Sling TV Online Video Review: Cable TV for Cord Cutters

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.

Sling TV Walkthrough

Design and Interface: TV Meets Online

You change channels by scrolling left and right.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.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,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.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.)

MORE: Best Online-Original TV Shows 

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.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.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.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.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.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.

Bottom line

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.

Get Your Fix: Best Streaming Players

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  • kep55
    A nice addition to this and all streaming content reviews would be a comparison or comments on using the service on DSL, cable, fiber, etc.
  • ubercake
    If they add Fox Sports networks for local sports viewing, I'm in.
  • Robb Nunya
    You'd think that the big 4 broadcast companies would be able to work a deal with advertisers. Eyes on are eyes on. Stream live, don't let people "Tivo" the commercials, and the price shouldn't go up a penny at that time.

    Learn something from Google people: Eyes on your ads are eyes on your ads. The delivery is secondary.
  • Dehliaa
    I catch the news maybe one morning, watch MSN during an election year, and catch a movie usuallyet from 1970 to 79, a nif he for insomnia. I rarely watch television, but it's good to know it's there if and when I want to watch it. The downside is the cost for the service on a really old model television. Just a service to watch movies like Posidan, Towering Inferno, Airport, Airport 1975, etc. Email back, if someone can meet my needs. New and old movies would be great, and MSN would be great!
  • Jimmy Zelski
    There are three of us in my household. We currently have Dish and are paying about $20 each ($60 total) for a rather basic lineup of channels including locals too (we are out of the OTA area). We get CNN, Discovery, History, MSNBC, ESPN, etc., but no premium movie channels like HBO or Showtime.

    I would love to cut the cord, because despite having all those channels most of the time there is nothing of interest to watch. There are endless infomercials and idiotic shows such as "I hate my wrinkles" and a variety of stomach-turning reality shows on Dish. The Discovery channel and History are no longer about discovering anything or historical anything, they are merely another outlet for lame reality shows these days. Very, very disappointing.

    But Sling doesn't seem ready for prime time. We would be paying the same price for it as we are for Dish, considering each of us would need a subscription (we watch on our own individual devices) and we would lose the local network channels as well as the ability to DVR.

    Glad to hear the offerings are getting better though. Maybe sometime soon someone will come up with a viable alternative. We will probably go ahead and cut the cord anyway, since paying good money for nothing in return is getting quite old. We can get news on the local TV websites, as well as movies through Netflix and Amazon Prime, so that ought to hold us for now.
  • Zabala
    Sling TV should give access to ESPN3 online which is where you can watch "Live" or "replay". I watch tennis and the tournaments in Europe/Asia can start in the middle of the night here on the west coast.

    ESPN3 gives me the ability to watch later. This would be a big plus for me to get Sling TV even though ESPN only covers limited tournaments. Hope they can get Tennis Channel at some point for the rest.
  • kjrn
    Biggest downfall in our home is the "single-stream" issue. This might work well for a single user, but even having two here means problems. CNN in one person's office cuts off ESPN or HGTV on a set in another part of the house. For $20 a month, it's no bargain if only one person can stream at any given time. We signed up, but it doesn't look like we'll be staying. If we'd need two memberships to each watch TV ($40/mo), we might as well get basic cable (with more options).
  • olivermaher
    The service is a great idea, however, constant freezing has led me to cancel. I was able to sign up prior to the masses and everything worked great. It worked so well I went out and bought three Roku 3 devices. Unfortunately, once they opened the service to the general public the picture began freezing a lot. My daughter was able to watch Disney Jr for a minute or two before it would stop playing and the screen would go black. It took a little while for me to get the picture back and then 1-2 minutes later the process would repeat.

    Not sure if I will subscribe again.
  • irenep
    I do have the same problem with the freezing and the audio ahead of the image. It is kind of annoying seeing lips moving but hear something else. I'm only streaming it right now on my laptop and I was about to go to buy two Roku devices, but I am not so sure right now what to do...
  • Josh Ya
    Not ready for prime time. Too many issues buffering, doesn't work on Vizio smart TV's or Google Chrome. You can only watch one device at a time. Support doesn't understand English.
  • Andrea Ansel
    Its the same damn price as dish or direct and you get less
  • Andrea Ansel
    Especially if you add the netflix hulu and hbo. Your back up tp 60 bucks hows that cutting a cord Mod Edit: foolish donkeys

    Watch your language.
  • keepitsimpleengineer
    I was interested in dropping cable TV through which I get HBO Go, so signed up for Sling immediately. Using Game of Thrones for a comparison, HBO Go showed remarkably better video quality than Sling on a Roku 3. I was very disappointed. I will say I had no buffering problems/stutter of drop-outs

    I contacted Sling support for a remedy and got no meaningful response. I would rate the video at 480p at best compared to the 1080i on HBO Go/R
    Somebody tell me they "fixed" the problem, please... .. .
  • Edu Tech
    DO NOT BUY!!! The product is crap. It constantly freezes and when you call tech support they make you go trough a bunch of bullshit troubleshooting steps that they know is a waste of your time because the problem is on their end.
  • ubercake
    Anonymous said:
    Biggest downfall in our home is the "single-stream" issue. This might work well for a single user, but even having two here means problems. CNN in one person's office cuts off ESPN or HGTV on a set in another part of the house. For $20 a month, it's no bargain if only one person can stream at any given time. We signed up, but it doesn't look like we'll be staying. If we'd need two memberships to each watch TV ($40/mo), we might as well get basic cable (with more options).

    This is good info. Thanks.
  • Gunther_FL
    The concept of SlingTV is great, however, the company needs to move fast to resolve some open gaps or Sling International may turn off customers.

    A few Current Gaps:

    1) SmartTV App (DishWorld) dropped by Sling International: Samsung TV's have a application called Dishworld which would allow customer to watch the international channels and SlingTV domestic channels. I was using this app until May. Unfortunately, Sling International upgraded their systems which resulted in Dishworld app shutdown. The app works but it displays a message that it will not stream any channels. The answer from Sling International, we're working on a new Sling app. Well, one would think that you would wait to get your new app ready before breaking the old app. Adding more external devices is just not ecologically correct and more complex to use. Isn't the point of Smart TV's to allow access to all the services from one device. It seems Sling TV wants to sell third party devices instead. These kinds of issues turn customer off. If I have to use a third party device it will be my preference, which is Apple TV, not the choice of Sling International.

    2) MultiStream: Add an extra cost to stream to more than one television. This is so simple.

    3) Local OTA Channels: Add an extra offering to access local channels. Let it become the customers choice to add a OTA antenna or pay Sling.

    I can only hope the president of Sling reads these comments and understands their customer needs instead of pushing down what Sling thinks customers should get. Isn't that what the cable companies have done for years. I've been a cable subscriber for 30 + years and I'm tired of their crap. I was hopeful this would bring a refreshing and much needed change.
  • iknowshaun
    Don't use this service. I tried the 7 day trial. Canceled at the end of it, and they charged me anyway. Then they are fighting the bank over it. Terrible experience all the way through!
  • Diane_23
    I have been using Sling Tv for the past two months. I have made and connected a fractal outside antenna for OTA broadcasts which gives a much better picture than cable. Sling Tv gives us HGTV for my wife and YES network for Yankees games for me and my son. My other son is a soccer fan so I have the Sports extra add-on.

    Sling has been nearly perfect over the last 2 months. Customer service, via chat, has been a pleasant experience, first when I inquired whether I could get the YES network in the NY metro area and later, when Sling added the Sports Extra package (I originally added the spanish package because one of my sons wanted BeIn TV for soccer which was only offered as part of that, then was offered as part of the Sports extra package; when I discovered that I went to Sling and asked that the packages be switched, which was done immediately with no hassle at all).

    When I subscribed, Sling offered a Roku 2 for free for those who paid 3 months in advance; I received the Roku within a few days and look at this as either free TV service for 3 months or a free Roku. I was also offered a choice: one device at a time only with Disney channels and ESPN, or 3 devices at one time with FOX networks and no Disney, ESPN. I chose the 3 device option, and we have had no problem with 3 devices playing simultaneously.

    What I am not seeing in reviews and which I find very useful and valuable is the ability to watch Sling on multiple devices, and not just at home. I can watch in the backyard on an IPad or at my office on my PC, or on a phone at a ball field, or on my Roku at a hotel in another city. We are not tied to our home network and this has come in handy many times. Sling has worked on a windows 10 pc, a windows vista laptop, an IPad, and Iphones for us, all without a problem.

    Sling has added several channels to my original line-up over the last 2 months, including NYC channel 4 NBC and channel 5 FOX (although I get both already with the antenna).

    This service has been the perfect complement to the antenna and has the added benefit of multiple devices anywhere in the US. The channels play nearly flawlessly, and I have had only one short period where there was a problem playing the on-demand videos.

    The menu once used and gotten used to is a breeze and easily adopted. We also are not missing DVR capabilities and don't really care whether we have it or not.

    I haven't tried to cancel so I don't know about that aspect of customer service. But I don't intend on cancelling.

    I don't understand the negative reviews. I recommend it highly. We just have not had any of the problems I have seen complained of. Perhaps the complaints come down to poor internet service and are not the fault of Sling.
  • ubercake
    I picked up the Sling Blue package and dropped cable. I used to live at a place where I could get all of the local channels no problem through an internal HD antenna. This changed when I move to a new location so I picked up cable for as long as I could stand to pay for it and here I am now.

    Sling TV blue at $25 costs the equivalent of leasing two cable boxes each month from comcastic/nofinity. Even when I had cable, I found my family members watching Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu all the time anyhow. With all of those cable channels to watch, you shouldn't have an issue finding something decent to watch, but there really isn't much I would watch personally outside of sports. When Sling TV started offering the Fox Sports channels, I began to notice.

    I can watch all local sports with it on the Fox Sports networks. I also get the Fox local channel.

    All of the Fox channels are local to where you sign in. For instance, on a business trip I tried singing into Sling TV on my PC at hotel in New York and my local sports and Fox became New York (which isn't my home locale).

    When I started my trial, I was able to stream Sling TV on two Roku boxes and my PC at the same time.

    Sling TV even offers on-demand content for some channels. It really has come along way and is a good value.

    The only thing that sucks is all NFL pre-season games have been blacked out for my local team on my local Fox version on Sling TV, though they play with no issue on everyone's cable version of their local Fox channel.

    Does anyone know if this will carry through the regular season? Or is the blackout restriction only for the pre-season?
  • dhazisterlingcg
    I'm hoping Vidgo does a better job when it comes out. Sling wasn't too bad for what it is tho.