I recently decided to cut the cord and get rid of satellite TV service, a journey you can read more about here. I came to the realization early on that, while on-demand subscription services like Netflix and Hulu are great, I still value the live TV experience. That's where Internet TV services like Sling TV, DirecTV NOW, and PlayStation Vue come into play. I've already auditioned Sling TV and DirecTV NOW, so today I turn my attention to PlayStation Vue, which originally launched to limited markets and limited devices in March 2015. Slowly but surely, the service has expanded across the country, and it is now available on most major streaming platforms, including PlayStation (of course), Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, Chromecast, iOS/Android mobile devices, and any Web browser. I tested it through both the Roku and Amazon Fire TV platforms, as well as via Chrome and Safari Web browsers.
Sony offers four Vue packages: Access Slim costs $29.99/month for 45+ channels, Core Slim is $34.99/month for 60+ channels, Elite Slim is $44.99/month for 90+ channels, and finally there's Ultra Slim for $64.99/month, which includes all the Elite Slim channels plus HBO and Showtime. You also have the option to add channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and Epix to any of the lower-tier packages for additional monthly fees. In terms of both price and number of channels, Vue falls right in the middle of Sling TV (which starts at $19.99 for 30+ channels) and DirecTV NOW (which starts at $35 for 60+ channels). None of these services requires a long-term contract, and you don't have to pay monthly fees to rent set-top boxes.
To get started with Vue, you must go to the PlayStation Vue website and create a Sony account, if you don't already have one. I did already have an account in place, so I simply signed in and selected a Vue package to try out free for seven days. I went with the lowest priced package, Access Slim, which includes ESPN, ESPN2, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Cartoon Network, AMC, BBC America, Bravo, TBS, TNT, USA, FX, E!, HGTV, Food Network, Discovery Family, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Sports 1 and 2, NBC Sports, and more. (Sadly, Sony recently ended its deal with Viacom, so channels like MTV, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon are no longer available in any of the packages.)
The channel that instantly caught my eye was CBS--yes, the actual broadcast version of CBS. The main drawback thus far to these Internet TV services, compared with cable/satellite packages, is that the major broadcast networks are only offered in certain cities and may come at an additional expense. Vue is no different. In the Denver/Boulder area where I live, the live versions of ABC, NBC, and FOX are not available; I can only access content from these channels on-demand, at least one day after it has aired. (Here's a recent list of the markets where each network is offered. Also, if you punch in your zip code on the Vue website, it will tell you which channels you can get in your area.) But at least I get live CBS here, which is more than DirecTV NOW or Sling TV can offer at this point. (Neither service has a deal in place with CBS yet.)
As with all of the Internet TV services, the Vue interface will vary depending on which device you use it on, but there are some basic design elements employed across all the platforms. I began watching Vue through the Web interface (and the pictures in this review are taken from the Web interface), which places four main menu options along the top of the screen: My Vue, Channels, Live TV, and Guide. Underneath those menu options are rows of large, colorful thumbnail images for the various channels and/or shows. In typical "we're Sony, we need to be different" fashion, the Vue Guide has the opposite layout of every channel guide I've ever seen--in that it runs the channels horizontally across the screen (in alphabetical order) and runs the time slots vertically down the screen. You can choose to view all channels or only the channels designated as favorites, sports, kids, or news. If a certain program catches your eye, you can click on it to get more program info, then hit the arrow button to tune in to that channel.
The "Channels" and "Live TV" menus provide very similar information (i.e., what's currently playing), only these screens consist of the larger, colorful thumbnails instead of the standard channel grid design--it's a more Netflix- and Amazon-esque layout, to be sure. In the "Live TV" menu, if you click on a certain program, you're given info on the episode now playing, as well as episodes that are available to watch on-demand.
The last menu option is My Vue, which highlights your favorite channels and recently watched programs. More importantly, it's where you'll find the list of shows that you've flagged to record. That's right, Vue has a cloud-based DVR function that allows you to record, rewind, and fast-forward through shows, and it assembles both recorded and on-demand episodes together in the My Vue menu. The DVR function isn't very advanced; you can't designate "record once" versus "record all" or set it so that only news episodes are recorded, and it only stores recorded episodes for up to 28 days. But it's still a DVR, and it gets the job done. The Recently Watched section is also nice because, with some content, it remembers where you stopped watching the show and gives you the option to finish it. If you see the words "catch up" on the program, it means Vue has stored the episode, and you can pick up right where you left off. In other cases, you'll see the words "on demand," which means you can access the complete episode again from the beginning. These options appear to only apply to TV shows, not movies that you've watched through a Vue channel. For the record, Vue does not include the large category of on-demand movies that DirecTV NOW offers.
In terms of AV quality, Vue streams its content at 720p through Web browsers and streaming media boxes, and it only offers stereo audio. Through Web browsers, you can set the video quality for SD, HD, or auto to suit your broadband speed. I found the picture quality and reliability through the Safari browser to be perfectly acceptable, but playback through Chrome was unwatchable because the video skipped and stuttered constantly.
It's important to note that, for those who plan to use Web browsers or mobile devices to watch Vue on the go, some channels--namely, your local channels (if you get them) and regional sports channels--may not be available when you are watching content outside of your home network and zip code. In general, Vue is more restrictive about location than the other services I've tested: Once you have set up Vue on a home device with a certain IP address and zip code, you can't sign in on a device located somewhere else without locking out the original device. The purpose is to keep people from sharing accounts and passwords. Within your home, though, you can stream Vue to up to five different devices simultaneously (DirecTV NOW only allows two devices at once, and Sling TV allows three devices with its higher-tier packages).
Next, it was time to check out Vue on a big screen, so I downloaded the app to my Amazon Fire TV, connected to a Samsung UN65HU8550 UHD TV and Polk MagniFi Mini soundbar. The Amazon Fire TV was one of the first non-PlayStation boxes to support Vue, so they've had some time to presumably work out the kinks in their interface. Indeed, I really liked the Vue user experience through the Fire TV. At first launch, it shows you a picture of the Fire TV remote with instructions on what each button will do within Vue. It's a small touch, but it ups the user-friendliness factor. The same basic elements found in the Web interface--Guide, Live TV, Channels, My Shows, Recently Watched, etc.--are also used in the Fire TV interface, with the same large colorful images. I found it to be quick and intuitive to navigate--one or two button pushes generally got me to whatever screen I desired. The only thing I wasn't crazy about was the search function, which forces you to scroll through an onscreen alphabet that rolls up and down the screen--it's a bit slow and laborious.
Picture quality will depend on your broadband speed. Sony recommends at least 10 Mbps for the best experience and a minimum of 5 Mbps. I felt the quality of the Vue streamed image was comparable on my 65-inch UHD TV to what Dish Network delivers via satellite, but the picture wasn't as crisp and detailed as an over-the-air broadcast for a channel like CBS. Signal reliability was excellent for me--enough so that I never really thought about the fact that I was watching Internet TV versus satellite or cable.
I also auditioned Vue on the Roku app and was much less enthusiastic about the interface. It doesn't include a channel guide at all, and it lacks a button to pull up the main menu screen; so, I felt like I was constantly moving through layer after layer to get where I wanted to go. Picture quality and signal reliability were good, though.
• PlayStation Vue offers four different packages that include many of the big-name channels in news, sports, and entertainment--and CBS.
• The service doesn't require a long-term contract or equipment rental fees.
• The service is now available through every major streaming platform, and it includes a DVR function.
• Reliability and video quality were good through the Safari Web browser, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV.
• You can stream to five devices at once in your home, and you can create up to five profiles for different users.
• Vue only supports stereo audio, not Dolby Digital 5.1.
• Live streaming of the major broadcast networks is only available in select cities.
• The mobile and Web apps are more restrictive than those of competing services. There are some channels you can't watch outside of your home network and zip code, and DVR content is not available through the mobile app.
• Vue doesn't offer as many channel customization options as some competitors.
Comparison & Competition
I've already discussed the two main competitors to PlayStation Vue: Sling TV and DirecTV NOW. Sling TV has three package options priced from $20 to $40. It has the lowest starting price and the most customization options to tailor your channel lineup--in that you can also add on $5 packs, like the Sports pack, Kids pack, News pack, or Comedy pack. Sling has been beta-testing a cloud DVR function and recently made it available to Amazon Fire TV and tablet owners for $5/month. Apparently Apple TV is next.
With DirecTV NOW, the base package costs just $5 more than Vue's base package but gets you about 15 more channels, plus a slate of on-demand movies (not brand new releases, but the kind that you'd come across on TV.) You can add HBO or Cinemax for $5/month. DirecTV NOW does not offer DVR service yet, and playback reliability has been an issue.
YouTube has announced that its live TV service, YouTube TV, will cost $35/month and include 36+ channels. The package will feature live versions of ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and the CW. YouTube TV is rolling out to select cities right now.
PlayStation Vue is a very compelling option for someone who wants to cut the cord but doesn't want to lose the live TV experience. You can go skinny with the entry-level $30 package or get a full-blown channel lineup with HBO and Showtime for $65, with no long-term commitment. DVR functionality is included in the cost of all packages and works on almost all Vue-compatible devices (except mobile), which is not the case with competing services. Picture quality and signal reliability were very good, and I found the user interface to be the most intuitive of the services I've tested thus far, at least on the Amazon Fire TV.
As I continue on my cord-cutting journey, I might revisit Sling TV to see how much it has changed/improved over the past two years. For the time being, though, I would definitely say that PlayStation Vue is my preferred Internet TV option, offering the best combo of price, channels, and performance.
• Check out our Applications category page to read similar reviews.
• Reflections From a Recent Cord Cutter at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• What's the Skinny on Skinny TV Bundles? at HomeTheaterReview.com.