By Chris Heinonen on
Wednesday night I got to see Russell Westbrook take an inbounds pass in overtime, dash down the lane, and score with 0.8 seconds left to give the OKC Thunder a win at Washington. When I put the kids to sleep I sit there and read Twitter while I wait for them to finally fall asleep. This Wednesday was my first with SlingTV, and with live ESPN I got to watch the game happen live on my iPhone while they dozed off to sleep.
SlingTV was a game changer when Dish announced it at the 2015 CES. For $20 a month you could get live streaming ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, CNN, FoodTV, and a few other channels. Not only could you get them on your TV (using a Roku or FireTV) but you could watch them on your laptop, tablet, or cell phone. For once TV would follow you where you wanted to be, instead of forcing you to be home where it is. It isn’t perfect right now, but SlingTV lets me forget about subscribing to cable and fits my life better than any other alternative out there.
Cord Cutters Rejoice
At their CES press conference, Dish was clear that they don’t believe that SlingTV targets people that already have Cable or Satellite. If you watch a ton of channels each month, SlingTV isn’t going to be for you. There’s currently no AMC for Mad Men or Walking Dead, no FX for Sons of Anarchy, no local sports channels for your local team. If you watch a lot of TV every month, and a lot of channels, cable TV and satellite are still going to offer you a better value most likely.
SlingTV is targeting people like me. We gave up cable after our first son was born, once we realized we didn’t watch it anymore. Spending $70 a month or so to get sports wasn’t worth it to us, and we haven’t looked back. With a good antenna, Netflix, and Hulu Plus, we catch a lot of our favorite shows. Where I lose out is with sports. ESPN carries almost all the important bowl games now, and the NCAA football title game. TNT and TBS carry March Madness. Our kids don’t even know what live TV is, since they only use Netflix as the major networks don’t even show cartoons anymore.
For those cable cutters, SlingTV offers an alternative. The most popular channels, delivered to your devices, for a monthly fee with no contract. It’s almost less like cable TV and more like Spotify or Netflix. You get the content, wherever you are, for a monthly price and can cancel whenever you like. I named SlingTV as my favorite thing at CES for The Wirecutter and signed up for a trial as soon as it was available. After using it for a few days now, I’m sold but have a couple of things that they can improve.
The biggest worry with SlingTV was that of image quality. Since it is streaming, will it look good compared to cable? I can tell you that it looks just as good as cable does. The signal has extra compression to stream over the network, but your cable company compresses the stream as well. Watching the stream of ESPN on my 60” Panasonic VT60, it looks as good to me as ESPN does with an HD cable box. Unlike with service from Comcast, I’m not paying a monthly fee of $8-10 to rent a HD cable box, my Roku and FireTV both work just fine. If you have a recent Samsung or LG TV, they’ll have their own built-in app for SlingTV as well.
Changing channels is quick at 2-3 seconds. Is isn’t instant but even cable takes a second to switch with digital channels. An advantage of SlingTV is that feature updates can happen much faster than on cable TV. Updating an app for a few platforms is much easier than updating a platform for cable boxes that are a few years old. There are fewer hardware limitations, and the software is much more flexible. This lets SlingTV create a viewing guide that breaks away from the usual..
On almost all our devices, the TV Guide resembles what we saw in the paper when we were growing up. It’s flat, boxy, and only has text. SlingTV uses a much more graphical guide that is based on channels more than time slots. Scrolling across channels you can see what is on now, what was on before, and what is coming up. Most channels on SlingTV let you view programs up to 72 hours old, so you can catch that episode you missed. ESPN doesn’t let you pause live TV as part of their agreement to have it on SlingTV, but most channels let you watch what you want. The guide to what is on has many images, with lots of info about the program and works great for browsing everything on that channel.
Beyond the basic channels you get for $20 (ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, FoodTV, CNN, Travel, ABC Family, and a few more) there are $5 packages with more channels. The current packages are Family, News & Info Extra, and Sports. Family includes some Disney channels and other kid specific choices. News adds Bloomberg, HLN, Cooking Channel and DIY. The Sports tier isn’t known yet, but they’re promising extra ESPN channels and others. Most people don’t need these extra tiers, but I can see myself adding Sports come football season. If you find yourself adding all them, then you might want to start looking into Cable or Satellite again.
SlingTV also offers Video-on-Demand (VOD) options that are like those from other online digital rentals. You get 30 days to start a rental and once you start 24 hours to finish. It was $5.99 for me to rent Guardians of the Galaxy in HD and it started up fast on my Android tablet. The image quality isn’t as good as a Blu-ray, but it looks like anything you’d stream in HD from Netflix or other online sources. It is convenient to have all the streaming and VOD in a single location instead of across many apps but this isn’t groundbreaking.
My main downside in using SlingTV has been the guide interface on my iPhone 6. The graphical guide is pretty, but takes up the whole screen when you want to use it. The size of the icons is fine for a TV or tablet, but for an iPhone they need to make it more compact. The new interface looks good on larger screens, like a tablet or TV, but the phone one needs tweaking.
An issue for some people will be that your live TV from networks is not done through SlingTV. All you need is an antenna with your HDTV since it has a tuner, but you have to look in two places to do that. Since they are targeting cord cutters, most people using SlingTV will have either already bought an antenna or are using Hulu Plus to watch their shows. SlingTV is just another app with some streaming cable channels on it. For me this isn’t an issue, but I can see where it can cause confusion for some people.
Another downside is that your $20/month subscription entitles you to one stream at a time. If the kids want to watch Disney and the game is on ESPN, well, one of us is going to be unhappy. Of course there are issues with people sharing accounts and such, but allowing either an extra stream for a fee (like a cable box fee) is one option. Or tying you to a single IP address at a time so you can watch in the home on many devices. So far this hasn’t been an issue in my house but it is early.
Finally I found that on one of my Android tablets, ESPN was lagging behind by almost an hour. I could watch SportsCenter live on my phone, but when I switch to the tablet it was well behind. I don’t know if it was running the background and buffering, or if the SlingTV app on Android isn’t working as well as the iOS one, but it was a weird bug. Had I been trying to watch a game live and I was getting it delayed it would have been a big issue.
Changing the Game
When SlingTV was announced at CES, to me it was a game changer. Many other people were more skeptical and didn’t think of it as being much different than cable. Had I gotten cable instead of SlingTV I couldn’t have watched that Thunder-Wizards game. I’d have missed seeing Federer lose in the Australian Open because I was already in bed. I’d only be able to watch on a single TV in my house, instead of on any device I want, unless I wanted to rent a HD cable box for $10 per TV from the cable company. Even then with SlingTV I can watch things while I’m at the coffee shop or anywhere else, not just in front of my TV at home.
The main issue I have right now is that the iPhone interface is just not as refined as the other devices. The elements are far too large for the screen size and makes navigating harder. On a tablet they look fine, but on a phone it just takes up the whole screen. This is the sort of issue that an app update can fix. The single stream thing might be an issue for some people, but that depends on your situation.
For me, SlingTV is going to get $20 a month from me for at least half the year. I will sign up during football season, and I might even get the sports package if it includes what I need to see my favorite college teams. I’ll also sign up during March Madness, as TNT and TBS carry most of the games along with CBS. The rest of the year, I can sign up if I want to watch something but cancel it if I do not. Unlike cable I’m not stuck with a contract I can’t get out of, or equipment that I have to rent and then return to a distant office when I’m done.
I’m glad that SlingTV is here to shake up a market that needs it. For a cable cutter like myself, having access to ESPN without having to pay at least $85/month to Comcast is a huge win. Freeing me from having to be at my TV to watch channels is a huge difference and lets me catch things that I never could before. SlingTV will open up to people that pre-registered this week and then to everyone else next month. With a free one-week trial, there’s no reason to not give it a shot and see if it is also the right answer for you.