International TV Package. I want to use their DVR for both TVs. I have a couple of questions. 1. Do you know how AT&T multi TV DVR works in comparision to VIP611? Is it true that on 2nd TV the DVR functionality is limited to watching recorded program only, no pause or rewind? 2. I have scheduled 6/5/09 installation. My billing month with Dish expires on 6/8/09. When called Dish Network, they reduced my charges, but I still want to try UVerse for the sake of better phone features, as you mentioned & hopefully for better TV experiences. I like to call Dish to disconnect their service after AT&T has successfully installed UVerse. I am affaid Dish may charge me for another month. I hope they do not want more than a day's notice. Any thoughts?

Chris said...

Rajni, On the other two TVs in the house, I can pause, rewind, and fast forward when viewing recorded content from the PVR. You cannot delete a recorded show from the other TV's and you cannot start a recording on the other TVs though this is supposed to be added at some point.

As to canceling your Dish, I canceled the day they installed my U-Verse and the account was closed on the spot. Note this was a day before the billing cycle ended and I did not get charged for the next month.

One thing I do not miss about Dish was the interruptions in service from bad weather, such as heavy rain or snow!

Hope that helps; if you have any other questions feel free to ask.

David G said...

We have uverse and our neighborhood has fiber. We get periodic freezing of our TV and internet feed. When it happens all TV's and the internet freeze at the same time. The duration can be from a few seconds to 6 or 7 minutes. Is this normal for uverse?

Chris said...

David G; I have heard stories of such issues on the uverse users forum. it is almost always an equipment or cabling error so if you have not contacted tech support yet, I would!

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Anonymous said...

Ah, This is spot on! Clears up
several contradictions I've been hearing.

Anonymous said...

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- David

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