Dish Network stole the show at CES 2015 with Sling TV, a service that streams popular live TV channels with no cable or satellite subscription required. You get TNT, TBS, HGTV, Comedy Central and, perhaps most importantly, ESPN, for just $20 a month. For that last one — the key to watching live sports without cable — we awarded Sling TV Best in Show.
Now it’s here — or at least, we’re getting a media preview. Is it as wonderful on your TV as it sounded on paper? That all depends. As expected, Sling TV is nothing like having a Dish Network subscription, but it’s not exactly like streaming Netflix, either.
In anticipation of Sling TV’s invitational launch tonight, we’ve put together a comprehensive hands-on report for you, but before we dig in, we’ll cover the basics.
Sling TV Offer: Try Sling TV free fro 7 days
Sling TV: What it is and isn’t
Dish Network would still be happy to sell you 250 channels for $85 per month, and it doesn’t intend Sling TV to replace full-blown cable or satellite service. Instead, it hopes to meet the needs of so-called cord-cutters (those who quit cable) or cord-nevers (those who never had it) who can’t get everything they want from sites like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. That’s what makes Sling TV’s inclusion of ESPN so attractive – live streaming sports are hard to come by outside of a contract.
On the upside, there’s no commitment, no contracts and no cancellation fees for Sling TV.
There are some important asterisks. Right now, Sling TV allows just one stream at a time per subscription. You can easily jump from your tablet to your streaming set-top box, for instance, but you can’t use both at the same time. Also, many channels don’t allow time shifting; that means no pausing, rewinding or fast-forward. (We’ve outlined which channels do allow time shifting below.)
On the upside, there’s no commitment, and no cancellation fees for Sling TV. So if you try it out and decide it’s not for you, you’re only out $20. With the one-week free trial Sling TV offers, you can cancel any time in the first week, and you won’t be charged (you must cancel, though, otherwise your card will be billed for the first month).
Sling TV goes live for early adopters who signed up for an invite on Tuesday, Jan 27 at midnight EST, and is slated for availability to everyone else about two weeks later. We’ve listed a full device list below, but during the initial roll-out, the service will only work for the Roku 3, and for Android and iOS devices.
Below, you’ll find a chart with the basic Sling TV channel lineup, followed by a listing of the channels included in $5 add-on packages. Dish claims this list of channels and packages is expected to grow in time.
Included in $20 package: ESPN, ESPN2, Disney Channel, ABC Family, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, TNT, CNN, TBS, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, AMC, IFC, A&E, History, H2, Lifetime, El Rey, Makers, and Galavision.
In addition, Sling TV now offers live and on-demand content from premium network HBO for an additional $15/month, the same price as the HBO Now standalone app.
$5 add-on packs
- World News Extra: Bloomberg TV, HLN, Euro News, France 24, NDTV 24/7, and Russia Today
- Lifestyle Extra: truTV, Cooking Channel, DIY, and WE tv. FYI and LMN are coming soon.
- Kids pack: Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, and Duck TV
- Sports Extra pack: SEC Network, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Goal Line, ESPN Bases Loaded, Univision Deportes, Universal Sports, and beIN Sports TV
- Hollywood Extra pack: Epix, Epix2, Epix3, Epix Drive-in, Sundance TV
Video on demand
Sling TV offers a fairly robust selection of movies on demand at launch, with even more promised in the near future. Rental costs are $2.99 for SD and $3.99 for HD. The eclectic library includes a really healthy selection of Disney flicks, accented by old and new hits like Guardians of the Galaxy, Reservoir Dogs, Sin City, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc. In addition, a new deal with Epix will bring in around 2,000 VOD titles, with titles new and old, spanning the gamut from Wolf of Wallstreet to Pretty in Pink.
Titles are broken down into categories including Action & Adventure, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Foreign Films, Horror, Kids and Family, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Thriller, Classics, Romance, War & Westerns. A search feature is also available to make finding out if a specific title is available much easier.
We expected it to take some time to learn how to wade through a new layout, so it came as no surprise that Sling TV felt a little awkward at first. But in less than a day, we became accustomed.
Sling TV avoids the blocky “guide graph” of your home DVR in favor of a slicker timeline-based programming guide, enriched with thumbnail graphics for each show. We’re also glad to see an integrated search feature, which makes finding a specific movie in Sling TV’s on-demand catalog much easier.
The UI feels better on a tablet or phone than it does on our Roku 3, probably because Sling TV’s design lends itself better to a touchscreen or point-and-click interface than it does the Roku’s directional cursor navigation. It remains to be seen how the experience will play out on devices like Amazon’s Fire TV.
We tested Sling TV on a 65-inch TV screen, which we expected would expose any shortcomings in video quality … and it did. With a strong Internet connection and good throughput, we felt like we were watching 720p at best. Cable, Satellite, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu all have better-looking HD streams in our estimation. On smaller screens, compression artifacts and poor resolution are much less noticeable. We think Sling TV looks just fine for screens 47-inches and smaller, and beautiful on tablets and phones.
Loading and buffering
A solid, speedy Internet connection is recommended for the best Sling TV experience, but not required. Users can choose to stream at Low quality (0.5 Mbps) Medium (0.8Mbps) High (1.5Mbps) or Best (no limit). We streamed at the best quality and experienced longer load times and some buffering depending on the state of our Internet connection, but it’s nice to know those with fast connections can get a quality experience, and those with bandwidth caps can control data consumption.
Shifty time shifting
Whether or not you are able to pause, rewind or fast-forward the channel you’re watching will depend on which channel you’re watching. ESPN, TNT, Disney, and CNN, for example, don’t allow it, while HGTV, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel, Bloomberg, DIY BabyTV, and Duck TV do.
On the plus side, those channels that do allow time shifting will let you go back as far as three days in the channels program history so you can catch that episode of Property Brothers you may have missed. In any case, there’s no recording shows, so if you miss your favorite when it airs, there’s a good chance you’ll have to find another way to watch.
Sling TV will show up on a host of devices at launch, with the promise of more on the way. Here’s a list of what Dish has announced for launch, as well as what’s coming, and what’s still up in the air.
Available at full launch
- Amazon Fire TV
- Amazon Fire TV Stick
- Google’s Nexus Player
- Select LG Smart TVs
- Roku players
- Roku TV models
- Select Samsung Smart TVs
- Xbox One
- iOS and Android devices
- Mac, and PC
Not yet …
- Apple TV
- Devices and TVs using Google’s Android TV platform
- PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4
- Apple TV: While the Apple TV isn’t available at launch, as long as you’ve got an iOS device, it kind of is. Thanks to AirPlay, you’ll be able to send any content to your Apple TV with one touch of the screen from your iPad, iPhone, and select Mac computers with AirPlay. Bear in mind, this uses up device resources and battery (if applicable).
- Chromecast: While most of the channels won’t initially work with your Chromecast, ESPN will (sort of). A Sling TV subscription will allow you to authenticate the WatchESPN app, which does work with Chromecast. Its not much, but it does allow for some extra options. WatchDISNEY is also available for Chromecast, and should ostensibly be available for authentication with Sling TV, though that hasn’t yet been confirmed by Dish.
Sling TV isn’t for everyone, and Dish knows that. Still, at $20 a month with no contracts, commitments, or cancellation fees, it’s certainly worth a shot for those who have only kept cable around for channels like ESPN, CNN, or HDTV. With more channels to come, Sling TV’s value proposition will increase, but even now, it’s worth giving it a try. Pair it with an HD antenna, and a couple of other streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, and Sling TV begins to look like a very important part of a complete cord-cutter’s diet.
In the end, what’s there to lose besides your cable provider?
Updated 4/10/15: HBO is also now available on Sling TV for an extra $15 per month.
Updated 3/3/15: This piece was updated to include AMC and IFC to the core channel pack, as well as the new “Hollywood Extra” add-on channel pack.
Updated 2/16/15: This post has been updated to add new programming options, including the forthcoming AMC network, as well as new VOD titles from Epix.