If you’re looking to escape cable and satellite’s expensive monthly bills, restrictive requirements for set-top boxes, and frustrating channel bundles, you’re probably on the hunt for a live TV streaming service. With the right service, you may be able to both save some money and escape the bonds of pay TV. But no two services are exactly alike, so some homework is required.
We’re going to take a look at two of the most popular live TV services, AT&T’s DirecTV Now and Dish’s Sling TV, so you can see how they compare. We’ll break it down by category to help you decide which service is most deserving of your hard-earned cash. So grab your scorecard, and let’s do this!
Both Sling TV and DirecTV Now are owned by satellite TV companies: Dish and AT&T/DirecTV respectively. As such, both Sling TV and DirecTV Now are positioned as satellite TV alternatives — not replacements. In other words, they may cost less than traditional satellite plans, but you won’t get the same number of channels, features, etc. For most folks, that’s actually a good thing.
Sling TV has two basic packages: Sling Orange and Sling Blue. Both cost $25, with Sling Orange offering 34 channels and Sling Blue offering 56. You can get both (called somewhat obviously Orange+Blue) for $40 per month. Each package has a different set of channels, though there is some duplication. You get more channels with Sling TV Blue, but Sling TV Orange gives you way more sports, including ESPN. There are also several ways you can extend your programming even further, through channel add-ons, which start at $5 per month, and go up from there.
DirecTV Now has price plans that are far more reminiscent of traditional cable and satellite, starting with the $50-per-month Plus plan for 40-plus channels, including HBO (which Sling TV currently doesn’t support). From there, it starts to get pricey: The Max package costs $70 per month for 50-plus channels, including HBO and Cinemax; Entertainment costs $93 per month for 65-plus channels; Choice costs $110 per month for 85-plus channels; Xtra is $124 per month for 105-plus channels; and Ultimate is $135 per month for 125-plus channels. Add-on channels and features are available from $5 per month; additional cloud DVR space is $10 per month.
It’s worth noting that DirecTV Now’s least-expensive plan, at $50 per month, does come with HBO and cloud DVR included, but $50 is still a lot of money if what you really want to do is cut back on your TV spending. This one goes to Sling TV due to its skinnier channel bundles.
Winner: Sling TV
Sling TV’s Orange and Blue packages each offer a different balance of channels. Getting both at $40 per month means you’ll have multiple channels of sports, lifestyle, news, and entertainment choices, but some channels simply aren’t available at any price. You can’t get ABC, CBS, or HBO through Sling TV, and the availability of local affiliates for Fox and NBC will depend on where you live.
DirecTV Now, on the other hand, gives you all four major broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox), plus ESPN and HBO in its base plan, with the option of receiving over 125 channels depending on the package you choose. The only notable exception is the absence of the NFL Network, which was pulled from DirecTV Now’s packages in April 2019 after contract negotiations fell through.
Though you’ll have to pay for them, there’s no question that DirecTV Now can give you access to many more channels than Sling TV.
Winner: DirecTV Now
A live TV streaming service isn’t very helpful if you can only watch on a few devices. DirecTV Now has fairly strong support for different devices. You can watch on almost every Roku device (including Roku TVs), the two most recent versions of Apple TV (4th and 5th generations), 2nd-gen or higher Amazon Fire TV devices, and 2nd-gen or higher Chromecast (or Chromecast built-in) devices. If you have a Samsung Smart TV, that will work too, as will both iOS and Android devices, and both Chrome and Safari on the web. You’re out of luck if you want to use a gaming console, a non-Samsung smart TV, or an Android TV-powered smart TV or set-top box.
Sling TV, on the other hand, supports all of these devices, plus LG’s Web OS platform, Xbox One, Android TV, and Oculus Rift. It’s not a massive difference, but Sling TV takes this category.
Winner: Sling TV
We’ve found that Sling TV’s user interface, though not the usual grid style of most conventional cable and satellite companies, is nonetheless very easy to use and kind of addictive after a while. Unfortunately, it’s an inconsistent experience across devices, with mobile phones and tablets offering up a better overall experience than using an Apple TV, for example. The bigger frustration when watching on a big screen of 50 inches or more is the low quality of the video. We’ve pegged it as equivalent to somewhere between 720p and Full HD, and your internet connection will definitely play a big role in what you get. If you’re watching on a 65-inch 4K TV, you may need to temper your expectations. Audio is another disappointing area. Sling TV’s on-demand titles are often available in 5.1 surround sound, but live TV channels are exclusively streamed in stereo — perfectly adequate on a mobile device but not so great for home theaters.
DirecTV Now got off to a rocky start quality-wise at launch, but seems to have made big strides since then to offer excellent picture quality on all platforms. Its interface favors big, bold graphics and easy-to-navigate menus, and it works equally well on big and small screens. Overall, we think it’s a better-looking service. From an audio perspective, it’s a similar story: Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 are supported on all live TV channels that offer it, and it’s also available for the on-demand catalog.
Winner: DirecTV Now
Sling TV’s library of on-demand content sits at a pretty impressive 70,000 titles across 400 channels in 22 languages. Of course, your access to these titles will very much depend on the streaming package you buy, and whether or not you opt for add-ons like Starz or Showtime.
DirecTV Now’s on-demand catalog is significantly smaller, at around 40,000 shows and movies, but keep in mind, these include titles from HBO if your plan includes this channel, so it might be a case of quality over quantity. It’s tough to actually make a solid determination as to which service has a better catalog, so we’re going to call this one a draw.
DirecTV Now subscribers get the service’s Cloud DVR feature included. Free is good, but the storage is a paltry 20 hours which cannot be upgraded even for an extra fee. Shows and movies can only be saved for a maximum of 30 days. DirecTV says the feature is in beta, which would explain some of the limitations, but it’s been in beta for more than a year now. Each DirecTV Now subscription gives you two simultaneous streams, but you can upgrade to three simultaneous streams for $5 per month.
Sling TV offers a cloud-based DVR service for $5 per month, which gives you 50 hours of storage. Cloud DVR Beta users have access to 100 hours. If you run out of room it will automatically delete the oldest shows (unless you mark them as protected), and you can keep shows as long as you like as long as you’ve got room and keep paying for the DVR service. You can record any live TV channel except Disney-owned channels and ESPN. You can record as many shows simultaneously as you like, as long as you have room for them.
A Sling TV Orange subscription comes with just one available stream at a time. Sling TV Blue provides up to three simultaneous streams, while Orange+Blue bumps this up to four simultaneous streams. This can be annoying, as you’ll be able to use some channels with one device, and others with multiple ones.
Still, with larger storage capacity, more flexible recording rules, and more potential simultaneous streams, Sling TV comes out on top.
Winner: Sling TV
One of the big benefits of having a cable or satellite connection is the ability to watch pay-per-view (PPV) events like boxing, or MMA fights. DirecTV Now has said it will offer PPV content, but it has yet to materialize. Sling TV does have PPV choices, and these vary on a month-to-month basis. In the past, they’ve included heavyweight boxing, wrestling, and MMA.
Sling TV has a rentals section that lets you access classic and first-run movies for a limited period of time at a fixed price. It’s similar to your cable or satellite company’s PPV movie section or renting shows on iTunes. DirecTV Now does not offer movie rentals at this time.
Though it should be low on your list of considerations, it’s worth noting that if you should happen to cancel Sling TV, the service doesn’t cut you off entirely. You can still access a select list of free shows and movies after you terminate your subscription, from channels like TBS, TruTV, TNT, Food Network, HGTV, and History Channel. DirecTV Now does not offer any content after you cancel.
Free OTA channels
Sling TV offers an intriguing option for those who want to augment their live TV streaming content, with free over-the-air (OTA) HD broadcasts using an HD antenna. With a device called AirTV Player, Sling TV customers can amalgamate their streaming channels and OTA channels in one interface, and even use their Cloud DVR (if subscribed) to record OTA shows. DirecTV Now customers can always watch free OTA channels too — if they have an antenna and a receiver — but the company does not offer a way to integrate them into a single experience.
It’s pretty clear from this comparison that Sling TV comes out ahead in many of the categories, and we think most people will be happier overall with Sling TV. However, it will always come down to what’s most important to you. If keeping your monthly entertainment bill under control — while still being able to access major cable channels — is your key concern, Sling TV’s flexible and inexpensive packages make a very convincing argument.
If, on the other hand, picture and audio quality are very important to you, and you don’t have an HD antenna for the big networks like ABC and CBS, or you simply have to have HBO, then Sling TV isn’t even worth looking at, regardless of the cost savings. For you, DirecTV is the way to go. Either way, both of these live TV streaming services offer cord cutters a way to save money, while maintaining access to some of their favorite channels.
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