Sling TV still set to slay cable, despite sloppy software

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Sling TV has an HBO option for $15 (Sling TV screenshot: Eric Mack/Gizmag.com)

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We learned at CES 2015 that Dish planned to disrupt the paid TV market (read: cable and satellite) in the United States, and in February Sling TV officially launched. Gizmag has been trying out the service for over two months now, during which time Sling has aggressively expanded its channel offerings, but has failed to clean up its sloppy software.

For more details, check out our initial Sling TV review, but the basic idea is that Sling is an "over-the-top" subscription streaming service that offers 21 live channels and some on-demand content. It costs US$20 a month, doesn't require any other sort of cable or satellite account, and can be accessed across the major platforms via apps for Mac, PC, iOS, Android, Amazon Fire TV and stick, Roku, Xbox One and certain smart TVs.

Sling launched with some big-name networks including CNN, ESPN, Disney, TNT and the ability to add extra sports, news and kids' channels through add-on packages for $5 per package. Dish and Sling continued to sweeten the deal shortly after launch and our initial review, adding AMC (home of mega-hits like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men), IFC and a Hollywood add-on package including Epix and SundanceTV that provides cheaper access to many of the same recent flicks you'll find on Netflix.

Perhaps the biggest coup of late for Sling has been landing HBO's stand-alone streaming service HBO Now, although it isn't called HBO Now, apparently because Apple still has an exclusive deal on using that name, but the program offerings do seem to be about identical to HBO on Sling TV.

The HBO back catalog is not 100 percent available on demand via Sling TV, but if you have Sling and Amazon Prime, you should have it all. Even still, we have been delighting in binging on newer HBO shows like Game of Thrones and Veep over Sling TV, as well as recent episodes of those aforementioned AMC shows. The video quality continues to be pretty impressive although not perfect, even over quite imperfect DSL and 4G connections.

This brings us to some of the flaws with the service that have become more apparent and irritating as we've spent more weeks with Sling.

First off are the wild inconsistencies in what features and programming are offered between channels. Some channels allow you to pause and rewind live TV, some don't. Some specific programs are not available due to programming restrictions, occasionally leaving you staring at hours-long blocks of a screen that simply says "restricted content" on certain live channel feeds. This seems to be fairly rare and due to network contracts, but when there's a marathon of Criminal Minds on, for example, expect a blackout of that channel.

Some channels have a large catalog of on-demand programming, some have nothing on-demand and some offer just the past few days or weeks of shows on-demand. Granted, we'd rather have this stratification of on-demand offerings than none at all, but figuring out what is actually available involves some time and frustration.

Contributing mightily to that frustration is Sling's lackluster interface that only seems to become more irritating as we spend more time with it and realize where it falls short in comparison to similar services like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu. There is just simply no easy, intuitive way to move through what is an admittedly more complex catalog of programming with both live and on-demand shows.

For example, let's say we want to find a less popular show like HBO's The Newsroom. It would take quite a while to browse through the channels to get to HBO, then to its on-demand section, then scroll through the ridiculous string of unlabeled thumbnails that represent the network's many shows. It's almost completely hopeless trying to find something by browsing what seems like an endless row of useless images.

Sling has HBO on demand, but what are those thumbnails? (Sling TV screenshot: Eric Mack/Gizmag.com)

Fortunately, Sling has a global search feature that works pretty well as an alternative. So we type in "The Newsroom" and our show comes up as one of two options. A few more clicks and we're at the list of episodes. Problem is, we're not sure which episode we left off with, so we try one and realize we've already watched it. Depending on which platform you're using, you may have to start this entire process over again from the search screen to try the next episode. Major frustration point for big binge watchers.

When watching via the Amazon Fire TV Stick app, we've had the annoying experience more than once, and on multiple channels, of an on-demand stream stopping or apparently coming to the end of the stream and cutting out the last five minutes of the program. This was an especially frustrating experience when watching the season finale of The Walking Dead, given that AMC's on-demand programming on Sling does not allow you to fast-forward. We were left with the choice of letting the stream play all the way through and hoping that it worked on the second try, or purchasing the full episode from Amazon to be able to fast-forward to the last few minutes.

First world problems, to be sure; and these little bugs and oversights are fortunately things that Sling could pretty easily fix with a software update and working a little more closely with its networks on their catalogs, for the most part.

All in all, Sling TV remains a compelling option for cord-cutters, despite its shortcomings, and an option that promises to become even better as it continues to grow.

Product page: Sling Television

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