Can we all agree that no one wants to pay a fortune for a lot of TV channels that they don't watch? We like the idea of a la carte or scaled-down services that let us decide what we want to pay for and watch, but the providers have been less than enthusiastic about this approach, as they use the leverage of big-name channels to distribute their other channels. A number of high-profile players in our industry have tried to bust the bundle and assemble a smaller collection of marquee channels offered at a reasonable price.
It's that last part--a reasonable price--that has proven most elusive. As an example, Sony has been hard at work on its PlayStation Vue TV service that was announced last November (and still hasn't officially launched); the service has a respectable channel lineup, but reports suggest that the price will end up being $60 to $80--hardly the "OMG, I've got to cancel my cable subscription this minute" bargain the company hoped to offer. Plus, PlayStation Vue is currently missing a key TV player: ABC/Disney/ESPN.
That's why Dish Network's CES introduction of the Sling TV Internet TV service was such big news. Not only did Dish snag ESPN and Disney channels, but the company managed to keep the price at a desirably low $20/month. Of course, they had to sacrifice lots of other channels in the process, but we're getting ahead of ourselves...
Let's cover the basics of Sling TV first. This Internet TV service is completely separate from Dish's satellite service, and it doesn't require the purchase of any Dish gear. If you own an iOS or Android mobile device, a PC/Mac computer, or a Roku or Amazon Fire TV media player, you already possess the equipment you need for Sling TV. (The app is reportedly "coming soon" to other devices, like LG smart TVs, Chromecast, and the Xbox One.) All you have to do is download the free app to any/all of those devices and sign up for the service. There's no long-term commitment or contract; you can cancel or suspend service at any time, just like you can with other subscription-based streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus.
The basic $20 monthly package currently includes 14 channels: ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, El Rey Network, Maker, Adult Swim/Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC Family, CNN, and Galavision. Two weeks ago, Dish announced that the AMC network of channels (AMC, BBC America, BBC World News, IFC, SundanceTV, and WE tv) will soon join the core $20/month package.
There are also three add-on packs, each of which costs $5/month. The Sports Extra pack gives you ESPN U, ESPN News, ESPN Bases Loaded, SEC Network, ESPN Goal Line, ESPN Buzzer Beater, Universal Sports Network, Be In Sport, and Univision IDN. Kids Extra features Disney Jr, Disney XD, BabyTV, Boomerang, and Duck. Finally, the News & Info pack adds HLN, Bloomberg, Cooking Channel, and DIY Network.
Sling TV isn't just limited to TV channels. It also includes access to on-demand movies for rental, akin to the pay-per-use services offered by Apple, VUDU, and Amazon. In our initial comparisons, Sling TV had some of the same big-ticket newer releases as Apple and Amazon--like John Wick, The Nightcrawler, and The Theory of Everything. However, it lacked some of the biggest new releases, like The Hunger Games-Mockingjay Part 1, Big Hero Six, and Gone Girl. The Sling TV rental price for an HD new release is $4.99, $1 less than the same movies offered through Amazon and Apple. Dish announced this week that its partnership with EPIX will move over to the Sling TV platform, adding the four EPIX linear channels (as add-on options) and access to over 2,000 on-demand movies.
So, the content offerings are clearly a work in progress in these early-goings, but we'd remiss if we didn't point out the channels you don't get right now. You don't get any of the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS), the Fox Sports and Fox News channels, Viacom channels (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon), NBCUniversal channels (MSNBC, Bravo, USA, E!), or HBO/Showtime add-on options.
Let's talk about the user experience. We experimented with multiple versions of the Sling TV app--on a Mac, an iPhone 4, a Samsung Galaxy tablet, an Amazon Fire TV, and a Roku 3. Each app is customized ever so slightly to suit the screen size, navigation, and/or remote controls for the particular device you're using, but the basic design elements are the same. (The photos in this article are screen grabs from the Mac interface; click on them to view in a larger window.)
The channel list scrolls horizontally across the screen; below it are thumbnails of what's currently playing and what's coming up on the highlighted channel. On mobile devices, the press of an arrow exchanges the channel list with a playback bar that has options to pause, skip back 10 seconds, and skip forward 30 seconds (more on this in a second), as well as the ability to enable closed captions and see what your current Mbps streaming rate is. With devices like the Roku and Amazon boxes, the remote handles these DVR functions.
Other onscreen tools include a category list where you can customize the channel list by genre (sports, entertainment, news, or family). That's not really necessary when there are only 14 channels in the lineup, but it will be more relevant down the road as more channels are added.
Through the Menu tool, you can switch between the TV and movie sections and view the watchlist where movies you've ordered or tagged are waiting. The Movies interface has colorful thumbnails laid out horizontally in categories like Most Popular, New Releases, Action & Adventure, Comedy, Kids & Family, etc.
A Search tool allows you to search for content across both the TV channel guide and the on-demand movie listings. Voice search was supported on the Android tablet, but not on the Amazon Fire TV or iPhone.
The Settings tool includes the ability to dictate the streaming quality based on your network speed: best (no limit), high (1.5 mbps), medium (800 kbps), or low (500 kbps).
Overall, the interface is clear, colorful, and easily navigated. We found the Roku and Amazon interfaces to be the most intuitive, thanks to the fact that many functions can be handled by the remote. The interface for the computer and larger touchscreens was also simple enough. Our least favorite was the iPhone experience, as the smaller screen size made everything feel cluttered.
Naturally, performance is dictated in large part by the speed of your broadband connection (and you do have factor in the cost of that, too). For us, performance varied depending on what time of day it was. During peak hours, we saw a little stuttering and occasionally lost the signal for a second or two. When we had a good, strong signal, the picture quality, even on a 65-inch Samsung UHD TV through the Roku or Amazon Fire TV, was quite good (on par with the Dish Network satellite feed on the same channels), and the app was stable and seamless. Oftentimes, when you first switch to a channel, the picture is soft and compressed; but, within a second or two, it snaps into focus. As for audio, Sling TV is supposed to support Dolby Digital 5.1, but we only got stereo from a Roku 3 to an AV receiver.
In direct comparisons between Sling TV and the Dish satellite feed, we found that the Sling TV channels had a delay of about one minute--which will be a concern if you like to engage with others via Facebook, Twitter, et al, during live events.
The biggest concern with Sling TV right now is that the big-name channels do not include DVR functionality to record or pause/rewind/fast-forward live TV. Live playback is the only option on all the big-ticket channels in the basic package: ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Disney, CNN, Cartoon Network, and ABC Family. Only on HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, Maker, El Rey, and Galavision can you use the pause/rewind/forward tools and have the option to view previously aired episodes in an on-demand form (but not to record episodes as they air).
• Sling TV provides the live TV experience without the need to rent equipment or sign a long-term contract.
• The inclusion of the ESPN family, TNT, TBS, and Universal Sports is great for sports fan. Sling TV subscribers can also use the Watch ESPN app on other devices.
• The cost is very reasonable.
• The interface is generally easy to navigate, and picture quality is good (depending on your network speed).
• The Search tool searches across both the channel guide and the on-demand movie listings.
• HD movie rentals are a little cheaper than they are through Amazon and the iTunes Store.
• The channel offerings are fairly limited right now.
• The ability to pause/rewind/fast-forward is only available on a few channels, and you can't record anything.
• You can load the Sling TV app on as many devices as you want, but you can only access the service on one device at a time. So it's not a great choice for a family who wants to watch different shows on different devices simultaneously.
• You can't order on-demand movies directly from the app using the Roku, Amazon, or iOS platform. Rather, you have to order movies through the computer app, then go to the device to watch it. That's not at all intuitive. Only on Android devices can you directly hit the "rent" button and watch it immediately.
• Audio is currently limited to stereo.
• Sling TV currently doesn't support Apple TV or Chromecast.
Comparison and Competition
Sling TV is a game-changer precisely it doesn't have any direct competition when it comes to offering a standalone subscription service for live TV streaming of non-over-the-air channels. Others are in the works, such as Sony's upcoming PlayStation Vue platform. If you're a cable/satellite subscriber, most of the majors now provide a way to stream your live TV and DVR recordings to remote devices, and different channels provide over-the-top solutions to access their channels via remote devices. But again, you have to have the cable/satellite subscription first.
We recently covered an array of over-the-air DVR boxes that, when mated with an antenna, let you tune in and stream free OTA channels like ABC, NBC, Fox, and CBS. But these options don't include higher-tier channels like ESPN, TNT, and AMC. These boxes actually complement Sling TV rather than compete with it. We'd love to see Tivo and Sling TV pair up.
Sports fans can subscribe to various packages like MLB.tv, NBA League Pass, and NHL GameCenter, but that can get far more expensive than Sling TV and doesn't include football.
Right now, depending on your viewing habits, Sling TV might be more exciting for what it represents than what it actually delivers, hopefully motivating other cable/satellite providers to offer their own bundle-busting options. For us, the limited channel lineup is not a huge issue because we know that Dish will continue to add more choices. How many of those choices will be part of the basic package and how many will cost extra remains to be seen. The lack of DVR functionality on the major channels is the bigger concern in our book. That could turn away many people, especially the younger audience who scarcely remembers life before the ability to pause live TV.
Sling TV may not be the definitive cord-cutting solution, but then again, what streaming service is? Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu Plus all have their pluses and minuses in terms of the content they offer. Cord cutters really need to mix and match to find the best combination for them, and Sling TV fills in a crucial piece of the puzzle that's been missing: the live TV experience from higher-tier channels. If you love watching TV and the occasional movie rental, the combination of Sling TV and Hulu Plus would give you access to a whole lot of great programming--some live, some on-demand, all for around $30 per month.
For many, Sling TV's access to live sports could be the real kicker, so to speak. Most hardcore sports fans we know have never considered cutting the cord because they'd lose easy access to live sporting events. Now that they can enjoy a wide array of college and pro football, basketball, baseball, and soccer for $25/month (the basic package plus Sports Extra), cord cutting finally becomes a real option.
Sling TV offers a free seven-day trial (14 days through the Amazon Fire TV), so why not try it for yourself and see what you think? The service is currently only available in the United States.
• CES 2015 Show Report and Photo Slideshow at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• HBO to Offer Over-the-Top Service in 2015 at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• How to Break Free From Cable/Satellite Fees at HomeTheaterReview.com.