Review: Sling TV wins a battle for cord-cutters, but not the war... yet
Sling Television is the new "over-the-top" live streaming service in the United States from Dish that's taking aim at the cable companies' tight control of access to network programming. Gizmag has been testing it since launch and we can now report that it looks to have scored a direct hit.
We were able to demo Sling TV briefly at CES 2015 where it was introduced last month, but now we've had a chance to spend some quality time with it on various devices and network connections and dig deeper into what it offers.
For twenty dollars a month Sling offers 14 live-streaming networks, mostly Turner and Disney properties, including ESPN, TNT, TBS, CNN, ABC Family, HGTV, the Food Network, the Travel Channel, ABC Family and the Disney Channel, with AMC set to be added to the core package. There's also a few extra upgrade packages at five bucks a piece that give you the option to add more sports, kids or news channels. A few of the lifestyle networks (HGTV, the Food Network and the Travel Channel) also make some of their flagship shows available to watch on-demand through Sling TV, and there's also movies that can be rented on demand.
It sounds like a highly limited basic cable package, right? But the big deal here is that, for the first time, it's not tied to a cable or satellite subscription that's physically bringing the live programming into a specific physical location with an address somewhere in the country. It's just an app that works across multiple platforms, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Fire TV and Fire TV Stick and Roku. Soon it will also be available for Xbox and Nexus Player. No installation or other hardware required.
Don't expect to be able to meet your entire family's simultaneous streaming needs with a single Sling subscription as you can only stream content on one device at a time. In other words, if you want to stream something on your Fire TV and watch something else at the same time on a tablet, you'll need a second Sling subscription.
While it may not yet offer enough value or channels to convince everyone to cut the cord, Sling TV represents the first very significant chink in the armor of the cable companies. Getting ESPN and CNN in the channel lineup is a major coup as live sports and news are among the last types of content that can't really be easily streamed online.
Over the past week, we've used Sling TV over a DSL connection that just barely qualifies as broadband and a frequently congested LTE connection, and it has streamed wired-quality HD pictures the majority of the time. A streaming error typically occurred at least once per session that would require restarting the app, but I can't say if the issue was with the app or my network connection.
The PC version requires downloading a full-blown application rather than watching in a browser like Hulu or Netflix. The advantage here is that the Sling experience is identical across all platforms. That experience takes a little getting used to, particularly if you're accustomed to the staid programming guide user experience of most traditional set-top systems and less familiar with interfaces designed with touch and mobile devices in mind, where settings and menu dialogs slide in from all sides of the screen. Once you get used to where everything is located in Sling TV, it's pretty intuitive, but there is that little bit of a learning curve.
We tested Sling TV on an HTC One M8, a Nexus 7 tablet, Microsoft Surface, an older Windows 8 laptop and on an Amazon Fire TV stick. We were also able to watch via a Chromecast using the beta "Cast screen" function in Android Lollipop, although that method was the least consistent, delivering uneven volume levels and more streaming errors, probably because the content was effectively being streamed twice -- once from Sling to our Nexus 7 and then again from the tablet to the Chromecast.
Watching via Fire TV provided the best experience thanks to the ability to watch on a larger screen and use a remote. Somewhat humorously, Amazon blocks access to on-demand movies on the Fire TV version of the app – presumably they'd much prefer you rent those direct from Amazon on the device.
It's also been a great and novel experience to pull out a phone or tablet anywhere and show off our instant access to CNN, Adult Swim and streaming ESPN, a definite first that incites jealousy among dedicated college basketball fans around this time of year.
But when people, especially current cable or satellite TV subscribers, start to ask questions about the particulars of Sling TV, their interest seems to wane a little bit, unless they're the kind of frustrated Comcast customer that's practically already holding a knife to that cord. After all, 14 basic cable channels for twenty bucks might not seem like great value when cable and satellite providers offer hundreds of channels for anywhere from $40 to $100.
This writer cut the cord way back in 2004 and now subscribes to on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime to get my fix. Since I'm not a big sports fan and many of the other channels are interesting but not really essential to my watching habits, I'm also not sure that Sling TV is worthwhile for me just yet.
But the key word there is "yet." Sling TV has opened a very big door to a new world of streaming television. It's just matter of signing a few new channels to establish the critical mass of interest that will make it much more competitive. Just today Sling announced it will be offering a new add-on package feature the Epix movie channels, upping its appeal for cinephiles. The simple addition of another key network to join alongside AMC might be enough to convince this writer of Sling's value.
Product page: Sling TV