Three: That's the magic number.
With the launch of DirecTV Now Wednesday, there are now three services that allow you to stop paying your cable or satellite provider for TV service, yet still watch numerous channels of live television at home and on mobile devices like iPhones.
None of the three is "a la carte" TV, that still-distant dream that allows you to pick and choose individual channels. Instead they offer packages of certain channels for set fees, starting at $20 for Sling TV, $30 for PlayStation Vue and $35 for DirecTV Now. For all three you'll need a robust internet connection -- provided, in many cases, by the very company that delivers your cable TV service.
The good news is that you can try all three for free right now, provided you have a compatible device (which, as a CNET reader, you almost certainly do). You can also drop 'em like hotcakes anytime you want, because there are no contracts. You could keep your subscription only long enough to watch through the NFL football season, for example, or the current season of "This Is Us" or "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Try doing that with your cable company.
So which one should you choose? Here's an in-depth comparison to help you decide.
Editors' note: CNET is a division of CBS, which also owns several TV networks -- including CBS, Showtime, Pop and CBS Sports -- relevant to the discussions below.
But Dave, I don't want to read a whole in-depth comparison!
Well, I don't really blame you. Maybe your time is better spent signing up for one right now and trying it yourself. You're only out a few bucks either way.
If that's the case, stop reading and try Sony PlayStation Vue. I've reviewed them all and I think -- right now, anyway -- it's the best so far, mainly because of its cloud DVR, family member profiles and excellent channel lineup.
And no, you don't need ato use it. It works with plenty of other (much cheaper) devices, one or two of which you might own already. It also works on your phone -- but if that's your primary TV access device, you should note that PS Vue is comparatively restrictive there.
Still curious? Good, I've got you covered.
In-depth: Price, availability and features
Sling TV has been around the longest, is still the cheapest, and works with the most devices. It also offers a more flexible and affordable array of step-up channel packages.
DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue more closely resemble traditional TV service. They have more channels than Sling and cost more money.
Unlike the other two, Vue is the only one (so far) to offer a full-function "cloud DVR," and profiles for different family members.
Three services, many differences
|DirecTV Now||Sling TV||PlayStation Vue|
|Base nationwide package||$35/month for 100+ channels||$20/month for 20+ channels||$30/month for 45+ channels|
|Base package in select cities||N/A||N/A||$40/month for 45+ channels*|
|Step-up packages||$70/month for 120+ channels||PLUS $5/month each (5 or more Sports, LifeStyle, Movie, News, etc. channels per package)||PLUS $10/month (some regional sports), $20/month (26 additional channels)|
|Live local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels||Select cities only** for ABC, Fox and NBC (no CBS)||ABC only in select cities*** for an extra $5/month||Select cities only**|
|Video on demand from local channels||Yes||No||Yes|
|Simultaneous streams per account||2||1 or 3||5|
|Compatible authentication/TV Everywhere apps||8||7||50+|
|No contract, cancel anytime||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Pause, rewind, fast-forward||Pause only||Only select channels||Yes (all channels)|
|Record shows for later (cloud DVR)||No||No, but coming in beta||Yes (keep for up to 28 days)|
|Three-day replay||Select channels and shows||Select channels and shows||Select channels and shows|
|Video on demand||Select channels and shows||Select channels and shows||Select channels and shows|
|Browse||Guide, filters and personalized recommendations||Guide, filters and personalized recommendations||Guide, filters and personalized recommendations|
|Family member profiles||No||No||Yes|
|Audio format||2-channel stereo; 5.1 surroundfor some on-demand content||2-channel stereo||2-channel stereo|
|*Vue cities with higher prices/all four local channels are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco and Miami. Other cities may get some but not all 4 locals.|
|**DirecTV Now cities with all three local channels (ABC, Fox and NBC) are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Jose. Other cities vary.|
|***Sling offers ABC via its $5 a month "Broadcast Extra" pack in Chicago, Fresno-Visalia, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, and San Francisco.|
Pricing for DirecTV Now and Sling TV is basically the same nationwide while Vue's pricing starts at $40 a month in the seven "select cities" listed above. In those Vue cities you also get live local broadcasts of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. In other cities Vue starts at $30, offers shows from those networks on demand with a 24-hour delay, and may offer a live local channel or two as well (but not all four).
If you want to watch on more than one TV in a house (or a phone and a TV, etc) at once, pay attention to "simultaneous streams per account." Sling TV's base package, Orange, only lets you watch one stream at a time, so two or more family members can't use the same account to watch on different devices at the same time. Sling Blue, which costs $25 per month and has a slightly different channel lineup (see below) allows three streams. Every DirecTV package allows two, while Vue is the best for a big family, with up to five simultaneous streams.
TV everywhere apps like Watch ESPN, FXNow, HBO Go and others 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. They often have larger on-demand libraries than the main service, and may have the live stream (or more than one) as well. Vue wins handily this category.
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. However, that's starting to change: the service just announced a beta version of its own cloud DVR -- hours before DirecTV Now was launched.
DirecTV Now, meanwhile, allows DVR-style pause of live video, but only for a minute or two -- not enough to skip commercials. It does not currently offer any sort of online storage option.
To watch any of these services you don't need a cable or satellite box or satellite dish. Instead you'll use your own streaming device: a phone, tablet or computer for small-screen live TV, or a streaming device, game console or smart TV system for the big screen experience on your television.
As the newest service it's not surprising that DirecTV now is compatible with the fewest devices so far, but it has announced plans to support more platforms, namely Roku and Fire tablets, next year.
Does the service work with my...?
|DirecTV Now||Sling TV||PlayStation Vue|
|Roku (TV or streamer)||Q1 2017||Y||Y|
|Apple TV (2015 version)||Y||Y||Y|
|Amazon Fire TV||Y||Y||Y|
|iPhone and iPad||Y||Y||Y|
|Android phone or tablet||Y||Y||Y|
|Google Chromecast||Y (Android only)||Y||Y|
|Android TV device||N||Y||Y|
|Channel Master DVR||N||Y||N|
|Amazon Fire tablet||Q1 2017||Y||Y|
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. The exception is that Sling offers ABC for an extra $5 a month in select cities.
In seven US cities, Vue has four of the big five, lacking only PBS (no streaming service has PBS yet), and many other cities get one or more local channels on Vue too. DirecTV Now has local channels in a few cities, too, but coverage is more scattered, and it doesn't have CBS at all. In other cities for both Vue and DirecTV Now, shows from local networks are available on demand 24 hours after they air.
The article linked to the left compares all of the channels and packages available across all three services: Here's an easier-to-read G-doc with the same info.
In general DirecTV has the most channels in total, followed closely by Vue, with Sling bringing up the rear. 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.
In addition to the broadcast network differences noted above, both DirecTV and Vue (but not Sling) add 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 and DirecTV Now 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.
Speaking of sports, both Sling TV and Vue also offer the option to get NFL RedZone and the NFL Network channel, but DirecTV Now does not (yet). DirecTV Now also lacks the signature Sunday Ticket package found on its sibling satellite TV service.
Interface and ease of use
Overall we prefer watching TV on Vue the best, but all three are very good -- and better than many cable systems, but not as good as TiVo.
All three offer thumbnail images of shows displaying what's on right now, allow you to "favorite" individual shows and channels, offer suggestions for new shows and easy access to on-demand content.
One advantage of Vue is that marking a show a favorite also designates future episodes for auto-recording to the 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.
The interfaces for each service are mostly consistent across devices, but there are some exceptions. Roku devices get a much more stripped-down version of Vue, for example.
Which one is better?
We gave Vue the higher rating in our reviews, and DirecTV slightly higher than Sling, 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. DirecTV has the most channels but is still missing some major features.
You'll still need to have broadband internet for both, which means -- in a home -- 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 all three services share.
All three offer distinct visions of the future of live TV. If nothing else, they're all worth a free trial.
A version of this article originally ran in March 2015, but was updated on December 1, 2016, with additional details as a result of CNET's recent DirecTV Now review and updates to both older services.