Review: AT&T U-VERSE

Scott Greczkowski

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THE BACKSTORY

I admit it, im a geek. I love anything dealing with radio and television signals in, and if its a new technology that I don't have then I got to have it. In my house I have all kinds of gizmos to help me pick up radio and TV signals, from police scanners to (of course) satellite receivers.

Imagine my excitement when I saw AT&T workers in my neighborhood installing "VRad" units, when I asked what they were doing they told me they were getting ready to launch a new cable system that was fiber based and was an IPTV based service. They said it was going to be available by the end of the year (2006) and they were not kidding!

Shortly before the close of 2006 a press release came out saying that service was now available in my area. I had my wife call up and order it. She opted for the U400 package which is basically everything (but the internationals) and because we already had a great internet connection in out house from COX (15 MB Cable Modem Service) we opted not to get AT&T's 1.5MB service. A date was set for my install I was excited and searched the internet for reviews of the service and more information a well but really did not find anything but a site called UVERSEUSERS.COM and even that site didn't really give me the information I was looking for. So I had to wait a few days for my install.

THE INSTALL

Install day came and I got a call from the installer who told me that I was one of the first customers getting installed and he had some trainees he would like to bring and work on my job, I had no problem with that. He said great they would see me at 9:00am.

At exactly 9:00am 2 AT&T Vans pulled in front of my house. One of them being a AT&T U Verse Van . the got out and came up and said hi to me, came in and saw where I wanted everything install then formed a game plan and got to work.

The told me they came out to the house the day before to check out the site and were wondering what all the satellite dishes and cable was for. I explained everything to them and they seemed to actually enjoy the fact that I was knowledgable about the technology and product.

They then went to work on my Telephone NID Box (Network Interface Device) which was a mess. Since I do not have AT&T as my local telephone company, my phone company COX did some messy wiring so that they could connect their equipment up to my existing wiring.

And while they were not supposed to, they went through and cleaned up the mess that Cox made in the NID. I appreciated that.

(CLICK HERE for a look at a diagram of the work done in the box)

After all was cleaned up they notice that we had no voltage coming from the telephone pole to my house and the nid device. Since I no longer had AT&T for local phone service they never hooked up my wires on the pole when they were rewiring things getting ready for UVerse.

They needed to call in a linesman to come hook the line up as these guys are not permitted up ont he poles. This delayed things down about an hour and a half or so.

As we were waiting for the linesman to show up the other two "trainees" were working on figuring out how to put in the wiring. Since this was their first non lab install these guys went VERY slow putting in the wiring as they wanted to make sure everything was installed perfectly and by the book. While they only needed to run about 40 feet of wire it took them over 3 hours to do it. Again I had no problem with this and as they were working they had some questions like "They never told us in class why we needed to do it this way instead or this other way" and I was happy to know the answers to those questions and tell them why. I felt actually good that I could teach them some stuff.

They took a break for lunch after lunch the linesman showed up and went on the pole and got us all connected. The lead installer when went to our neighborhod Vrad unit with the linesman as this was the first install they have done on a naked line (with no dial tone and no internet service) and he wasnt sure how to set the jumpers in the VRAD unit.

After working for awhile one of the trainees hooked up a meter and waited for it to say SHOWTIME on the display. After a few calls back and forth the unit finally displayed SHOWTIME we were good to go now!

The head installer and line tech came back to my house and ran some more tests, everything was perfect. After this time line tech left and the trainees put in wall plates in near the TV's and got everything hooked up. The head installer cleaned up my NID box a little more then closed it up and came in for the next step. And that was getting the service working inside the house.

They unpackaged the 2 receievers (1 DVR and 1 non DVR, I was amazed how small and light they were) then they unboxed a 2WIRE VDSL gateway, this thing was a monster in size compaired to the receivers!

At this time a supervisor showed up, was a nice guy we talked shop while the other guys worked.

The head tech hooked up the 2WIRE Gateway to the coax and also to his laptop. There was a problem we couldn't get it to sync up. After about 30 minutes on the phone with level 2 support and a bunch of resets to the gateway unit it finally synced up. He then hooked up the DVR to the Gateway by using a ethernet patch cord (not coax) we hooked the DVR up to my TV with standard AV cables. Then plugged it in. There was a problem, we were not getting the software download.

They were sitting there not knowing what to do, I asked the tech some questions and asked to see the setup screens on his laptop. When I looked it said that my IP address was a 192.168.x.x address, and this was also the address to the gateway. Something was not correct here. I told him our gateway was not getting an IP address from the gateway. I was talking greek to him. I then explained to him how things work as far as TCP/IP. After a bit he seemed to understand more and still couldnt get the gateway to obtain an IP address, but at least now he knew what the problem was. It was time to call support again.

So on the phone again with level 2 support, and level 2 support was kind of clueless at first, they had no idea what to do. In fact the head tech said that in their class what must they do differently to a customer who is just getting IPTV and no internet and telephone service (The teachers answer BTW was "it will never happen") kind of funny that their first real install and they ran into the problem out of the gate.


After going through our settings with tech support for another 30 minutes they finally figured how to provision our gateway (basically they turned on the internet access portion which I was not subscribing to) once they did that the DVR started download its software. It took the box a few times to download the first "cog" and then a long time (about 30 minutes) to download the second part of the software (or as they called it, the second "cog") after it was done downloading the box rebooted. After 2 minutes we saw life on the TV, the AT&T U-Verse Logo.



The supervisor left at this point he thanked me for helping them out and joked asking if they had any more install problems if they could call me instead of support. :)

They hooked up the non DVR box in my sons room (via coax) and repeated the software install process. When it was done we had U-VERSE in there as well.

Since it was getting late I was given a quick tour of the remote which for the most part operated just like the Dish Network remote. I was shown how to record some stuff and saw some things I liked and didn't like (more on that later) the installer then was going to show me a small VOD movie welcoming me to the U-VERSE however for some reason the video on demand system was down.

Before they left they tried something, they started a HD stream on both TVs and both TV's were able to tune into HD at the same time.

By the time they left it was after 5:30pm. But all was working! I then sat down for a bit and watched some TV. I was very impressed with what I saw, and so was my 4 year old son who saw a show he liked on the PBS Channel "Sprout"

Thats where the TV stayed tuned for the rest of the night. I didn't get to play anymore, I had packing to do as me and my wife were headed to Las Vegas for CES.

And while I could have written up my review then I decided to wait until I got home from CES to really play with U-Verse and write my honest feelings about the service. And frankly I am glad I waited.

In the next section of my review we take a look at the DVR and its operation, then in the section following that we get into the meat and potatos the actual review of the service itself.

I do hope you enjoy this review, feel free to post links to it at other sites, as I am sure there are many folks out there looking for more information on this service.
 
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Scott Greczkowski

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The DVR Walkthrough

One of the nice things about AT&T UVERSE is that every account comes with one DVR. However the only let you have 1 DVR per account.

This DVR is an IPTV DVR and not your standard receiver with a bunch of tuners in it. The AT&T U-VERSE DVR allows you to record up to 4 standard definition shows at one time. It can also do 1 HD channel as well (though not if another receiver in the house is tuned to a HD channel... more on that later)

Now lets get into the DVR operation, and to do this you are going to see a lot of screen shots. I will try explaining each one as best as I can. These screenshots were taken by using a SlingBox Pro (with HD Dongle) and then I captured the screen on my PC and saved them. The resolution seen here is not the actual resolution of AT&T U-VERSE, so please do not judge the PQ by the screen shots shown below.

First up the main menu. This is the heart of the system. If you saw the XBOX360 IPTV demonstration from CES then you will notice that it's almost exactly the same. This is because it IS almost the same thing, the Motorola IPTV receivers are using Microsoft software on their boxes.

Lets take a look at some screen shots of the menu.




Video on Demand

One of the big technologies coming down the line (and I predict it will be the way we watch most of our TV in the future) will be with Video on Demand. Lets take a look through the Video on Demand Menus.





There is lots of room for expansion of AT&T U-VERSE, the movie selection is small with only 120 movies in the entire library. They also have video on demand for other things such as music and kids shows (shown below) these video on demand shows are FREE, however at the moment there is not much to watch with most areas only having 1 or 2 selections to watch.







Next up we have the guide. The guide is a cool feature and what makes it neat is when you are scroling through the guide there is a PIP window shown so you can see whats on the channel without changing the main channel to that channel. Also when your watching TV you can see whats on other channels by pressing the up and down arrows on the remote. Again the PIP window displays live video from that channel. A VERY cool feature.








Ahh yes. AT&T U-VERSE has over 25 channels of HD, we will get more into that in a little but. Caught a good Green Day concert while I was capturing all of these screenshots. :)


Now back to the menu (we have already looked at the Guide option, we go down and we can set our favorites.





Under the same menu you can also search for your favorite programs, searching is slow and sluggish as for each letter you type in it goes out and searches for stuff with those letters in it as your still typing them. You can set recordings up from these searches and we will get into that next.




Since this is a DVR you can record shows, with U-VERSE it is very easy to record your favorite shows. One of the feature I like best about U-VERSE is when you are watching a show you like you can press the record button which will record the show you are watching (plus any of the show that was in the buffer earlier before you pressed record) if you press the record button twice it sets up a season pass for that show. (And pressing record a 3rd time cancels the recording)

When a show is recorded it shows up in your recorded programs folder as shown below.




Then you can review your scheduled recordings and series that you want recorded.



Ok lets take a look at the options given to use. First up system settings, you can control stuff like aspect ratios. closed captioning etc from here. (I should note that the box does NOT output in HD (720p or 1080i) and SD 480p at the same time.)











Next up in the options menu is Channel Settings. You can control things such as parental controls, lock out channels and manage your favorites channels list here.











Below is showing the "Grid Guide" setting



Below is showing the "Channel Lineup" setting



And since it's a Microsoft Product what would it be without a Reboot Button?

After the options menu we have an option for Help with brings us to a video on demand library of how to do almost everything on U-Verse. Of course having this is only good if their Video on Demand system is functioning. :) help is available in English and Spanish.







AT&T U-VERSE also has a large selection of Music Choice Music Channels. Here is what Music Choice looks like on AT&T U-Verse.



For those of you with HDTV's you might not like the fact that your giant 60 inch 16 x 9 set only has a picture in the center on SD channels, with U-Verse you can change that by pressing the enter button on the remote, each time you press the enter button the screen is resized or streched, this lets you watch TV as you like it.






And that wraps up our look at the operation of the DVR. The non DVR unit looks and works the same way (just without the DVR features) :)

The next section is what most of you were waiting for, my review of AT&T U-Verse.
 
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Scott Greczkowski

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The Review

U-Verse promises so much but does it deliver? The answer really depends on what technology your coming from.

The picture quality on most standard definition channels rival those of any satellite or cable company I have seen, in fact in many cases the picture looked almost as good as it would if you were watching it off an analog C Band feed.

That is good, from that aspect it beats satellite and most cable companies, however most people want U-Verse for its incredible High Definition lineup, which here in Connecticut is over 25 channels.

Unfortunately my view of the U-VERSE HD picture quality is not quite as good as I hoped it would be. In fact after doing some tests this weekend I have come to the conclusion that the high definition picture quality is a bit worse then it is on Dish Network.

In my tests I recorded a show from Discovery HD on both my U-VERSE DVR and my Dish Network 622. In playback I first started watching Dish Network then flipped to the same show on U Verse, the U-verse backrounds show heavy boxes floating around the screen. I repeated this with a program from HBO and another from Food HD, the same backround blocking was seen in the U-Verse picture.

In doing some checking on this I found out that U-Verse was sending the HD in about 10Mbs MPEG4 streams, the same stream on Dish (Food HD) was using 12 - 14 Mbs. The extra 2 MB of data was enough to make a big difference in the picture quality.

However with that said I will admit that while the HD did not look great on my 50 Inch Sony SXRD set, it was find on my 32 inch LG set in the bedroom.

However this brings up another major flaw in the U-VERSE, at the moment you can have up to 4 receivers in your house, all of their receivers are HD. The flaw is at this time you can only watch 1 HD channel on any given receiver in your house at a time. This means only 1 receiver can watch a HD channel, if a second person in the house wants to watch something in HD they will see an error message that all HD streams are in use to turn to a non HD channel or it gives you the option to boot the other receiver out of the HD stream it's tuned to.

For me this is a major problem especially considering I have 5 HDTV's in my house. The word going around is that they hope to have 2 streams available per house sometime soon, but even that is not enough.

On the plus side for the most part I do like the receivers when they are working.

What does this mean "when they are working?" For whatever reason the units like to freeze up a lot, the one in the living room sometimes need to be reset 3 times a night, while the DVR has been better behaved only needing to be rebooted once. The problem with these receivers is that a reboot can take close to 3 minutes, kind of annoying when your 4 year old wants his barny back on NOW.

I love being able to hit the up and down arrow on my remote and actually see whats on the other channels without changing the channel I am on. I addition I love being able to record 4 SD channels at one time. This blows and cable or satellite DVR away.

They advertise how fast the channel changing on U-Verse, but I got to honestly say the speeds in changing channels is about the same as changing channels on my 622, maybe its faster then Digital Cable, but since I don't have digital cable I can't tell you if this is true or not.

The audio quality on the SD channels is the BEST audio I have ever heard from cable or satellite, with very deep separation, the IPTV handles the sound very well, much better then any MTS Stereo decoder I have ever listened to.

The software itself on the box is nice and easy to learn and navigate, I expect most folks to like it when its made available to the XBOX360.

The remotes are nice although I would like to see a combo UHF/IR remote.

The programming is great with almost any channel you could want, there are quite a few channels such as Sprout and AZN which are great channels and I don't believe they are on either satellite company nor on my local cable service.

The video on demand however is HIGHLY disappointing, with really nothing good to watch. I understand that this service just started but it should have more selections available then what is up there now.

In addition there is no Pay Per View on U-Verse, while yes you can PPV movies from Video On Demand there are no live PPV events, this means no wrestling, no UFC, no boxing etc.

In addition their VOD service does not offer two of the most popular video on demand services, WWE 24/7 and Howard TV.

Also for some reason their Video on Demand programming (at least in the free categories) is HIGHLY compressed, the picture quality looks even worse then the worst satellite or digital cable signals I have ever seen. Because the standard definition channels look so good on U-Verse it makes their VOD stand out as how bad they look.

The customer service is a mixed back, first off despite the glitches they had the installers were amazing, and they went out of their way to make sure I was happy. I wish I could say the same thing about telephone support, where I have had some good and some bad experiences.

Case in point one of the advertised features of U-Verse is to be able to program your DVR from any internet connection, this feature was not working for me so I submitted a ticket via the U-Verse website, a day later I get a call from a gentleman that the program via the internet feature only works within your house. (huh? If I could only program it from my house it would be easier to do it from my remote) after telling him he was wrong I finally got to his supervisor who told me that this feature was not available to me because I do not subscribe to the internet service. (Funny nothing on their website says this) I am still not happy about this.

My overall thought on AT&T U-Verse are this, it could be a great service, however at the moment with poor VOD service, highly compress HD service, flakey boxes I would say that the U-Verse is still a beta product and is not ready for prime time. There are times when services or channels are not available, and that it unacceptable to me. This is still a beta service and for some reason they decided to roll out out unfinished. They should not be charging for the service as it is now.

I do believe that it can and will get better, however I still believe that this U-Verse is just a band aid for what AT&T really needs to do and that would be Fiber to the home.

Fiber to the home would fix the high definition PQ issues and would allow every HD TV in your house to watch different HD shows at the same time. Plus it would allow for faster internet speeds instead of the chintzy speeds offered now via U-Verse.

Would I recommend U-Verse to folks? It depends as to what they watch on TV. If you a person who enjoys a pristine high definition picture, I would tell them to look elsewhere, however if your someone who mainly watch standard definition channels I would recommend it as long as you could deal with the bugs and glitches that need to be fixed.

I don't give AT&T U-Verse a thumbs down or a thumbs up, more a thumbs in the middle, it has its plusses and minuses. It has its flaws and is not perfect, but for some of us techy folks it might be fun to watch it grow.

U-Verse could be trouble for the Satellite industry especially with its high quality standard definition quality, however at this time the cable industry has nothing to fear, because if they are setup correctly they could offer everything U-Verse offers and more with the bandwidth limitations for things such as the number of people in your house watching HD channels.

If you have any questions please post them here and I will try my best to answer your questions.

Thats my review folks, thanks for reading. And thanks for spending some time with us today at SatelliteGuys.US. We hope you will stop by and see us again soon!
 

Scott Greczkowski

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Whoops almost forgot one thing...

Pictures of the receivers, remote and the gateway. :)

Here you go... Sorry about that!
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rad

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One HD stream is the BIGGEST problem with UVerse IMHO. AT&T really has blown it with the decision to not do FTTH and going with the cheap alternative of using copper for the last mile.
 

Cyclone

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I had worked with a potential vendor to at&t uverse product. I actually had a VDSL circuit in my lab run at just about 80Mpbs. So there is hope for the future.
 

rad

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I had worked with a potential vendor to at&t uverse product. I actually had a VDSL circuit in my lab run at just about 80Mpbs. So there is hope for the future.
At what distance are you seeing a speed of 80Mbps???
 

Scott Greczkowski

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Nope AT&T Homezone uses both Standard DSL and Dish Network Satellite Service. U-VERSE is 100% IPTV.
 

lovswr

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Nice review Scott. Glad to see the pics of the back of the boxes. It looks like they are little more than NIC cards & hard drives. If at&t (please, AT&T does not exist anymore) would have gone for fiber to the prem, then this would have been a deadly blow to basically every other provider in the US.


When I was still working at Sprint, they had something similar to this called ION. Never really got out of the lab though.

So, those techs ran coax inside your house? (that NID should be against the law) I can see how these installs could easily crawl along at one per day, if they are going to that. Again, they should have just bit the bullet & put in FTTP. I mean, they had to call a lineman anyway.
 

Devil24

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Scott, good review... thanks!

Now, yeah, it's obvious that FTTP would fix all of their problems, but implementing that solution is quite expensive and time consuming.

FTTN has bandwidth constrains and the 25Mbps that AT&T is allocating for every one of these U-verse installs isn't very much, but at least is a start up. With the announcement of at least 50% more bandwidth by the beginning of Q3 of 2007 (thanks to pair bonding and a more mature VDSL2 implementation), the service should only improve in the future.

Also, in regards to the HD quality, the codec currently used needs more tweaking and it's been rumored that AT&T is even exploring the possibility of moving to a better codec that will allow them to bring a much higher PiQ, without really requiring much additional bandwidth. Of course, all of this isn't a reality now and as a result of this, the service will have a lot of critics, but even though some may call it a poor man's FIOS, it surely has the potential to bring the goods in the not so distant future.

PS = at least is becoming available in quite a few more cities lately... and that's good because it creates competition amongst the providers. Here in Houston, for example, TWC is finally (and openly) offering 12-month bundle packages, something that was pretty uncommon in years past.
 
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Heavie

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Fantastic review. I was so excited while I was reading. You would thought I was getting the new service. Thanks Scott.......
 

IcEWoLF

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AT&TDishman

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Plenty of questions: What is an AT&T U-Verse TV? In the fine print of the comparision chart it states you must have one. Also, could you explain the differences between AT&T Dish Network, AT&T HomeZone, and AT&T U-Verse as far as technology, etc.? Is one fiber optic versus cooper wire, or something else? Next is the TV service with U-Verse Dish Network? Finally, why is AT&T doing these other systems when it has so much invested in AT&T Dish Network?
 

stugil

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Thanks Scott for the review. I just upgraded with DTV and got the slim line dish and 2 HD boxes at no cost. I knew U-Verse would take awhile to sort out never mind coming out to rural CT.:hatsoff:
 

Scott Greczkowski

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What is an AT&T U-Verse TV?
If is a cable television type service that is 100% digital, it comes over your standard copper phone lines into your house. It uses VDSL and is an IPTV service.

What is the folling... AT&T Dish Network,
Just standard Dish Network satellite service but your bill and install is done via AT&T.
AT&T HomeZone,
This combines Dish Network Satellite Service with Video on Demand services by using a 2WIRE Homezone receiver. All your regular channels come via satellite, however the movies on demand are downloaded over your standard AT&T DSL line.

and AT&T U-Verse as far as technology, etc.?
100% Digital, IPTV which is delivered over standard copper telephone lines. Also since it uses a different version of DSL (VDSL) the connection speeds are better, faster and higher quality then standard DSL. There is fiber run into every neighborhood and from there the signals are muxed onto your standard telephone line.

Finally, why is AT&T doing these other systems when it has so much invested in AT&T Dish Network?
Because they can cut out the middleman and they can possibly offer a better product. So instead of making $1 or $2 a month on a customer paired with Dish Network, they can instead maybe make $40 or more per U-Verse subscriber.
 

RemyM

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Jan 4, 2006
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Interesting that the boxes do not have digital coax out for sound, only optical. I assume the reason for 2 sets of composite audio and video outputs would be one for a TV and one to a recording devise.
 

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