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.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
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