Cord-cutters seeking to rid themselves of cable or satellite have more choices than ever. And while going with free, over-the-air (OTA) TV from a quality HD antenna will definitely save you the most money, you’ll have to give up a lot of your favorite channels and programs. It’s exactly this compromise that has spawned the creation of a new breed of live TV streaming services, which offer many of the conveniences of cable, without the bonds of cable boxes and contracts.
Here we look at two of the most intriguing players in the live TV streaming space: Dish Network’s Sling TV, launched in 2015, and Google’s YouTube TV, which launched two years later in 2017. These two services may offer the same benefits to cord-cutters — a new way to pay for live TV — but there are big differences between them when it comes to price, channels, features, and device support. Which one is right for you? Let’s do the math …
Sling TV follows the pricing model of its satellite parent company, Dish Network, with essentially three base tiers to choose from and multiple channel add-on options. As such, you can get into a Sling TV subscription for as little as $25 per month, but that can quickly climb well over $75 per month depending on the extras you choose. For the $25 monthly base fee, you can choose between two different channel line-ups (more on these choices later) depending on your taste in TV, or you can grab all of the basic tier channels for $40 per month.
At the time of publication, the first three months are even cheaper at $15 per month thanks to a limited-time promotion and, like most services, it offers a free seven-day trial. Earlier in 2019, Sling announced that it would be giving select Roku users the ability to subscribe to single channels à la carte, no base subscription required. When rolled out more widely, this is sure to become a popular option, especially for those who are missing just one or two of their favorites.
YouTube TV on the other hand, works on a flat-fee model: You pay $50 per month, and that includes every one of its non-premium channels and all of its features. The only optional upgrades are specialty channels like AMC Premiere, Starz, or NBA League Pass, which cost anywhere from $3 to $40 per month. YouTube also offers a free trial which varies between seven days and up to 30 days depending on the current promotion.
There’s definitely an argument to be made that YouTube TV’s all-in pricing represents a simpler plan and a better overall value, but if you’re a cord-cutter looking to keep monthly expenses as low as possible, Sling TV has the edge.
YouTube TV includes between 60-70+ channels, depending on location, plus its own YouTube Originals channel in the $40 monthly flat fee. Some of these are local channels, like Los Angeles Football Club, which won’t always be available depending on where you live. The mainstay channels that everyone gets are a good selection of major broadcasters (CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX), entertainment channels, lifestyle, and sports. That includes ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN News, and ESPN U (but not ESPN 3), as well as sports channels from Fox, NBC, MLB, and NBA.
There’s also plenty on tap for news junkies with both domestic choices like CNN and CNBC, and some international news via the BBC. TV drama die-hards will appreciate Bravo, AMC, FX, FXX, and SyFy. There’s even a selection of Disney channels to keep the kids amused. Depending on where you live, you may only get a subset of these channels. In Digital Trends’ HQ city, Portland, OR, that number drops to 64. All of these are fairly minor drawbacks, but it’s worth checking your zip code in YouTube TV’s channel filter to see the specific channels you can get.
If the channels you want aren’t covered by YouTube TV’s standard selection, there’s not much in the way of optional upgrades. The service lacks popular cable channels like Comedy Central, History, TLC, HGTV, and A&E, and there’s no way to add them. The same goes for HBO. What add-ons are available (including channels ike AMC Premiere, Starz, Showtime, and NBA League Pass) are all solid choices at competitive prices, but it’s a small field compared to some competitors.
With Sling TV’s three basic service levels, you’re choosing between the $25 per month Sling TV Orange, a package that has ESPN, ESPN 2, and ESPN 3, plus a 33-channel selection of news, drama, and lifestyle channels, or the $25 per month Sling TV Blue, which gives you even more news, drama, and lifestyle, but takes away the ESPN channels. If you pay $40 for Sling TV Orange + Blue, you get it all: 54 channels that combine an excellent mix of traditional TV fare, including those cable favorites that YouTube TV is missing (Comedy Central, History, TLC, HGTV, and A&E). But it’s not perfect: Sling TV is missing ABC and CBS, and access to NBC and FOX will vary depending on where you live. Moreover, these two local channels aren’t available unless you’re on Sling TV Blue, or Orange + Blue.
Where Sling TV really shines is its huge collection of available add-on channels. There’s too many to list here, and they vary depending on which level of service you subscribe to. For the full rundown, check out our complete guide to Sling TV. With the exception of HBO, which also isn’t available here, there’s almost no limit to what you can add if your budget allows. For those who want international content in a variety of languages, Sling has you covered too: There are more than 10 international add-on packages to choose from.
Cutting the cord should be all about choice as well as saving money, and while YouTube TV certainly dishes up a lot of channels for $40 per month, its inclusion of all four major broadcasters, and ESPN isn’t enough to make up for what is otherwise a limited overall set of channel choices. Sling TV goes for quality over quantity, with plenty of options for those who want more.
Sling TV is available on a huge variety of devices, from budget streamers like Roku’s Streaming Stick+ and Amazon’s Fire TV 4K, to premium ones like Apple TV. All Android and iOS products have Sling TV apps, as do smart TVs from LG and Samsung, either out of the box or as a free download, and it works on all computer platforms too. All Android TV products are supported, whether stand-alone (like Nvidia’s Shield TV) or built-in (Sony smart TVs). Game console support is limited to the Xbox One, but this isn’t unusual: Only Sony’s Playstation Vue service is allowed on its PS3/PS4/PS4 Pro consoles.
YouTube TV has many of the same devices as Sling TV in its roster of supported hardware, including iOS, Android, Android TV, Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV; smart TVs from Samsung, LG, and Vizio, and Xbox One game consoles. A web browser is all you need to watch on a computer. However, one omission from this list is Amazon’s Fire TV devices due to Google and Amazon’s on-going feud, which is a big miss indeed.
User experience and video quality
YouTube TV’s interface is clean and minimal, and borrows heavily from the standard YouTube interface. If you’re using it on a phone it’s a joy — easy to navigate and watch with just a few swipes of your finger and thumb. The full-screen experience in a computer browser or a TV app feels sparse, however, and some might find the lack of a big, grid-style guide hard to get used to. Once you do figure it out, the actual stream quality is excellent. We experienced almost no drops in HD resolution content and only the occasional stutter in framerate.
Sling TV’s interface will appeal more to those who are fresh off the cable or satellite boats, with a standard, grid-style TV guide, as well as channel-oriented view that lets you see both the live and on-demand content available from each channel. Sling’s video quality wasn’t quite as crisp as YouTube TV, and there was a bit more stutter, but not enough to be problematic. The speed and stability of your internet connection will likely play a bigger role in the ultimate quality of either of these services than the platforms themselves.
Both platforms make it easy to find your recorded shows and favorite channels, and have similarly helpful suggestions for what to watch. We’re calling this one a draw.
DVR and multi-user capabilities
YouTube TV has a generous DVR built-in, allowing for unlimited recording, though there is a limit on how long you can keep those recordings: Each one has a nine-month expiration date, so if you were hoping to keep multiple seasons of your favorite show on-hand at all times, that’s not an option. Recordings can be viewed from anywhere in the U.S. on a supported device. The are still some channels that prevent ad-skipping on their DVR’d shows like CBS, CBS Sports Network, and The CW, but most DVR recordings let you fast-forward through ads.
The monthly flat-fee includes six individual accounts, each with their own personal DVR, with up to three of these accounts able to stream live TV simultaneously.
Sling TV subscriptions, regardless of the package you choose, do not come with a DVR feature, but the company’s Cloud DVR can be added to any plan for $5 per month. This gets you 50 hours of space, and recordings will never expire as long as your membership is in good standing. Old recordings will be deleted to make way for new ones unless you protect them. You get more control over fast-forwarding through ads than with YouTube TV, but it’s still not universal. For select FOX recordings, Sling TV forces an on-demand version which does not allow you to fast forward through commercials. Some channels, like Disney and ESPN, can’t be recorded at all.
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. It’s hard to argue with YouTube TV’s unlimited DVR storage capacity, six separate accounts, and three simultaneous streams, all of which is included, even if Sling TV’s DVR library policy is more generous.
Winner: YouTube TV
Both YouTube TV and Sling TV offer on-demand content from their respective channels. The quantity varies by channel, so the total number of on-demand shows you have access to will depend on which channels are in your package. Sling TV also gives you purchase and rental opportunities similar to Apple’s iTunes, or your cable company’s pay-per-view service — in addition to the free on-demand content. More choice is always a good thing.
Sling TV also has the edge when it comes to finding on-demand content. Both services let you search for on-demand shows, but Sling TV lets you see each channels presented as two lists: Streaming live, and on-demand, which is really helpful if you already know the show you’re looking for is on FX, for instance.
If you’ve divorced your cable or satellite company, you might now find yourself without any pay-per-view (PPV) options. For big sporting events like boxing matches, or even just accessing a box office movie before it shows up on streaming service like Netflix, PPV is a convenient service to have, and doesn’t cost you a dime if you choose not to use it. Sling TV has some limited PPV options, like boxing, mixed martial arts, and other special events, whereas YouTube TV does not.
If you decide to cancel Sling TV, whether that’s for good or just for a little while, you’ll still have something to watch. The service has a selection of free content that provides more than 100 hours of movies and TV shows including Wrecked, The Detour, Good Behavior, and Flip or Flop. This content is only available to previous subscribers (though even using the free trial counts) and is currently only available on Roku devices, though the company intends to add support for more devices in the future, and may even open up its free offerings to everyone at some point.
Now that YouTube TV is available in virtually every U.S. location, it’s an attractive choice for many, especially given its support of local affiliate stations of the major broadcasters, like ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. The simplicity of its all-in $40 per month pricing and included unlimited DVR makes cutting the cord quick, easy, and predictable.
Still,low monthly starting price of $25, and its choice of either sports-centric or entertainment-centric channel line-ups gives users the ability to save more money if they’re willing to pick from a smaller number of channels. Quality usually trumps quantity, and we think most people will prefer the channels available in Sling’s smaller line up over those offered in YouTube TV’s larger offering.
With the ability to add an almost unlimited number of extras to your Sling subscription, it’s infinitely customizable based on the kind of TV you like to watch. This will make your monthly bill much higher — possibly as high as you were paying for cable — but the choice is yours, and you can add and remove these extras any time. The lack of ABC and CBS affiliates is annoying, but not an insurmountable challenge: For a one-time investment in over-the-air hardware (as little as $50 if you don’t need a dedicated tuner), you can pull in your local stations for free.
All things considered, we think Sling TV is still the live TV streaming service to beat.
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