Who it's for: Sports fans, foodies, house-fanatics and young families that want to save cable TV costs.
Sling TV is the first service to offer a cord-cutter's alternative to premium cable packages. This $20-per-month, no-contract video-streaming service runs on smart TVs, set-top boxes, computers and mobile devices. It currently streams 20 live cable channels, including ESPN, AMC, TBS, Food Network, IFC (best known for Portlandia), CNN, Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel — along with the full load of commercials.
Sling TV runs as an app on PCs and Macs, iOS and Android devices, Amazon Fire TV (box and stick), the Xbox One, and recent Roku devices, including Roku TVs. The service recently received a dedicated Windows 10 app. Support is planned for smart TVs from LG and other brands.
What Sling TV doesn't have is the big four: ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. When I asked about that, Sling TV's CEO said that adding the major networks would raise the price considerably, and that people are used to getting network content other places, like Hulu or Netflix. Sling TV is focusing on what people haven't been able to get on the Internet.
While you only have to pay month-to-month, Sling TV is offering an incentive for paying for three months in advance: $60 off an Apple TV, a free Roku 2 or 50 percent off a Roku 3.
Sling TV has some competition from Sony's PlayStation Vue service, which starts at a heftier $50 per month, but also offers more than 50 channels, plus a cloud-based DVR.
Design and Interface: TV Meets Online
You change channels by scrolling left and right.Sling TV looks like the mashup of cable/satellite TV and online video that it is. I tried the service on a Roku 3 attached to my television as well as on an iPhone 5. The interface looks roughly the same regardless of device. The screen always shows what's playing on the last-selected channel. To surf, I tapped the "*" button on my Roku remote to bring up a nav bar that covers about the bottom half of the screen. After tapping my little iPhone screen, the menus covered most of the screen, and sometimes all of it, depending on the function.
Pulling up the menus obscured much of the video on an iPhone 5.MORE: Best Streaming Players: Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV & More
Picking a channel is dead simple. I scrolled left and right through the icons that appeared in the nav bar. When I clicked on one, it brought up thumbnails of what was playing at the time, what had just played, and what would play later. This was the hard part for me, a longterm cord cutter, to get used to: Shows airing at specific times.
Sometimes, though, I had an out: I could click on the thumbnails for many shows and get the option to play them on demand — even restart a show that was halfway over according to the broadcast clock. That was the case for channels with their own content – be it Flea Market Flip on HGTV, Cutthroat Kitchen on Food Network or Expedition Unknown on the Travel Channel. With channels like TBS, which syndicate content, you can watch only what's currently airing.
In addition to airing live, many shows offer the chance to play older episodes on demand,That's also, and most painfully, the case with ESPN: If you missed the game, it's gone. Unlike cable or satellite, Sling TV doesn't offer a DVR function (although one is in beta, and now available for Amazon devices). It's like watching TV circa 1998, before TiVo.
I decided to live in the moment and channel surf by scrolling past all the channel icons to the play-button-meets-bullseye icon for On Now. Here the thumbnails at the bottom of the screen were for just what was currently playing. I watched some women's basketball and gymnastics on ESPN, some of The Help (which I think is in my Netflix queue) on TNT and a tiny bit of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past on TBS.
Channel surfing by scrolling through the On Now menu.Sling TV offers a smattering of on-demand options for shows from previous seasons, but it's hit and miss. Say you want to catch up on Beachfront Bargain Hunt on HGTV. You could access Episode 9 of Season 6 or Episodes 3, 6, 7, 8 and 13 of Season 5: That's it for now. Sling TV expects channels to fill in more of their back catalog as quickly. Optional channels from movie-centric EPIX allow you to watch anything that has aired in the previous seven days — a nice substitute for a DVR. On-demand options are coming, too, says Sling TV.
Content Selection: Hipster, Yuppie or Family – Forced to Watch Together
Turning on the Sling TV app, I was transported to my sister's suburban LA living room, with her husband, my 10-year-old niece and my 8-year-old nephew. Sling TV's channel lineup would be perfect for them (if they didn't already have cable): A&E, ABC Family, Adult Swim, AMC, Cartoon Network, CNN, Disney Channel, El Rey, ESPN, ESPN2, Food Network, Galavision, H2, HGTV, HISTORY, IFC, Lifetime, Polaris+, TBS, TNT and the Travel Channel. (Sling also offers add-on packs with additional channels.)
My brother-in-law would be very happy for ESPN and ESPN2. He and my sister would also be watching Better Call Saul on AMC, House Hunters and The Property Brothers on HGTV; the kids would be all over the spastic neonate comedies on The Disney Channel.
But despite all the TVs, iPhones, tablets and laptops they have — and Sling TV's compatibility with those devices — the family would have to watch the same thing together, on one device. That's the draconian licensing deal with Sling TV. If my sister were watching Food Network on the TV and my niece pulled up Disney on her iPhone, my sister would get a message that she'd been kicked off.
As I recall from my days as a cable subscriber, I could tune into as many different things as I had TVs to play them on — and more if the channels (like HBO) or whole cable companies (like Time Warner) had apps. Even Netflix lets at least two people watch different stuff at the same time with the $9-per-month service, and allows four people with the $12-per-month plan.
Crippled viewing rights were probably not Sling TV's idea, but rather the result of crummy licensing deals from content owners. Regardless who's to blame, Sling TV's chokehold on the content you're paying for is one of its biggest downsides.
Sling has also added a channel package for the Pac-12 college sports networks, as well as Starz and Starz Encore. The Pac-12 networks cost $5 per month with Sling Orange and $10 per month with Sling Blue, while the Starz packages cost $9 with either a Blue or Orange subscription.
Quality and Performance: Almost Like Cable.
If you have good bandwidth, Sling TV can easily play as well as cable. I'm blessed with download speeds of up to 50Mbps in my apartment, and the Sling TV channels looked sharp, bright and smooth, while perfectly clear audio. I'll do some testing on slower connections soon to see how low you can go. The video played as well on my Roku 3 and television as on my iPhone 5, if it was connected to the home Wi-Fi.
ESPN was as captivating as on cable TV.When I switched my smartphone to cellular LTE (with four or five out of five bars), the stream was cut short roughly every minute with a black screen and a Buffering message for up to about 30 seconds — making TV watching impossible. Considering the costs and caps for cellular data, it's not a good idea to watch TV this way; but it would be nice to have the option, say to catch breaking news. I'll do some additional testing on mobile, too.
Watching over a cellular network was plagued by buffering.MORE: How to Watch Live TV Online
I rarely saw the buffering screen while watching over my home network. The screen did, rarely, lock up for about 10 seconds before recovering - freezing people in odd poses.
The screen occasionally froze up briefly.And I saw some minor instances of macro blocking – when the video briefly takes on a cubist appearance because some image data didn't make it in time. These little glitches were far from deal breakers.
Sling recently added a multi-stream service that is currently in beta. Now, up to three users can stream content simultaneously, rather than just one user at a time, as previously allowed. Not every channel is compatible with this experimental protocol, so check out the company's guide for a complete list.
Content Expansion Packs and On Demand: Filling out the Lineup
The paid movie rental offerings are basic, but Sling TV promisses a lot more soon.If Sling TV is cable TV for the Internet, then the $20 plan is your basic-cable package. If you want extra content, you can choose one or more of Sling TV's $5 per month, expansion packs. The company currently offers five packs.
- Sports Extra: ESPNEWS, ESPNU, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Bases Loaded, ESPN Goal Line, beIN Sports, SEC Network, Universal Sports and Univision Deportes.
- Kids Extra: Baby TV, Boomerang, Disney Junior, Disney XD and Duck TV.
- Hollywood Extra: EPIX, EPIX2, EPIX3, EPIX Drive-In, Sundance TV and Turner Classic Movies.
- Lifestyle Extra: Cooking Channel, DIY, LMN, truTV, WE tv and FYI.
- World News Extra: Bloomberg TV, Euro News, France 24, HLN, NDTV 24/7, News 18 and Russia Today.
Sling TV also expects to some day offer an upgrade to get the big four networks, and it has been steadily adding channels to the basic plan at no extra charge. If you max out your options, and subscribe to other services like Hulu Plus to get network TV, your bill may approach what you would pay for cable. But that's not how cord cutting works. If you want as many channels as possible, of course you get cable or satellite service. If you're more selective, you can save money going online-only.
Rental fees are in line with what you'd pay elsewhere.Along with included replays of shows from the channels Sling TV provides, it also offers a small assortment of movie rentals, starting at $3 for an older title in standard definition or $4 in HD. Sling TV says that these offerings will expand a lot in the near future. An upcoming add-on pack will provide live and on-demand access to movies and TV shows from EPIX. The pricing has not been announced yet, but it will include four channels: EPIX, EPIX2, EPIX3 and EPIX Drive-In and — plus more than 2,000 on-demand titles.
Getting pay TV without a cable or satellite plan (or set-top box rental fees) is a milestone in cord cutting. But the historic nature of Sling TV alone doesn't mean it's worth your money. As this brand-new service is right now, it has some annoying compromises — mainly the inability to record or replay ESPN or to watch more than one thing on one device at a time. On the positive side, the service runs smoothly, on a bunch of devices. If Sling TV's offerings hit the sweet spot for what you like to watch, $20 per month — with optional add-ons and the ability to quit anytime — is a fair deal.