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Sling TV review: The best budget live TV streaming service

Sling TV offers cord cutters a wealth of live cable TV channels and plenty of add-on options for an affordable price.

Live TV streaming services are designed to replace cable TV by letting you stream live channels over the Internet, but the category is still in a state of flux. The big names are all increasing the prices of their plansremoving or adding large chunks of programming, or bowing out altogether. Amid all of the turmoil there's one service that sticks out as a potential oasis for the budget-conscious cord-cutter: Sling TV.

Sling TV may be the oldest such service, but with some savvy updates and a low price, it is still the best if you want to save money. It may not have the most flashy interface -- especially on the desktop or Roku -- but the service is dependable and offers a lot of entertainment for your $30.

The downside is that Sling TV's worst enemy is itself. It's complicated to pick a plan and there are a couple of hidden costs and gotchas in there as well. And if you want a full slate of local channels (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) you'll have to augment Sling TV with an over-the-air antenna, the $99 AirTV 2 DVR, or choose a more-expensive alternative like YouTube TV. (Note that CNET is a division of CBS). 

Despite some of its shortfalls and numerous competitors, Sling TV remains the most powerful and affordable live TV streamer. Sling TV earns the CNET Editors' Choice for the best budget live TV streaming service.

What is it?

Sarah Tew/CNET

While CNET covers what kind of services Sling TV offers in depth here, in short it's a selection of "linear" channels, streamed over the internet, for a monthly fee. Sling streams to TVs via media streamers, smart TV systems (LG and Samsung) and game consoles (Xbox One), as well as to phones, tablets and computers -- no cable box required. 

Sling TV was the first of its kind, having debuted in 2016, but it now has a bunch of competitors at different price points, including Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, AT&T TV NowAT&T Watch TVPhilo and Fubo TV. For ease of categorization, I've separated these into budget (under $40) and premium (over $40) services. Sling TV is therefore a budget service, even with its new price hike, alongside AT&T Watch TV ($15) and Philo ($20). 

Now playing: Watch this: Live TV streaming services for cord cutters: How to choose...

What makes Sling TV tricky to outsiders is that there are essentially two main plans for the same $30 price: Sling Orange and Sling Blue. They share many of the same channels (like CNN, History and TNT) but other channels are exclusive to one or the other. Sling TV Blue is essentially the Fox and NBC option, while Sling Orange is the ESPN/Disney package. 

Sling is also the only live TV service to offer a bunch of add-on channel packages. You can pay $5 or $10 monthly for packages like Sports Extra, Comedy Extra, Hollywood Extra, The Best of Spanish TV and more. The channels in each vary depending on whether you have Blue or Orange, and some channels (like Animal Planet and Fox News) are missing completely, but between its Extras and multiple base packages, Sling offers more ways to customize your channel lineup than any of its competitors.

Check the chart at end of this article for all of the Top 100 channels Sling offers. It's a condensed version of complete list of Top 100 channels offered by every service.


The Sling TV guide

Sarah Tew/CNET

Of the two $30 tiers, I prefer Sling Blue. It has more channels than Orange and allows up three people to watch different streams at once, while Sling Orange only allows one stream at a time. To add to the complexity, you can combine the two Blue and Orange services for $45 a month, but if you're paying that much YouTube TV is a better option -- easier to use, with more channels and a more generous DVR.

Sling stays inexpensive by eschewing most local channels: the Blue package has Fox and/or NBC in a handful of major cities but doesn't include any ABC or CBS stations. The Orange package offers no local channels, period.

As any cord-cutter knows, local channels are also available via over-the-air antenna. The cheapest, clunkiest way to watch locals as a Sling subscriber is to just connect an HD antenna to the back of your television. The next method, and Sling TV's preferred solution, is for you to buy the $100 AirTV 2 OTA streamer. The AirTV connects to an antenna and your network and streams the missing local channels via the Sling TV interface, integrating them right into Sling's program guide and other areas. Other OTA DVRs are available too, although no others feed into Sling's interface.

Sling includes 10 hours of free Cloud DVR for both Orange and Blue, while users can pay an additional $5 per month for 50 hours of cloud storage.


The AirTV (above) and AirTV 2 feed local channels into Sling TV's program guide.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

What's it like?

As far as the Sling TV experience is concerned, it's pretty good. The menus are clean and uncluttered, particularly on the Apple TV version. There you get a choice of My TV, On Now Guide or Sports, However there are still things it could do better, for example the Sling logo takes up half of the Apple TV screen, and while it's a placeholder for show information I'd prefer to see more shows at all times. If the screen could slide up when you select a show and down when not needed that would be better. The Roku interface offers more information at once including further menu options On Demand and Rent, but is also more cluttered for it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Navigation is zippy, and it was easy to find the content I wanted to watch and record. With the multiple discovery screens, including the main My TV screen, there were plenty of options even when I didn't know what I wanted.

My only main issue with the service was with the DVR. First off, you can't record anything at all on the ESPN and Disney channels. It's not always clear which channels you can't DVR, and sometimes when time-shifting a live program you'll come across unskippable, undefeatable ads. You just have to wait them out. On some recordings I had a better experience -- for instance I was able to fast-forward on recordings of Discovery without issue.

Integration with AirTV 2

While not the most elegant solution I've seen the AirTV 2 is still a solid OTA DVR. If you have a lot of broadcast channels in your area it will let you see them all -- in my NYC test area, for example, I was  able to view and record 76 different channels. It accepts up to 2TB of external storage.

There are a few limitations that stunt its usefulness -- the first is that you can't pause live TV on local channels. The second is that while it lets you watch and record on the go it doesn't work on as many platforms as the app itself does. You need to use the app on Roku, Amazon FireTV Android TV, iOS, or Android or via the AirTV mini or AirTV player. Also, be aware that it can't record streaming channels, just local ones, and so you're still limited to either the 10 hour or 50 hour recording times there.

Setup is also a little confusing -- it doesn't use the AirTV app like the original version but is accessed by an easy-to-miss option in the Settings tab called Over the Air Channels. If this was called AirTV 2 setup or even Over the Air Channels Setup it would have been much more straightforward.   

Should you subscribe?

While you can save some money with AT&T Watch TV ($15) or Philo ($20), it's worth spending more on Sling TV, especially on the Blue package. The experience is better overall, zippier, and it offers more channels. It's not perfect, but it's a decent cable replacement, and it should save you a chunk of change in the long term. Just be sure to have a local channel contingency in place before you start. 

The chart below compares channels on Sling to its two budget rivals. "Yes" means the channel is available on the cheapest pricing tier, "No" means the channel isn't available at all on that service and "$" means the channel is available for an extra fee, either a la carte or as part of a more expensive package or add-on.

Products and services are independently chosen by our editors. CNET may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

Budget live TV services compared

Channel AT&T Watch TV ($15) Philo ($20) Sling Orange ($30) Sling Blue ($30)
Total channels: 37 39 24 39
ABC No No No No
CBS No No No No
Fox No No No Yes*
NBC No No No Yes*
PBS No No No No
CW No No No No
MyNetworkTV No No No No

A&E Yes Yes Yes Yes
AMC Yes Yes Yes Yes
Animal Planet Yes Yes No No
BBC America Yes Yes Yes Yes
BBC World News Yes Yes $ $
BET Yes Yes $ Yes
Big Ten Network No No No No
Bloomberg TV No No Yes Yes
Boomerang Yes No $ $
Bravo No No No Yes
Cartoon Network Yes No Yes Yes
CBS Sports Network No No No No
Cheddar No Yes Yes Yes
Cinemax No No No No
CMT No Yes $ $
CNBC No No No $
CNN Yes No Yes Yes
Comedy Central Yes Yes Yes Yes
Cooking Channel No Yes $ $
Destination America No Yes $ $
Discovery Channel Yes Yes No Yes
Disney Channel No No Yes No
Disney Junior No No $ No
Disney XD No No $ No
DIY No Yes $ $
E! No No No Yes
EPIX No No $ $
ESPN No No Yes No
ESPN 2 No No Yes No
ESPNews No No $ No
ESPNU No No $ No
Food Network Yes Yes Yes Yes
Fox Business No No No No
Fox News No No No No
Fox Sports 1 No No No Yes
Fox Sports 2 No No No Yes
Freeform No No Yes No
FX No No No Yes
FX Movie Channel No No No No
FXX No No No Yes
FYI Yes Yes $ $
Golf Channel No No No $
Hallmark Yes Yes $ $
HBO No No No No
HGTV Yes Yes Yes Yes
History Yes Yes Yes Yes
HLN Yes No $ $
IFC Yes Yes Yes Yes
Investigation Discovery Yes Yes Yes Yes
Lifetime Yes Yes Yes Yes
Lifetime Movie Network Yes Yes $ $
MLB Network No No $ $
Motor Trend Yes Yes Yes No
MSNBC No No No $
MTV Yes Yes $ $
MTV2 Yes Yes $ $
National Geographic No No No Yes
Nat Geo Wild No No No Yes
NBA TV No No $ $
NBC Sports Network No No No Yes
Newsy No No Yes Yes
NFL Network No No No Yes
NFL Red Zone No No No $
NHL Network No No $ $
Nickelodeon Yes Yes No No
Nick Jr. No Yes $ Yes
Nicktoons Yes Yes $ $
OWN Yes Yes No No
Oxygen No No No $
Paramount Network No Yes $ Yes
Science No Yes $ $
SEC Network No No $ No
Showtime No No $ $
Smithsonian No No No No
Starz No No $ $
Sundance TV Yes Yes $ $
Syfy No No No Yes
Tastemade No Yes No No
TBS Yes No Yes Yes
TCM Yes No $ $
Telemundo No No No No
Tennis Channel No No $ $
TLC Yes Yes No Yes
TNT Yes No Yes Yes
Travel Channel No Yes Yes Yes
TruTV Yes No $ Yes
TV Land Yes Yes $ $
Univision No No No No
USA Network No No No Yes
VH1 Yes Yes $ $
Viceland Yes Yes Yes Yes
WE tv Yes Yes $ $
Weather Channel No No No No

*Fox and NBC available in select cities only on Sling Blue.

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