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Sling TV review: Bust the cable TV bundle for $20 per month, some strings attached

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The Good Sling TV is the first true Internet-delivered alternative to traditional cable and satellite TV, providing live channels from ESPN, AMC, TNT, CNN and Disney, as well as some on-demand content, for far less than standard pay TV packages, with no contract or commitment. It works anywhere in the US with a stable broadband Internet connection, and video quality is mostly indistinguishable from cable TV. Sling is available on a wide range of devices including Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android, iOS, and Mac and PC computers.

The Bad Sling TV has far fewer channels than basic cable, and many of the $5 per month add-on packs don't add much. You can only watch on one device at the same time. Most channels don't allow you to pause, rewind or fast-forward. On-demand options and authenticated channel apps (like Watch ESPN) are limited, too.

The Bottom Line Sling TV's bargain price and freedom from contracts make it well worth a test-drive for prospective cord-cutters or "cord-nevers" who can live with its stripped-down selection of live TV channels.

7.5 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Ecosystem 6
  • Features 6
  • Performance 7
  • Value 9

Fall 2016 update

Sling TV remains the cheapest way to stream numerous live TV channels without getting tied into a long-term contract. And it's the easiest way to cut your cable or satellite TV service and still access a bunch of channels, plus video on demand, at home and on a mobile devices like an iPhone. But it's no longer the only game in town.

Introduced in January 2015, Sling TV delivers livestreams of 20-odd TV channels (in the US only), including ESPN, TBS, CNN, AMC and more in its base package -- called Sling Orange -- which costs $20 per month and is available only on a single device at any given time.

But you don't get the kitchen sink: The base package is missing local broadcast channels (CBS, Fox, NBC, etc.), as well as most popular regional sports networks. For many of those, you can get an alternate bundle -- Sling Blue -- for $25 per month. The "Blue" channels can be streamed to up to three simultaneous devices, too. Want all the channels Sling offers in its base packages? That costs $40 per month, and keeps the single-device restriciton on the "Orange" channels. Additional channel tiers can be added for $5 to $10 more per which point, you're back to paying a pretty hefty "cable" bill again.

In March 2016, Sony entered the market with the PlayStation Vue. That service offers more channels and features than Sling, as well as a full-function "cloud DVR," the ability to stream to multiple devices on the same account, and profiles for different family members. Since then, Sony and Sling have been fiddling with their pricing, tweaking their channel lineups and beefing up their respective offerings. And, in June, Sling TV finally came to Apple TV -- though only the new model that launched in 2015, not the older model from 2012 that has since been discontinued.

For now, Sling TV costs the same regardless of where you live; Vue's pricing is $10 more in "select cities," where 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." (Note that CNET is owned by CBS.)

Price aside, Sling's biggest advantage is that it works on pretty much any device; 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. You do not need a PlayStation to use Vue, however.

Still, PlayStation Vue has the edge on Sling in a few critical categories: It has a superior interface, DVR capabilities and simultaneous viewing on multiple devices. That noted, Sling offers lower, more flexible pricing options and supports playback on more devices, including iPhones.

The landscape will be further shaken up in the weeks and months ahead. AT&T is launching DirecTV Now, an on-demand video service that's said to deliver up to 100 channels for as little as $35 per month. And Hulu and YouTube are said to be offering their own "over the top" video services in 2017.

Bottom line: The benefits and drawbacks of each service vary widely by region and device, and depend on what type of programming you want. But since none of these services have long-term contracts, you can freely jump from one to the other on the fly -- so there's no real penalty in experimenting.

Editors' note: The original review of Sling TV, first published in January 2015 and updated in March 2015, follows.

Groundbreaking. Unprecedented. Unbundling unbridled.

It's tough to overstate the importance of Sling TV, the first Internet-only service to allow you to watch live ESPN, AMC, CNN, TNT and a handful of other live pay TV channels, for just $20 per month. Just as important is that you don't need to sign any contract, so you can cancel anytime with no penalties.

But is Sling TV actually worth subscribing to right now? It can only be viewed on one screen at a time, most channels won't let you pause for a restroom or snack break, and its selection of channels is just narrow enough that everyone will be missing at least a couple of favorites (fans of BBC America, USA Network and CNBC -- to name just a few -- need not apply). And, of course, Sling TV requires a robust Internet connection -- hopefully one without a data cap -- typically $40-$60 per month by itself, unbundled.

As long as your desire for the included channels outweighs your aversion to those caveats and omissions, Sling TV is pretty awesome. When combined with another programming source or three, like an over-the-air antenna (with or without a DVR) for local network channels, Netflix ($9 per month), Hulu Plus ($8 per month) and/or Amazon Prime ($99 per year or $8.25 per month), it may -- just may -- make you feel like you never needed cable in the first place. Unless you're a fan of sports beyond ESPN, or HBO ( for now), or Fox News -- again, to name just a few.

In the end, despite its "first!" status, bundle-busting airs and the marketing to appeal to Millennials who can't or don't want to pay for traditional cable TV, Sling TV is just another option that makes it easier to quit cable. Depending on your viewing preferences, it might be the most powerful such option to date.

We're excited to see how it grows. Now that Sony's PlayStation Vue has launched Sling TV has some competition, which will only intensify when Apple enters the game later this year. For now, however, Sling TV is the only game in town with ESPN. And for just $20 and no obligation, it's definitely worth testing yourself.

Update, March 19, 2015: The text of this review has been updated to reflect the latest updates to the Sling TV service, including the addition of A&E Networks and an app for the Xbox One. We expect to update this review once we perform hands-on testing with the Xbox One ($446 at Amazon) and get a chance to test PlayStation Vue. In the meantime, check out PlayStation Vue vs. Sling TV for our latest thoughts.

Editors' note: The Sling TV service reviewed here is separate and distinct from the Sling TV hardware product, which was originally released under the name Slingbox 500.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The basics: Packages, channels and devices

The base $20 per month package includes 16 channels of live TV, most of them basic cable staples including ESPN, AMC, Disney Channel, TBS, TNT, History and HGTV.

You can also get add-on packs for $5 per month.

Sling TV packages

Package Price Channels
The Best of Live TV (core) $20 per month ESPN, ESPN2, AMC, TNT, TBS, CNN, A&E, Lifetime, History, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Disney Channel, ABC Family, IFC, H2, El Rey Network, Maker, Galavision
Sports Extra +$5 per month SEC Network, ESPNews, ESPNU, Universal Sports, Univision Deportes, beIN Sports, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Bases Loaded, ESPN Goal Line
Kids Extra +$5 per month Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, Duck TV
Lifestyle Extra +$5 per month truTV, Cooking Channel, DIY, WE tv, FYI, LMN
World News Extra +$5 per month Bloomberg TV, HLN, Euro News, France 24, NDTV 24/7, News 18, Russia Today
Hollywood Extra +$5 per month EPIX, EPIX2, EPIX3, EPIX Drive-In, Sundance TV

All of the above channels are available now aside from A&E, History, Lifetime and H2, which are all coming before the end of March 2015, and FYI and LMN, which are "coming soon."

Sling bills Cartoon Network and Adult Swim as two separate "Nielsen-rated" networks, but just like your cable company, presents them on a single channel split between day and evening. In the same vein, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Bases Loaded and ESPN Goal Line from the Sports Extra add-on package are basically a single channel that airs only during the respective college basketball, baseball and football seasons with highlights and cut-ins.

New channels added to the base package since launch include A&E, History, Lifetime, AMC, Spanish-language Galavision, Robert Rodriguez' El Rey Network, with grindhouse-style movies and TV shows, and a channel called Maker, with myriad short-form video from Disney-owned Maker Studios. The latter feels a lot like an endless YouTube playlist set to shuffle. Sling says Polaris+, a gaming-related channel featuring long-form original programming (check out Maker's Polaris YouTube channel for a taste) is coming soon exclusively to Sling TV.

You'll notice that major broadcast networks, namely CBS, ABC, Fox and NBC, not to mention PBS, are not included on Sling TV. (And let us note, for the record, that CNET is published by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS.) Numerous other cable channels, such as regional sports channels, Bravo, Fox News and Comedy Central, and premium channels, such as HBO, Showtime and The Movie Channel, are also absent.

To watch Sling TV you'll need to subscribe at and set up an account, then install the app on a supported device. Sling TV is available on the devices listed in the table below.

Sling TV devices

TV devices Roku (TVs, boxes and streaming stick), Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Xbox One
Mobile devices Android phones and tablets, iOS phones and tablets (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch), PC and Mac computers
"Coming soon" Chromecast, Google Nexus Player, Android TV devices (select 2015 Sony and Sharp Smart TVs), Samsung & LG Smart TVs
Not available PlayStation (3 or 4)

There is no native Sling app for Apple TV ($100 at Amazon), and the compatibility on that product with AirPlay from an iOS device is currently murky (see below for hands-on testing).

Once you have the device and app installed, you'll be able to sign in and start watching anywhere in the US that has stable Internet connection, whether wired, Wi-Fi or cellular data. Sling didn't give us any minimum requirement, saying only that, "The same Internet speed is required to watch Sling TV that is needed to watch similar content on platforms like Netflix and Hulu."

For more details, check out Sling TV: Everything you need to know.

Just like regular TV, complete with commercials

Streaming live Sling TV over the Internet to a Roku 3 box connected to a TV feels a lot like watching TV via a cable box.

The picture quality was generally very good, video ran smoothly and in my three days of testing I only experienced a couple major chokes and dropouts I could blame on the app(s) or service. I was using Wi-Fi exclusively, with good routers and Internet connections at home and in the CNET lab. Of course a suboptimal connection might mar your experience.

The largely unskippable ads, another similarity between Sling and standard TV, might do the same. We're not talking Hulu-style short-term ads here, either. Sling TV is burdened with the same length of advertising breaks as regular TV, with the same national ads. For what it's worth, Sling's rep told me, "Sling TV will feature Dynamic Ad Insertion, allowing for targeted advertising that creates a better experience for the viewer as well as advertisers and programmers," but like many "features," it's not yet live. Yay?

It's also worth noting that, like their premium counterparts on regular cable, the Epix movie channels from the Hollywood Extra add-on pack are all commercial-free.

I also noticed couple of differences between Sling TV and cable right off the bat. Changing a channel causes a "loading" or "buffering" delay of 1 to 5 seconds -- or longer, if your connection is slow -- as the new channel cues up. Pausing and rewinding, which DVR users and streamers take for granted, is largely off-limits (see below). And of course there simply aren't as many channels.

In addition, all of the channels showed a delay of 1 to 2 minutes between Sling TV and my reference Verizon Fios TV service. The ESPNs were about 1 minute behind, while CNN, TBS and Bloomberg TV were closer to 2 minutes behind. If you love following along with a show in real-time on Twitter, relish your news to be as "live" as possible, or dread the giveaway cheer from a neighbor's house as the local team makes a big play, the delay might be an issue.

When I asked about it, Sling's reply was encouraging and unusually expansive. "Since Sling TV is a new service, we have chosen to be conservative in our signal delay to allow for congestion or other potential Internet propagation delays that can occur over the various networks between the head-end signals and the viewer. We will adjust the settings so all channels have the same perceived time settings, and we expect the perceived delay will be significantly reduced over time. We do this to optimize picture quality only; there is no cost savings on our end." Fair enough.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Not your average program guide

All of the apps I tested -- Roku (on a Roku 3, Roku Streaming Stick and a TCL Roku TV ), iOS (on a pair of iPad 2 s), Android (on a Galaxy Note 2 phone), PC (multiple computers) and Mac (on the entry-level 2014 Mac Mini ) -- had similar feel and mostly common menu arrangement. The majority of my testing was on a Roku 3.

The Roku app is the best and most refined, which makes sense since Sling TV believes most users will watch on a TV as opposed to a mobile device. Its menus were simple, stable and quick to respond, but not perfect. Hitting the asterisk key on the Roku remote calls up the main menu, a strip overlapping the bottom of the picture with options (see picture below), including a toggle for closed captions, which worked well, just as expected.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Hitting the replay button allows you to flip back and forth between two channels. You can also flip channels up and down using the remote's cursor keys. Since there's an information bar with the current show and an intentional delay before actually going to the new channel, this method also allows you an alternate way to browse. The delay also means inveterate flippers won't be as satisfied as with a standard cable box, however. Most users will employ the "TV" option to select channels and shows.

Instead of the standard program guide grid, the channels appear in a horizontal ribbon of logos along the middle of the screen, with nine visible at once. The look is nicer than a grid but less practical; I found scrolling among channels a pain to reach the one I wanted, and wished I could rearrange them. You can filter channels by genre, with another couple button presses.

The selected channel corresponds to a second horizontal ribbon of labeled thumbnails that displays the current show playing on that channel, as well as a few shows in the future. On certain channels that allow "3 Day Replay" (see below) you can also see shows that aired in the past. Again, the strip isn't as functional as a grid -- which easily reveals what's on now across multiple channels -- but it looks nicer, at least when the thumbnails aren't all the same (they often are).

Selecting a future show simply calls up an information tile; there's no reminder and certainly no option to schedule it to "record." Unlike your cable company or the late Aereo service, Sling TV doesn't have full DVR functionality. The 3 Day Replay feature, however, is Sling's version of limited on-demand TV.

Sarah Tew/CNET

No pause, rewind or commercial skip on most channels

Here's where Sling TV feels too restrictive. On most channels pressing pause, rewind or fast-forward on the remote doesn't work at all. You just get a message that says, "This action is not available on ESPN" (or whatever channel you're on). On the PC and mobile apps, those controls are grayed out and the scrub bar is inactive. In essence, the channels are live-only.

Sling TV channels that disable fast-forward and rewind

Core channels ESPN, ESPN2, AMC, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, The Disney Channel, ABC Family, CNN, IFC
Add-on channels SEC Network, ESPNEWS, ESPNU, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Bases Loaded, ESPN Goal Line, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, HLN, Sundance TV, truTV, WE tv

Sling hasn't said as much, but I'm guessing that part of those networks' agreements to appear on the service stipulates no pausing or rewinding, which of course makes it impossible to create a "buffer" allowing you to skip commercials -- a standard tactic familiar to any DVR owner.

A less restrictive alternative would have been to allow a short "bathroom break buffer," say, 5 minutes or so. But for now, when watching "Monday Night Football," you'll just have to hold it until the next commercial break. (Don't worry, another one is coming up soon enough.)

Sling TV's FAQ originally claimed that on some Turner networks (TNT, Cartoon Network and TBS) "you can rewind a show up to the point when you first started watching it" but that's no longer the case. The company told me, "This was outdated language that we have since removed from our FAQ website. At this time, all Turner channels are live-only." Interestingly, that statement leaves open the (slim) possibility that some channels might regain pause and rewind functionality, perhaps for an additional fee.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Other channels allow limited DVR and VOD functions

On the remainder of the channels the pause, rewind and fast-forward buttons worked as expected. I could pause a current show and rewind all the way to the beginning. I could also fast-forward, even through commercials, to catch back up to live time.

Sling TV channels that allow pause, rewind and 3- or 7-day replay

Core channels Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, El Rey Network, Maker, Galavision
Add-on channels Universal Sports, Univision Deportes, beIN Sports, EPIX, EPIX2, EPIX3, EPIX Drive-In, Cooking Channel, DIY, Bloomberg TV, Baby TV, Duck TV, Euro News, France 24, NDTV 24/7, News 18, Russia Today

Those channels also allow you to watch any show aired within the past three days, an extra Sling TV calls "3-Day Replay."

For a few, namely the Epix movie channels, Universal Sports, beIN Sports, Bloomberg TV, Baby TV, Duck TV, and most of the world news channels, you can actually access shows and movies from as far back as a week. The other exception from the chart above is Maker, which only goes back a day (probably because its "shows" are so short and numerous).

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