Editors' Note: YouTube TV has been announced, and it offers some advantages over these services. See how YouTube TV compares to Sling TV, DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue.
Suppose you're ready to get rid of a restrictive, expensive cable package, but not quite ready to give up a variety of live channels at your fingertips. Cable-replacement services like DirecTV Now ($35 per month), Sling TV ($20 per month and up) and PlayStation Vue ($40 per month and up) are here to split the difference.
More versatile but more expensive than a strictly on-demand service like Netflix, DirecTV Now, PS Vue and Sling TV combine the comforting versatility of channel surfing with the convenience of accessing what you want, when you want.
Between optional channel packages, varying device compatibility, vastly different pricing structures and distinct approaches to user interfaces, the choice between DirecTV Now, Sling TV and PS Vue is anything but straightforward. You definitely don't need all three services, so read on to find out which one will fill the cable- or satellite-shaped void in your heart.
Ultimately, a streaming service is only as good as the content it offers. DirecTV Now, Sling TV and PS Vue offer a wide variety of channels. The way in which they offer said channels, however, is wildly different, and no service is as simple as it could be.
DirecTV Now offers more than 120 channels, and subscribing to them is a pretty straightforward process. Viewers can select from four different tiers with various numbers of channels: Live a Little (60 channels), Just Right (80 channels), Go Big (100 channels) and Gotta Have It (120 channels). However, there are only two stand-alone channels: HBO and Cinemax, which is bad news for people who wanted specialized movie or foreign language packages.
The selection is pretty broad as well. Cartoon Network, CNN, Comedy Central, Discovery, ESPN, Food Network, Fox News, History, Nickelodeon, Spike, Syfy and the Weather Channel are all available at lower tiers, and premium subscribers can get a whole host of Starz channels, too. Network channels include ABC, Fox and NBC.
PlayStation Vue has access to a theoretical total of about 110 channels, if you subscribe to its most comprehensive tier and purchase all optional stand-alone channels. (We'll talk more about pricing later in the face-off.) One big advantage over PS Vue's competitor is that every tier of the service offers all the major broadcast networks: CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC. Sling TV has either half as many, or none, depending on your plan.
Beyond that, PS Vue has something to suit just about every taste: ESPN and NFL Red Zone for sports fans; CNN and Fox News for media junkies; the Disney Channel for kids; Showtime and Epix for movie buffs; and a variety of other basic cable mainstays, such as the Discovery Channel, FX and TBS.
Sling TV also uses a variety of different tiers and optional channel packages. If you add every channel pack together, you get a total of 162 channels, although this number is a little misleading, since some packages overlap each other — including the two basic tiers of service: Sling Orange and Sling Blue. Confusingly, the more expensive Blue package isn't just Orange plus more channels: The two share some channels but not others. You can subscribe to both simultaneously.
Sling also covers a plethora of channels, including ESPN, CNN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, A&E, FXX, Bravo, HBO, Starz, the Disney Channel, MTV, Epix, MSNBC and more. Sling TV also has more access to Spanish and Hindi channels than its PlayStation counterpart. Network TV provides something of a challenge, though: Sling Orange doesn't include any broadcast networks, while Sling Blue provides only Fox and NBC.
WINNER: DirecTV Now. Regarding how many channels you get in a given package, DirecTV Now is hard to beat. The selection is broad enough to please almost anyone, especially at higher tiers.
I tested all three services on a variety of devices, including PCs, mobile devices and streaming players. On dedicated streaming devices, like Rokus and Amazon Fire TVs, none of them acquits itself terribly well.
Sling TV shows you listings one painstaking channel at a time, with cumbersome options to search or access settings. PlayStation Vue is even worse, as scrolling through channels shows you only what’s on right now; you need to click through and wait for the video to load before you see what's up next. DirecTV Now offers a comprehensive channel guide, which puts it ahead of the other two, although bringing it up blocks whatever you're watching.
On video-game consoles, though, PlayStation Vue gains the upper hand over Sling TV. PlayStation Vue has an absolutely gorgeous interface on the PS4, complete with a comprehensive, interactive guide that informs you what's on for the entire day. It even tells you which shows you can rewind and watch from the beginning. Navigating through the menus is snappy and doesn't interrupt your show. Sling TV on the Xbox One, on the other hand, is similar to its Roku counterpart, but sluggish, and constantly drops the video stream to jump between menus.
Both services fare better than DirecTV Now, though, which does not offer any console apps.
None of the mobile apps is great, but again, PS Vue has a slight edge, due to its appearance. With an attractive blue background and clear, square boxes for each channel, navigating PS Vue is easy and doesn't interrupt the video stream. Sling TV takes longer to bring each video up to HD quality, and while you can see what's on next more easily, the long load times counterbalance the convenience. DirecTV Now offers simple options to navigate between channels and see what's on, but the service is buggy, often turning up an unhelpful "Error 40" and forcing the app to restart. It's not nearly as stable as the other two.
WINNER: PlayStation Vue. While none of the services has a great streaming player or mobile apps, PlayStation Vue excels on game consoles.
DVR and On Demand
Watching TV shows on your own schedule is a given in the modern era of streaming and binging shows. That's why it's somewhat bizarre that Sling TV doesn't offer DVR capabilities. (One is currently in beta for both Roku and Amazon devices; we'll see when it's available.) You can rig something up with an external box, like a Channel Master, but recording is simply not built into Sling TV yet. Some channels offer a handful of on-demand shows and movies, but it's not enough to make up for the critical lack of DVR capability.
Likewise, DirecTV Now offers a handful of on-demand shows and movies, but the selection is inconsistent, and the streams are often unreliable. There's no DVR functionality here.
PlayStation Vue, on the other hand, has one of the simplest and least restricted DVR features I've seen in a streaming service. You simply add a show or movie to My Shows, and it will then automatically record each new episode when it airs. The service records everything in the cloud, so you don't need to worry about conflicts or limiting the number of simultaneous shows you want to record.
You have 28 days to watch each program — it's not as good as keeping it indefinitely, but it's better than nothing. The selection of on-demand shows and movies is also much more generous than Sling TV's, perhaps owing to a larger base of channels.
WINNER: PlayStation Vue. Sling TV and DirecTV Now don't offer DVR unless you come up with a DIY solution, while PS Vue's DVR offering is both simple and comprehensive.
Don’t let the PlayStation name fool you; PS Vue is available on a wide variety of devices from a plethora of manufacturers.
In addition to PS3 and PS4 consoles, the app is also available on Sony smart TVs and Blu-ray players, iOS and Android devices, computers, Roku, Chromecast (as pictured above), Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV.
Sling TV is not available on PlayStation consoles, but does have a presence on the Xbox One. It's also included in a variety of smart TVs and Blu-ray players. Users can download Sling TV apps on computers, iOS, Android, Chromecast, Android TV, Roku, Fire TV and Apple TV.
DirecTV Now fares the worst of the three, as it's available only on computers, mobile devices, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV, as well as a handful of smart TVs. While a Roku app is forthcoming, the service should not have launched without one. It also has the dubious distinction of being the only cable replacement service without a game console to call home.
WINNER: Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. Both Sling TV and PS Vue are available on a wide variety of devices. DirecTV Now isn't.
Gauging exact video quality on either service is hard, since no service comes right out and tells the user the resolution or bit rate on any given show. With a little digging, I found that Sling TV lets users select an amount of bandwidth for low-, medium- or high-quality streaming, while PS Vue has a network strength bar next to each show.
DirecTV Now does not offer any resolution information, but claims that some of its on-demand content can reach 1080p. HD TV shows generally stream at 720p, and it appears that all three services met this standard through a home internet connection that channels about 15 Mbps.
WINNER: Draw. All three services stream HD video in real time, and they look roughly equivalent to the naked eye. Gauging exact measurements beyond that is difficult, however, given the endless variables in home Wi-Fi setups.
Pricing on DirecTV Now, PS Vue and Sling TV can vary, depending on which channels you want to watch. Sling TV starts off much as the least expensive of the three. The cheapest package for Sling TV costs $20, while the same for DirecTV Now costs $35 and PlayStation Vue costs $40. On the other hand, DirecTV Now and PS Vue's basic packages grant a lot more channels.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you were to subscribe to every single channel either service has to offer, you could run up a pretty extensive bill. PS Vue's most comprehensive package costs $75 per month, and its optional stand-alone channels range from $2 per month to $40 per month. Getting everything would cost $120.
Sling Orange costs $20 per month, while Sling Blue costs $25 per month; both together cost $40 per month. Assuming you wanted every optional channel package on top of that, too, your total cost would be $194.
DirecTV Now's cheapest package costs $35 for month, which gives you access to about 50 channels. Its most expensive package costs $70 per month, plus $5 per stand-alone channels. The most you could spend at present is $80 per month.
Granted, very few users will need every single channel that any service offers, so the question of value ultimately boils down to what users want to watch. All three services offer a fairly broad — even eclectic — selection of channels, and each package is relatively commensurate with the number of channels it offers. Sling TV's $20 package grants 28 channels, for example, while PS Vue's $40 package grants 48 channels and DirecTV Now's $35 package grants 50 channels. Neither selection is "better," as it depends on what channels you need.
The add-on packages themselves run the gamut from highly focused to extremely eclectic. PlayStation Vue’s midrange Core package ($45 per month) includes channels like the NFL Network and Sundance TV, in addition to everything from the $40-per-month Access package. Users can also purchase stand-alone channels like Epix and Showtime for between $10 and $15 per month apiece, depending on your subscription options.
Sling TV, on the other hand, offers more than 15 individualized channel packages, from just adding HBO at $15 per month, to whole packages of Spanish- or Hindi-language channels for $5 to $10 per month. Other packages tend to cater to special interests, such as comedy, sports or kids' programming. Channel package costs can add up quickly, but you're more likely to get just what you want, without the channels you don't need.
DirecTV Now follows the PlayStation Vue approach: Comprehensive packages, with only a few stand-alone extras. While the channel selection is competitive, though, DirecTV Now still suffers from a lot of bugs and performance issues. That alone brings down the potential value that users could glean from the service.
Overall, I give this round to Sling TV, if only because its introductory package is cheaper, and it's a bit easier to customize a more expensive package to suit your tastes. Since both it and PlayStation Vue promise to be around for a long time and offer plenty of channels, though, it's a close match.
WINNER: Sling TV. Those who don't need a ton of channels will find Sling TV's basic packages perfectly acceptable, but the services are evenly matched at higher price tiers.
After testing all three services, I found that PlayStation Vue has a slight edge over Sling TV and both services have a sizable advantage over DirecTV Now. I can say that PS Vue's DVR capabilities made the service indispensable for someone like me, who prefers recorded TV to live TV. I can also say that Sling TV and DirecTV offer a larger numbers of options at a potentially cheaper prices.
There's a lot of room for improvement for all three services, however. Getting around Sling TV is no picnic, while PS Vue's navigation is not much better, except on Sony devices. PS Vue and DirecTV Now can get so expensive that some may want to stick with a cable subscription, while Sling TV's pricing can add up quickly as you tack on channels. None of the services offers the sheer breadth of content that you'd get on a regular cable or satellite subscription.
Still, for the moment, PlayStation Vue is generally the most comprehensive option. You can get a free seven-day trial for either service, so if you're ready to cut the cord and desperate to keep live TV, it's probably worth your time to try out both first. Even better — if it's not to your taste, you can cancel any service at any time, with no commitment. That alone may make DirecTV Now, Sling TV and PS Vue preferable to traditional pay TV.
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