If you've followed my cord-cutting journey thus far, then you know that the live TV experience is something with which I'm not willing to part. Some people cut the cord and never look back. They fully embrace an on-demand only form of TV watching, relying solely on the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video for their content. I am not one of those people. I missed my favorite primetime shows. I missed having ESPN on as background noise. And I especially missed live sports. Basically, I missed the TV-watching experience that I've known for the majority of my life.
As a result, I chose to subscribe to Sling TV's Orange service. For just $20 per month (plus $5 for DVR functionality), Sling Orange gives me most of the channels I used to watch through DISH's satellite service, including ESPN, TNT, TBS, BBC America, Comedy Central, Food Network, AMC, and CNN. The one thing it didn't give me was my local channels. For that, I turned to Nuvyyo's Tablo DUAL over-the-air HD DVR, which costs $249.95 plus $4.99/month for the channel guide. Content-wise, this tandem pretty much delivers exactly what I want for a reasonable monthly price--the only drawback is the lack of a cohesive user experience. I'm constantly jumping from one live TV service to another and back again, which grows tedious. I know, I know ... first-world problem.
It's obviously a big enough first-world problem (perhaps complaint is a better word) that DISH Network decided to address it with the introduction of an entirely new brand: AirTV. The new AirTV Player is essentially an Android TV-based streaming media player in which the hardware and interface have been redesigned to put more emphasis on the live TV experience, in part by uniting Sling TV and over-the-air TV into one channel guide.
To make the most of AirTV requires several pieces: the AirTV Player ($99.99), the USB AirTV Adapter ($39.99), an OTA antenna, and a Sling TV subscription. You can purchase the AirTV Player/Adapter combination pack for a discounted price of $129.99, which currently comes with a $50 Sling TV credit that essentially lowers the asking price to $79.99.
Let's dig deeper into AirTV and see what we think.
The AirTV Player is a 5.25-inch square that's about one inch tall, similar in size and shape to many streaming media boxes. Aesthetically, the player and its accompanying remote have a distinctive look--each has a mostly matte white finish but with a bright blue accent strip. To me, they kind of look like products that would be marketed to kids; I'm more a gloss black fan myself, but to each his own. The only button on the player is a remote finder on the top panel that you can press to initiate a beeping sound on the remote when you've misplaced it.
Around back you'll find an HDMI 2.0 output; yes, this is a 4K-friendly player. It doesn't support HDR, but it will output a 4K resolution to compatible TVs, and it includes the 4K versions of apps like Netflix, Google Play, and YouTube.
The connection panel also has an optical digital audio output, which improves compatibility with non-HDMI-equipped receivers, soundbars, powered speakers, etc. There's also an Ethernet port for a wired network connection, or you can use the built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Two USB ports are included to attach peripherals and media drives. Bluetooth is also onboard, to wirelessly connect headphones, keyboards, and such.
The remote communicates via Bluetooth, and it offers more buttons than that of your typical Android TV controller. Running down the left side are buttons for power, voice search, TV volume, and mute, plus a button with a diamond on it that takes you to the Android TV home page (more on this in a minute). In the remote's main area are dedicated buttons to launch Sling TV and Netflix, as well as buttons for guide, info, favorites, back, recall, play/pause, OK, and navigation arrows. Overall, the remote is laid out cleanly and intuitively, but there is one possible source of confusion: the button with the Google "G" logo on it. I figured this would launch Google Play, but it actually activates general Google search. The microphone (voice search) button searches for content within the app you are using, while the G button lets you search broader topics, such as weather, sports scores, etc.
I connected the AirTV Player via HDMI to a Samsung 4K TV. If you've ever set up an Android TV device, you'll immediately recognize the colorful little circles that spin on the screen when the unit first powers up. This box was somewhat slow in getting to the initial setup screen, compared with other Android TV players I've tested.
The setup process is quite simple: pair the remote, select your language, and sign in to Google or create an account. You can choose to do that last step on the TV screen or via a laptop/tablet (or you can skip it). I chose the latter, since my laptop was open and on my lap at that moment. The AirTV Player auto-detected my TV and configured the remote to control the Samsung's volume and mute; HDMI CEC is in place, and the player is set up to automatically power the TV on and off in conjunction with the player. It can also be set up to control volume/mute on an audio receiver, if you connect one.
The last step in the setup process is to sign in to your Sling TV account or create one. (By the way, you don't have to sign up for Sling TV. I suppose you could just use this as an Android TV player. However, when you read the next few sentences, you'll understand why that seems like an odd choice.) Once you've signed in, you're taken directly to the Sling TV interface--not to the Android TV home page, which is where a traditional Android TV device would take you. In fact, every time you power up the AirTV, you're taken to the Sling TV interface; so, instead of being greeted with a bunch of apps to choose from, you're greeted with live TV content options, which feels a lot closer to the experience many of us are used to, thanks to a lifetime of cable/satellite use.
The next step for me was to attach the AirTV Adapter. As with Sling TV service, you don't have to add the TV tuner, but you won't be taking full advantage of the system's core features if you don't. I connected my non-amplified Leaf Mini indoor antenna to the RF end of the AirTV Adapter and inserted the other end into one of the USB ports on the AirTV Player, which immediately detected the addition and asked if I wanted to run a channel scan. I did, and the resulting scan pulled in 43 local channels (the Tablo tuner I normally use found 37 channels). The system instantly integrates those tuned channels directly into the Sling channel guide, and now you're ready to access all of your live TV content through one interface.
A couple other quick setup notes: The player supports resolutions from 480p/60 up to 2160p/60, with the option to output 24p if you prefer. It's set by default to automatically choose the best resolution for your TV; in my case, that was 2160p/60. On the audio side, the AirTV Player can be set for auto or LPCM to access the internal decoders. It can decode basic DTS and up to Dolby Digital Plus 7.1, but it does not decode Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, or the object-based formats.
At this point, you might be thinking, "Okay, so this thing puts local channels and Sling TV channels in one guide. That's it? That's the selling point?" I kind of thought that, too. But in reality, as I lived with the AirTV system over the course of a couple weeks, I was better able to appreciate all the subtle ways that both the hardware and software deliver a more cohesive live TV experience.
Since the Sling TV interface is a major part of the overall experience, let's start there. The interface features five menu options: My TV, On Now, Guide, Sports, and Rentals. "My TV" is what comes up when you power on the device or hit the remote's Sling TV button. This page includes many sections, each of which features a horizontal row of thumbnails. The sections are My Channels (your favorite channels, with thumbnails that show what's currently playing on each channel), Recordings (if you've opted to add Sling TV's Cloud DVR service), Continue Watching, Featured Shows, Featured Movies, and Local Channels. If you've signed in to Netflix, there's even a section that integrates recently watched and trending Netflix shows right there in the Sling interface. This is also where you'll find the Sling TV settings, where you can fine-tune your local-channel lineup and set the quality of the Sling TV stream (best/no limit, high/2.8 mbps, medium/1.2mbps, and low/800 kbps).
"On Now" has the same horizontal layout, but the sections are divided by genre: Sports, Kids, Lifestyle, Action & Adventure, Comedy, Drama, News, and Everything. Likewise for the Sports menu. Basically, these menus take their design cues from the on-demand providers--they focus on content instead of channels. "On Now" was great for a busy college football Saturday, allowing me to see all the games going on at any given time as opposed to having to search through a channel grid. But hey, for those who want a traditional channel guide (and sometimes I do), Sling TV offers that, too. The Guide interface lists channels vertically and half-hour time slots horizontally--with the ability to show all channels, only favorites, or filter by genre. Sling TV's channel guide is organized by package type; I'd prefer an option to arrange it alphabetically.
Finally, Rentals gives you access to Sling TV's own on-demand movie rental and PPV service, which includes many of the same big-name new releases you'll find in other apps like Google Play.
I usually watch Sling TV using a Roku box and remote, and I definitely enjoyed the user experience more through the AirTV system. The addition of the dedicated buttons for guide, favorites, and recall (which brings up thumbnails for the last five channels you watched along the bottom of the screen) to the remote just makes it feel more like you're watching traditional live TV. The only thing missing is the ability to channel surf with channel up/down buttons. For those who are paying for Sling TV Cloud DVR functionality, certain channels allow you to pause live TV, jump back in 10-second increments, and jump forward in 30-second increments. Unfortunately, many Sling TV channels don't support these functions--you can record the content and then utilize the play/pause/rewind tools, but you can't pause live TV.
When you tune to a channel, be it Sling TV or OTA, playback usually begins almost instantaneously. With my Tablo tuner, I have to wait as long as 17 seconds the first time I tune to a channel during a particular viewing session--so I appreciated the immediacy offered by the AirTV system.
Here's another little perk that I liked a lot: If a certain channel is playing when you power off the AirTV box, that channel will resume playback when you turn the box back on--just like you get with your cable/satellite box. Again, it's a subtle thing that really reinforces AirTV's mission statement.
Let's talk picture quality for a second. The local channels looked great --depending on the channel, of course. CBS consistently serves up a great-looking OTA feed, and the AirTV system did nothing to detract from it. As for the streamed Sling TV channels, the quality was less consistent. On my 65-inch TV, I could see that the image was a bit softer than that of the OTA channels, but it was generally pretty clean, without a lot of compression artifacts. Even with fast Internet, a wired connection, and the quality set to "Best," though, there were instances when the signal quality dropped off, and I felt like I was watching Internet video.
As I've already said, beyond the core live-TV functionality, the AirTV is also an Android TV player, with the features contained therein. I've already reviewed two standalone Android TV players: the NVIDIA SHIELD and the Xiaomi Mi Box. You can read those reviews to get specific details on the Android TV features and interface. Here, I'll just say that the AirTV launches apps very quickly and plays them reliably. I had no issues launching the 4K versions of Netflix and Google Play. Voice search worked as expected. You can still enjoy Google's Recommendations when you pull up the Android TV interface. And you have access to the Google Play Store to load a variety of music, movie/TV, sports, news, and gaming apps.
As an Android TV device, the AirTV Player also supports Chromecast. This allows you to incorporate services like VUDU that are missing from the Google Play store on this box. I had no issues casting most content from YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, and VUDU--although I couldn't get the box to play the 4K version of Jason Bourne that I purchased through VUDU. The casting would start, but the video would not play. My SD and HD VUDU titles played fine.
The biggest downside to the AirTV system, for me at least, is the lack of DVR functionality for over-the-air local channels. As someone who still loves primetime TV but doesn't get to watch it until after the kiddo is in bed, I rely on a DVR for shows like Speechless, This Is Us, and Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. Maybe it's not as important to you. If you're not paying for Sling TV's Cloud DVR functionality, then you won't have DVR features for any of your channels, and that's fine. But for those who do pay for Sling TV's Cloud DVR, the fact that recording/pausing capabilities don't work the same on all channels somewhat disrupts that great cohesiveness in the user experience that I described above. Also, this is only a single-tuner solution, but we are talking about a $40 USB stick (less if you buy the player/tuner combo). Dual-tuner OTA solutions with DVR functionality carry higher price tags.
Also, since the USB tuner must be connected to the AirTV Player and the player must be connected to your TV, you're a bit more limited in where you can position your antenna (or you need to use a longer cable somewhere in the chain). Devices like the Tablo, HDHomeRun, and ClearStream don't connect directly to your TV or set-top box, so you have more freedom to position your antenna in the best spot.
As an Android TV player, this box is missing some big-name apps that you'll find on some Android TV devices--like VUDU and Amazon Video--but Chromecast provides some work-around for this. Also, I did experience some freezes that required me to quit apps or reboot the box; I've found this to be true of many Android TV devices I've tested.
Comparison & Competition
The AirTV system caters to a very specific audience and thus doesn't really have a direct competitor, but you can certainly mix-and-match products/services to get similar--albeit not as integrated--functionality. To do so would first require the purchase of a streaming media player. If you want Android TV, the two main standalone players are the more expensive NVIDIA SHIELD ($179 to $199) and the Xiaomi Mi Box ($69.99)--both support 4K and HDR (although I never got HDR to work on the Mi Box, and its 4K support was glitchy). Then you add a USB tuner stick. Tablo offers a two-tuner USB stick with DVR functionality for $69.99 that works only with the NVIDIA SHIELD. AntennasDirect offers the ClearStream single-tuner USB stick with pause/rewind capability ($99.99) and a companion app that's available on all the major platforms.
The other approach is to pick whatever streaming media player you prefer--be it Android TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or Apple TV--and subscribe to an Internet TV service that supports local channels in your area. YouTube's new live TV streaming service offers all the local channels, but it is not available in all areas. PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now are available all over the country, but access to every local channel is not.
After spending a couple weeks living with the AirTV system, I can say without reservation that it re-creates the live TV experience better than any other product I've tried thus far--while still delivering the content-centric interface that I appreciate from an on-demand service. When you consider the other Android TV and USB tuner products on the market, the package price of $129.99 (and that $50 Sling TV credit) make the AirTV system an excellent value. Even if you omit the USB tuner and local channels from the equation, I think Sling TV subscribers would prefer using the AirTV Player to other platforms like Roku, thanks to all of the smart, TV-friendly hardware and software tweaks. Add in the player's 4K content and Android TV features like voice search, Bluetooth audio output, and Chromecast, and the AirTV is a strong overall option in the streaming media category.
• Visit the AirTV website for more product information.
• Check out our Streaming Media Player/App Reviews category page to read similar reviews.