Now is the best of times for streaming video, and the worst of times for traditional cable TV.
This is a tale of two services. PlayStation Vue and Sling TV are available not just in two cities, but pretty much everywhere nationwide. Both allow you to stop paying your cable or satellite provider for TV service, yet still watch live television at home and on mobile devices like iPhones.
Neither one is "a la carte" TV, that still-distant dream that allows you to pick and choose individual channels. Instead they both offer packages of certain channels for set fees, starting at $20 for Sling TV and $30 for Vue. And for both you'll need a robust Internet connection.
The good news is that you can try both for free right now, provided you have a compatible device. You can also drop either service anytime you want -- for example you could keep them only long enough to catch March Madness basketball, or the current season of "The Americans" or "He Shed She Shed." Try doing that with your cable company.
So which one should you choose? Here's an in-depth comparison to help you decide.
Price, availability and features
Sling TV is cheaper, especially in certain US cities, and works with more devices. It also offers a more flexible and affordable array of step-up channel packages.
The more-expensive PlayStation Vue is easily the winner in terms of features, with a full-function "cloud DVR," the ability to stream to multiple devices on the same account and profiles for different family members. It also beats Sling handily in sheer number of channels.
PlayStation Vue vs. Sling TV
|Sling TV||PlayStation Vue|
|Base nationwide package||$20/month for 20+ channels||$30/month for 55+ channels|
|Base package in select cities*||N/A (identical pricing nationwide)||$40/month for 60+ channels|
|Step-up packages||PLUS $5/month each (5 or more Sports, Kids, LifeStyle, Movie, News, Spanish language, etc. channels per package)||PLUS $5/month ("Core" with some regional sports, others), $15/month ("Elite" with 100+ total channels)|
|Local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels||ABC only in select cities** for an extra $5/month||Select cities only*|
|Video on demand from local channels||No||Yes|
|Compatible TV devices||Roku (TVs, boxes and streaming stick), Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Xbox One, Android TV, Channel Master DVR+||PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Amazon Fire TV box, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Chromecast***|
|Compatible mobile and PC devices||Android phones and tablets, iOS phones and tablets (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch), Amazon Fire tablets, PC and Mac computers||iPad, iPhone***|
|Simultaneous streams per account||1||5|
|Profiles for different family members||No||5|
|Compatible authentication/TV Everywhere apps||1||60|
|7-day free trial||Yes||Yes|
|No contract, cancel anytime||Yes||Yes|
|Pause, rewind, fast-forward||Only select channels||Yes (all channels)|
|Record shows for later (cloud DVR)||No||Yes (keep for up to 28 days)|
|3-day replay/Catch Up||Select channels and shows||Select channels and shows|
|Video on demand||Select channels and shows||Select channels and shows|
|Browse||Guide only||Guide, filters and personalized recommendations|
|Audio format||2-channel stereo||2-channel stereo|
|*Vue cities with local channels are currently: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco and Miami|
|**Sling offers ABC via its $5/month "Broadcast Extra" pack in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, Raleigh-Durham and Fresno-Visalia|
|***You must have a PlayStation or Fire TV device to sign up for Vue. Once signed up, you can use an iOS device and/or Chromecast to watch.|
A couple of the items above bear expansion. Sling TV is the same nationwide while Vue's pricing is $10 more in the "select cities" listed above. In those cities you also get live local broadcasts of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. In other cities Vue offers shows from those networks on demand with a 24-hour delay (with CBS' on-demand service "coming soon.") Disclaimer: CBS is the parent company of CNET.
Beyond price, Sling's biggest advantage is that it works on pretty much any device -- the only major exception is Apple TV. It even works with PC and Mac computers, and there are no restrictions for mobile devices.
Vue's device support is much more limited, and it suffers a bunch of restrictions on mobile use too; the DVR is inactive, for example, and certain channels aren't available. At least you don't need a PlayStation to use Vue. In fact, I actually preferred using a Fire TV box to a console.
If you want to watch more than one TV in a house at once, Vue is the better option. Sling is limited to only one stream per account, so if you're already watching on one device or TV, you can't watch something else on a second. Vue offers up to five simultaneous streams.
A Sling TV subscription still only entitles you to use one "TV Everywhere" app, Watch ESPN. Meanwhile a Vue subscription will allow you to use 60-odd such apps, including Watch ESPN, FXNow, Watch Disney Jr and Showtime Anytime (the last requires Vue's Showtime add-on). TV Everywhere apps let you sign in and watch video on an iOS or Android device, or even a TV device like a Roku, just as you would with a cable provider. Video availability varies per app.
Finally, Vue's cloud DVR is a killer feature advantage. It basically acts like a full-function hardware DVR, allowing you to pause and rewind live TV, and fast-forward through commercials on recorded TV. Vue says up to 500 shows can be "recorded" to the cloud per account, with potentially dozens of episodes per show. The main limitation is that shows expire after 28 days.
Meanwhile Sling doesn't let you "record" shows for later, and most channels are "live only," without the option to pause, rewind or fast-forward.
Here's where it gets very interesting.
One of Sling TV's biggest weaknesses is the lack of most broadcast channels, namely ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS (for the record, CNET is published by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS). The exception is that Sling offers ABC for an extra $5/month in select cities.
In seven US cities Vue has four of the big five, lacking only PBS. In other cities, shows from those four networks are available on demand 24 hours after they air.
Vue doesn't have any channels owned by A&E Networks, but it does have most of the other familiar non-sports channels. Meanwhile Sling lacks pretty much any channel owned by CBS, NBC Universal/Comcast, Fox, Discovery and Viacom (Comedy Central, MTV and so on). That's a whole lot of desirable channels, and the fact that Sling skips them is the main reason it's only $20 per month.
Both services have channels from ABC (ESPN, The Disney Channel) Turner (TNT, TBS and others), AMC Networks (AMC, IFC, Sundance) and Scripps (HGTV, Food Network and others), and neither has PBS, BBC America, CSPAN, The Weather Channel and a handful of others.
With that in mind, here are the major channels missing from each service compared with a typical cable TV package.
Top Sling TV channels missing from PlayStation Vue
|Base package ($20/month)||ESPN3, History, Lifetime, A&E, Galavision|
|Add-on packages||LMN, Univision, FYI|
Top PlayStation Vue channels missing from Sling TV
|Base package ($30 or $40/month)||ABC*, CBS*, Fox*, NBC*, Fox News, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Bravo, FX, SyFy, USA, Discovery, Animal Planet, Nat Geo, MTV, BET, CNBC, MSNBC, E!, TLC, VH1|
|Add-on packages||Select regional sports networks, Golf Channel, Big Ten Network, Universal HD, Fox College Sports, Palladia, FXM|
|*Available either live or on demand, depending on city. See above for details.|
Sling TV does have an advantage in the flexibility and low cost of its add-on packages, but there are few "must-have" channels among them.
Contrast that with Vue's step-up Core package, which adds select regional sports networks (the crown jewels of cable TV) in each city. For many cable subscribers and sports fans, RSNs are the ultimate must-have. The catch is that Vue might not have the RSN of the team(s) you want.
Of course, cable TV packages often have more than one RSN so they appeal to, for example, both Yankees and Mets fans in New York. Here's a sampling of channels you'll commonly find on cable TV that have yet to make their way onto either service.
Top channels missing from both Sling TV and PlayStation Vue
|General||PBS, CW, BBC America, CSPAN, ION, The Weather Channel, Hallmark, Outdoor Channel, QVC, HSN|
|Sports||Most regional sports networks, MLB TV, NBA TV, NFL Network, NFL Red Zone, Tennis Channel|
Just in case you're interested in seeing every channel currently available on both services, as well as the major ones both are missing, here's the big chart that spawned the smaller charts above.
Interface and ease of use
Overall we prefer watching TV on Vue over Sling.
Sling TV is ultimately a very simple app, and one of its downfalls is the linear, thumbnail-based arrangement of channels (below). Scrolling through them to find what you want can be a pain since there's no way to favorite or customize any channel or show. Yes, it has search, but browsing, especially just to "see what's on now," can be kind of a chore.
Vue takes customization and ease of use to another level. My favorite TV-based user interface is TiVo, and Vue gives it a run for its money. Much like Netflix, it de-emphasizes channels in favor of individual shows, allowing you to easily mark favorites. Doing so instigates Season Pass-like auto-recording to your personal cloud DVR.
It's also worth repeating that every Vue channel allows you to pause, rewind and, if you're not watching live TV, fast-forward. And you can also skip the commercials.
Finally, I love the fact that Vue lets you set up profiles for individual family members, just like Netflix. When you first start watching it asks you to choose one, and afterward all of the DVR'd shows, recommendations, recent channels and everything else are tailored to that user. It's like having a separate DVR for everyone in the family.
Sling will roll out an all-new interface soon that prioritizes customization and individual shows, after which we'll revisit this comparison.
Which one is better?
We gave Vue the higher rating in our reviews, but which one you choose depends on your budget and needs. Sling is cheaper but quite limited. Vue is more capable but its price, especially in those seven cities with local channels, pushes it closer to the realm of traditional cable TV bundles.
You'll still need to have broadband Internet for both, which means at least $40 per month and often a long-term contract. That said, minimizing contractual commitments and hidden fees is usually great for consumers, and that's one huge advantage both services share.
It remains to be seen how Apple's competing service will work, if it ever launches, but in the meantime Sling and Vue offer two distinct visions of the future of live TV. If nothing else, both are worth a free seven-day trial.
This article originally ran in March 2015, but was updated March 22, 2016, with additional details as a result of CNET's recent PlayStation Vue review and updates to both services.