Almost three years, I’ve been a “cord cutter” living without a pay TV subscription. Overall I’ve been very happy with this decision but there is still access to some content that I miss. I’ve been waiting for years for Apple to revolutionize the way I watch TV, but it seems this new service from Dish may have beaten them to the punch.
What is Sling TV?
Introduced at CES this year, Sling TV is one of the first true alternatives to a traditional cable or satellite TV subscription for cord cutters. Sling TV provides a dozen live TV channels and a limited selection of on-demand content from a selection of over 20 network TV channels that were traditionally only available through a cable or satellite TV subscription. The base Sling package includes a variety of channels including ESPN, ESPN2, AMC, TNT, TBS, HGTV, Food Network, CNN, Cartoon Network ABC Family, Disney Channel, Lifetime and more for $20 per month with no long-term commitment. There are also add-on bundles available that cater towards special interests that start at $5 a month or HBO can be added for $15 a month.
The base package offers a little mix of everything for most households. Children’s programing, news, family-friendly programing, and perhaps most notable for this type of offering, access to plenty of sports programing. One of the most common barriers to cord-cutting I hear is the inability to access live sports. A $20 sling subscription will solve this for many subscribers at monthly fee much lower than a traditional cable or satellite package. However, the Sling TV service is designed to only be used on one device at a time. Activating the service on one device will deactivate the service on all other devices, which makes Sling difficult to use in households with multiple members.
Sling TV does not offer any DVR functionality, but addition to the live programing users can access a limited back-catalog of shows that will vary by network. For example, on HGTV I can watch live programing, as well as programing that aired a few days prior. However, even when watching previously aired content the ability to fast-forward through commercials is limited channel by channel. A notable omission from the Sling TV offerings are the major network TV like ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, however many users will overcome this through an over the air antenna.
Sling TV is designed to be watched primarily on computers and mobile devices and based on my experience, that is the best interface. As of launch Sling TV will work with a dedicated App on Mac, Windows, iOS or Android. It also supports Amazon’s Fire TV or Fire Stick, Roku and Nexus Player. Unfortunately as of this writing, AirPlay via iOS does not work, though Sling says the functionality is coming. Sling has run promotions to offer a Free Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku streaming Stick or $50 off an Amazon Fire TV or 50% off a Roku 3 with a 3-month pre-paid Sling TV subscription. I purchased a Fire TV when it launched an have been using Sling TV primarily on that device during my testing.
What’s To Like
Sling TV is an exciting idea. It’s the first service of its kind to put together a serious package of pay tv channels without a traditional cable network. It will allow many who are on the fence about cutting the cord, but are perhaps afraid of losing access to certain type of programing, say live sports, the final nudge they need to take the jump. It’s perhaps a first step toward true ala carte tv. I’m very excited about the possibilities here.
In my testing, the service works mostly as advertised. While I tested their iOS and Mac apps, I primarily watched Sling TV on my 42" TV through an Amazon Fire Stick. Even over a wireless connection (802.11n) the video quality has been very good. When initially starting the App or switching channels there is generally a few seconds of buffering or pixelation but the picture then immediately clears up and generally stays crisp. There was one period of time during my testing where content was unavailable, presumably the service went down for short period of time. I suspect some of this may be related to early launch bugs.
While there is a limited channel selection, most people will find something to like. When I initially cut the cable the two channels I missed most were HGTV (a guilty pleasure) and CNN. While both networks have iOS apps, they require authentication with a pay TV provider to access more than basic content. Both are available on Sling TV. Sports fans may want to consider the Sports Extra add-on package for $5 a month which includes access to nine additional channels including ESPN U, ESPN News, the SEC network and more. There are also add-on packages featuring Kids and News programing, but the Sports package seems to be the best deal of the bunch. Sling says they’re in talks to bring even more programing soon.
Where It Needs Work
There are still some problem points with the Sling TV service. The most notable being that there’s no ability to customize your packages or any offerings less than the initial $20 per month base package. I suspect quite a bit of negotiation occurred behind the scenes to create the base package, but as someone who doesn’t care about sports programing I’d love the option to be able to create my own bundle at a lower entry price.
The experience using the Sling TV service varies from network to network. It seems each network is able to set their own policies on the previously aired content available, the ability to fast forward, rewind skip commercials, or even the types of commercials played in the programing. This leaves the user receiving a lot of “this action is not available” messages.
While I applaud Dish for brining the product to market so quickly after it was announced at CES, I can’t help but feel perhaps it was launched a little too soon. Although Apps are available for iOS, they do not support AirPlay which seems to be a major omission since this is clearly a service designed to be watched on a TV. I also noted several instances where the channel guide was incorrect. The UI experience varies between the platforms and is not very intuitive. While the Fire TV App was functional, I certainly wouldn’t call it a pleasure to use. Sling simply doesn’t sweat the details like Apple would.
Will I Stay Subscribed?
After using Sling TV for a couple of weeks, I don’t expect to renew my subscription next month. I was intrigued by the service because of what it represented but ultimately it doesn’t offer me enough value to stay subscribed. The channels I’m personally interested in are CNN, HGTV, and ABC Family. I canceled my cable TV subscription because I couldn’t justify paying over $100 a month when I really watched only a handful of channels, most of which I now receive free with an over the air antenna. For the same reasons, I’m not sure I can justify a $20 monthly Sling TV subscription, especially given the restrictions mentioned above.
That being said, I’m very excited that a service like Sling exists, and I hope they will continue to expand they offerings and packages. I will continue to watch this product. Sling TV is a great option for many and I think will convince many of those who are on the fence about cutting the cord to take the plunge.
I can’t wait to see what happens next.
This article first appeared in the March 2015 Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at http://www.screencastsonline.com/magazine/