By itself, the AirTV Player from Dish ($100) is a competent Android TV streaming box with a convoluted interface and some helpful functionality for Sling TV users. However, its usefulness increases considerably once you take into account the AirTV Adapter ($40). Easily the most innovative feature of the AirTV, this USB dongle lets you plug in an HD antenna and route all of your local channels through your AirTV box. Far from being an optional gimmick, the antenna integration is both gorgeous and useful, even if it really should have been included with the core product.
Ultimately, the AirTV is a good — but not great — streaming box, but it takes some time to prove itself.
If nothing else, the AirTV deserves some credit for not being a big, black box. Instead, the peripheral adopts a much, well, airier palette: white on top, and sky blue on the bottom. There's also a red power indicator on the front. The device is a good size: not tiny, but not obnoxiously big, either. Measuring about 5 inches across and 1 inch high, it's bigger than the Apple TV and the Amazon Fire TV, and about the same size as the Roku Ultra.
The back includes a number of ports. In addition to two USB ports and a digital audio port, users can plug in an Ethernet cord (not required; the device has Wi-Fi as well) and an HDMI cable. I was a little disappointed, though, to find that there was no expandable memory, and downright frustrated when I learned that the AirTV has a relatively paltry 6GB of available storage space.
Interface: Sling TV first
Let me put this as simply as possible: If you aren't a Sling TV subscriber, there's almost no reason you would want an AirTV. Sling TV isn't just one app among many; it's the basis for the whole interface. From the moment you complete the AirTV's simple setup process, you'll have to return to a Sling TV app time and time again, whether you want to watch Netflix, play a game or tinker with system settings. On one hand, it's convenient if you want a streaming box primarily as a Sling TV player; on the other hand, it's unnecessarily complicated to do anything else.
The AirTV doesn't really have a home screen, as other Android TV devices do. Instead, there's a special page of the Sling TV app that contains your favorite channels and bookmarked content. Then, at the bottom of the page, almost like an afterthought, there's a row of recommended content from Netflix and a bar that lets you access other apps. This is where you'll go for Hulu, Spotify, Plex, Final Fantasy III or any other Android TV app.
For users who have tried Amazon's Fire TV products, the undue emphasis on Sling TV will be familiar. After all, the AirTV is a Dish product; why not highlight its signature app? On the other hand, while the Fire TV does put Amazon content first and foremost, it's still relatively simple to get to non-Amazon apps and games. That's not the case with the AirTV, which relegates an entire operating system to a single button, hidden at the bottom of a home screen that isn't really a home screen.
Getting around Sling TV is easy, at least. A bar at the top of the screen lets you navigate among all of your various Sling Orange, Blue and optional package channels, plus whatever you get from your HD antenna (more on that later).
Although it's not a direct criticism of the AirTV, Sling TV desperately needs a better channel guide. It's pretty easy to see what's on any given channel, and what came before and after the current program. However, there's no way to bring up a comprehensive guide and see what's playing on 10 or 20 channels simultaneously, as traditional cable and PlayStation Vue offer. Finding a program can be tedious, whether you do it via search or channel surfing.
Beyond the Sling TV app, the AirTV has a traditional Android TV interface — that is, it's functional, but not very good. Finding apps is easy enough if you take advantage of Google's excellent search protocols; there's a Google button, and the remote has voice search.
Otherwise, expect to scroll through tons of oddly organized apps before you find what you're looking for. If you want to organize your myriad apps after downloading them, you're out of luck. I respect that Android TV is a clean and versatile interface, but by now, it should really be more customizable.
The AirTV remote looks and feels like a toy. It's made of blue and white plastic with a matte feel, is much wider than a Roku remote and uses its available space much less efficiently. The blue strip on the left of the remote contains a power button, a voice search activator, a volume button, a mute button and a diamond button that brings you to the Android TV home screen. (This device's function is not immediately clear, and the AirTV does not come with an instruction manual. There are some guides available online, however.)
The right side of the device is much more crowded. The top of the remote has four buttons dedicated to Sling TV: a Sling button that brings up the app; Info; a heart (for favoriting content); and Guide. Below that, there are four directional buttons with an OK button in the center, and then Back, Play/Pause and Recall (which brings you back to a previous channel) below that. There are also small, circular buttons for Netflix and Google search.
It's an odd hodgepodge of traditional TV and streaming-device commands. The remote can't quite decide whether it's there to help you navigate channels or help you navigate a streaming-box operating system, and as such, it doesn't fully succeed in either task. There's no easy way to get to your Android TV apps, once again making everything but Sling TV feel like an afterthought.
Content and Apps: Better for video than games
As discussed above, Sling TV is the star attraction on the AirTV. If you use it a lot, you simply won't be able to find a streaming box that makes better use of its features. Some of those features, like the Guide, still need work, but in terms of navigable, attractive interfaces, this is about as good as it gets.
Otherwise, you can access whatever you want from the Android TV store, provided that it requires less than 6GB of storage. Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, Google Play Movies and Music, Plex, Crackle, VLC Media Player and other popular media apps are all present. Although it's a pain to reach the apps from the AirTV's home screen, it's simple to install and use them(Android TV doesn't have access to Amazon Video, either, but that's not a problem with the AirTV specifically.)
Gaming, on the other hand, is a bit of a problem. Android TV has a wonderful selection of games to suit every taste, from classic role-playing games to casual puzzle titles. Unfortunately, though the AirTV offers access to almost every game in the Android TV library, not all of them will work. Most of them will, but remember: The device has only 6GB of storage.
As such, you won't be able to play big, complex games that require a lot of installation space.Because there are no microSD card slots and you can't use USB storage as expandable memory, there are a handful of games you won't be able to play. (Final Fantasy IX is the one I encountered trouble with; if there's another title you have your eye on, check the space requirements before buying it.) This isn't a huge or widespread problem, but it's one more example of how every Android TV feature takes a backseat to Sling TV.
Antenna: Star of the show
There's one thing the AirTV does better than any of its competitors: HD antenna integration. To be perfectly honest, before I plugged my antenna into the AirTV, I was ready to write it off as just another good-enough, me-too streaming box — and one that had virtually no appeal outside of Sling customers, at that. Seeing the beautiful way in which it handled broadcast channels changed my mind.
First off, to hook up your HD antenna to the AirTV, you'll need an optional $40 adapter. If you buy both the box and the adapter together, you can pay $130 in total instead of $140, but still, the adapter should have come with the box. It's the one unique selling point of the AirTV, and there's not much point in getting one without the other.
The adapter is plug-and-play. As soon as I hooked up the adapter and my antenna, the AirTV automatically recognized them and asked whether I wanted to run the setup procedure — no restarts, no manual mucking about in menus. Finding the 70-odd channels in my area took only a few minutes, although this may vary depending on what kind of antenna you have and how far you live from the broadcast source.
Once the setup is done, your antenna channels become part of your regular Sling TV experience. There's no special "antenna channels" tab; you just scroll right past your Orange and Blue selections, and there they are. Almost every channel has an icon, a name and a complete guide that covers its schedule for the whole day. I've had an HD antenna for months, and the AirTV finally taught me channel names and programming I'd never known about before.
There are a few trade-offs to attaching the antenna to an AirTV rather than a television. You can't simply channel surf; you need to select channels at the top of the screen, as with any other Sling station. Furthermore, each channel takes a few seconds to load, rather than appearing instantaneously as they do on a regular TV. Still, the benefits are more than worth the hassle.
The AirTV can handle 4K programming (though not HDR), putting it about on a par with the Amazon Fire TV, the Google Chromecast Ultra and some of the higher-end Roku boxes. Navigation isn't as snappy as it could be, but it generally didn't take too long for me to load apps, navigate among screens and jump between Sling TV channels. While the device has some trouble running high-end games (see the Content and Apps section), simpler titles run beautifully, and you're more than welcome to hook up any Bluetooth controller.
As a stand-alone streaming box, the AirTV is a competent, but not very exciting, device with a distracting fixation on Sling TV content. Taken together with its HD antenna adapter, though, it's something unique. Though other streaming devices, including the Nvidia Shield TV and the Xbox One, can handle HD antenna channels, no other device integrates it so beautifully within its existing OS.
But the AirTV's slick HD antenna integration alone isn't enough to excuse some of its more glaring faults. Navigation feels fractured, the Android TV elements are underplayed and the remote isn't very helpful. Still, if you're a Sling TV fan (or willing to become one) and want to combine that experience with a full suite of broadcast channels, it's hard to think of a more convenient way to do it.
Photo credit: Dish