Sling TV was the first live TV streaming service when it went live in 2015, and after five years it's still one of the best values for cord cutters at $30 per month. The service keeps its prices lower than competitors like YouTube TV because it doesn't carry local channels like ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in most parts of the country. The AirTV, now in its second iteration, is the perfect Sling TV companion and a great value in its own right. This hardware tuner box lets you watch and record those missing local channels without paying any monthly fee. Just add a $10 antenna.
Compared to the excellent Amazon Fire TV Recast however, the $99 AirTV 2 is not (yet) a slick, trouble-free upgrade. First off, you'll have to add your own external hard drive to turn it into a DVR. Second, it doesn't let users pause local TV, and it doesn't work with all platforms -- you can't use it to watch via desktop browsers or the Sling app on Apple TV.
While the AirTV is not the first DVR I'd suggest to cord cutters (that would be the Fire TV Recast), the AirTV is a lot less expensive and works best for Sling TV subscribers who want to watch live TV sports and other local programming. And despite the fact that it uses the Sling TV app and menus, you don't need to be a Sling TV subscriber to use it.
Let's get this out of the way first: like the Recast and other modern networked over-the-air DVRs, the AirTV 2 doesn't connect to your TV at all. Instead, it connects to your home network via Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet and sends live over-the-air TV from a connected antenna to your mobile or smart TV device. To actually watch the TV programs, you'll use the Sling TV app on one of those devices, for example a Roku or iPhone.
The original AirTV was an Apple Mac Mini-size device embossed with what looked like a sneaker's tread. The AirTV 2 is a complete redesign that takes up less space and has a sleeker appearance to boot. It sits vertically, like a modern cable modem, but it's much smaller -- it tapers out to 2.3 inches wide, 5 inches high and 6.5 inches deep.
Connections include USB, Ethernet, coaxial antenna and 802.11ac wireless. The device has two onboard tuners so you can record or watch up to two channels at once.
It's worth noting that the proprietary power connector is kind of funky -- it clips in like an Ethernet cable. So, if the power adapter becomes lost or damaged, this rules out third-party replacements. Full disclosure: we did misplace the competitive Fire TV Recast's adapter and finding a replacement for that has proved to be difficult.
It can be used purely as a live TV tuner, and our review of the original AirTV review was based solely on that capability, but adding an external hard drive adds the ability to record. The company doesn't stipulate any specific requirements for the type of drive besides that the external device must be between 50GB and 2TB in size.
Compared to the Fire TV Recast, which has an integrated hard drive, there is still a lot of stuff you need for the AirTV 2. I used a portable hard drive -- a WD 2TB Elements Portable -- meaning no additional power brick. Yet, the drive, the internal antenna and its USB umbilical still need to be placed somewhere.
The AIrTV is designed to work with apps for Roku, Amazon FireTV, Android TV, iOS, Android or AirTV mini or AirTV player. Be aware that the local channels won't load if you're watching on a web browser or an Apple TV; you'll only see the standard Sling TV channels.
Also keep in mind that the AirTV can't record streaming channels, just local ones, so if you're a Sling subscriber you're still limited to that service's cloud DVR -- and its 10-hour or 50-hour recording limit -- for non-antenna streaming channels like TNT, ESPN, CNN and the rest.
Like a typical human male, I didn't use the Quick Setup guide included in the box. That was a mistake. The AirTV 2 setup was unlike the original version in one major way: it doesn't use the AirTV app. Instead, setup is done via an easy-to-miss option in the Settings tab of the Sling TV app called Over the Air Channels. To people like me who stumble into this, if this option was called AirTV 2 setup or even Over the Air Channels Setup it would have been much more straightforward.
With a $10 antenna and my portable drive connected, the rest of the setup was straightforward. The unit will let you tune in to all of the available local channels in your area. In my tests in New York, for example, I was able to view and record 76 different channels.
A lot of the AirTV's success or lack thereof is dependent on how you feel about the Sling TV app itself. It's not as striking as Hulu with Live TV or powerful as YouTube TV, but it does what you need it to -- allow you to watch TV. I mainly used the Roku app at home and the iPhone app while roaming the streets of New York City, streaming TV from my antenna at home. Accessing the live local channels is done via the Channels menu option, and you can select Over the Air Channels specifically via the "hamburger" menu button in the corner.
While accessing the channels over my phone it took around 6 seconds for most channels to load, and up to 8 seconds for ones at the very end of the spectrum. In comparison the streaming channels took anywhere from 0 to 5 seconds, but bear in mind tests like these are dependent on so many factors including your home upload speed. Unless you have a ninja home network connection, it's likely that streaming channels will load faster than those from the AirTV 2 in most cases.
The locals' picture quality was indistinguishable from that of the streaming channels for the most part, and this was after selecting the Best Quality option in the iPhone app.
The AirTV 2 does have its limitations, as previously discussed, and these could be the deal-breakers for some people. Given that you can pause (on most) streaming channels using the cloud DVR, the inability to pause live local TV is a little frustrating. Also, if you're someone who likes to leave a browser open and listen to a game while working you can rule that out now. No matter whether you're on a phone browser or the desktop you won't be able to see any of the OTA channels or watch any of the recordings provided by AirTV 2. You'll see the streaming channels only. The same goes for Apple TV.
If you are, or plan to be, a long-term Sling TV user, then the AirTV 2 is a very good value. Compared to the $55 cost of Hulu with Live TV, the AirTV 2 will pay for itself within four months. The fact that the AirTV will still work without a Sling subscription makes this unit a super-cheap DVR, though the lack of live pause and browser support is limiting. At $99, plus about $50 for the hard drive, the AirTV is nonetheless an excellent value for cord cutters who want to stream their antenna TV. But paying a bit more for the Fire TV Recast is a better move for most cord cutters.