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Sony PlayStation Vue review: Cut the cable TV cord, keep the channels and DVR

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So how is it different from cable and rival Sling TV? Here's what I discovered.

After a quick learning curve, Vue's Netflix-like interface rules. The most obvious change to cable TV veterans is Vue's innovative menu system. The home page isn't a program guide or staid, text-based menu, it's a dynamic collection of thumbnail images that directly correspond to actual TV shows -- just like Netflix. Intuitive categories include "You're Watching," Up Next," "You Might Like." The "My Shows" list is stuff you've added to the cloud DVR, followed by "Favorite Channels" and "Live TV."

Yes, there is a grid Guide too, but it's sparse and poorly designed. And in another diss to traditional TV-watching habits, there's no way to move to the next channel directly from what you're currently watching; you have to go back to the interface. Channel flippers need not apply.

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Once I got over its newness however, I began to appreciate where Vue's interface excels. I loved the easy keyword search as well as the ability to filter shows not just by genre, category, channel and rating, but even by content length. You can also order the results by popularity, name, air date or when they're no longer available.

Once you choose a show, say "Portlandia," all available episodes appear and are clearly labeled, including any airing now, many of the ones that recently aired (labeled Catch Up), any of the ones available via on-demand (Vue's on-demand library seems as extensive as any cable service...and much easier to find) and any you've "recorded" if you added that show to My Shows.

The new Sling TV interface, which hasn't rolled out yet, offers similar personalization and show-centric categorization, but of course Sling lacks the ability to record shows to a DVR.

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The cloud DVR works well for scheduling, less so for skipping. Adding shows to the list of "My Shows" essentially sets up a "season pass" to record every episode. And since you can add up to 500 different shows (and potentially dozens of episodes per show), it's great for inveterate DVR-ers. The one limitation is that unlike your hard-drive based DVR, shows expire after 28 days and there's no way to keep any of them for longer.

In my experience, scheduling worked very well, although I wish that when I chose "NBA Basketball" it didn't also include related shows like "NBA: The Jump." There's also no built-in provision for adding extra time for live sporting events. A Sony representative told me "PlayStation works to ensure that when popular live programming content is recorded to the cloud DVR, it is available in its entirety."

Unfortunately the cloud DVR can't match a local hard drive for skipping through, scanning and rewinding shows. You can fast-forward through commercials, but the responses aren't exact and it's easy to overshoot and miss the first part of the show that resumes after the break. It also takes longer than I'd like to step up through the fast-forward speeds (4x, 8x, 16x, 32x, with 64x available on Fire TV), making it even more tedious, and there's no 30-second skip.

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Still, it's way better than actually watching commercials, and of course Sling doesn't let you so much as pause on most channels. With Vue you can pause and rewind any live show you're watching, just like with a cable DVR.

Many shows are also available via Catch Up, which allows you to view the last couple of episodes even if you don't add them to your My Shows list. Like most cable services, Vue won't allow you to fast-forward through commercials with On Demand or Catch-Up content, however.

Video and audio quality are perfectly acceptable on a fast connection. Most viewers will be happy with the image quality of Vue. Like Netflix and other services it adapts to your bandwidth -- faster Internet speeds mean better quality -- and the best quality is slightly softer than the best of what I'm used to on my Verizon Fios connection at home. Changing to a new channel or show, or coming out of fast-forward or rewind, it takes a moment or two to ramp up to the best quality.

Audio on Vue, like Sling TV, is restricted to stereo only, not the 5.1-channel surround sound found on most cable and satellite systems.

I've seen reports on user forums about DVR'd shows stopping mid-playback, but in my experience watching tens of hours worth of recorded programming over a couple weeks of testing, that never happened. Playback and live TV was always stable in my experience.

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Hooray for profiles! Just like Netflix, Vue offers profiles for up to five different family members. 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.

I love the fact that my wife and kids basically get their own personalized DVRs, accessible from every TV or device. No longer does my six-year-old daughter have to navigate past my recordings of inappropriate material like "American Horror Story" or the Republican debates to watch "Mutt & Stuff."

It's great on a PlayStation or Fire TV box, too slow on the Stick. I tested Vue with every device currently supported. The PS3 and PS4 consoles performed about the same, with snappy response times and speedy menus on my fast Internet connections at home and in CNET's lab. The biggest issue (aside from the controllers; see below) is boot-up time. The PS4 takes 30 seconds to power on, then you have to select the Vue app, which then takes another 15 seconds to load before you're watching TV.

Using the Fire TV box was actually a better overall experience than using either PlayStation console. You don't have to wait for the box to fire up (get it?) since it's "always on" anyway, and once started, the Vue app takes about half the time (8 seconds) to boot before you're watching TV. Superior to Sony's game controller, the Fire TV remote is one-handed, and its commands (menu, back, play/pause etc) are easier for non-gamers to comprehend. I was also surprised to find that responses to fast-forward and rewind were actually better than on the consoles.

Unlike the PS3 and PS4, the Fire devices (along with iOS devices and the new Chromecast) were actually able to connect to my faster 5GHz Wi-Fi networks. Even better is that the Fire TV box, just like the consoles, can also be connected to wired Ethernet for the most stable connection available -- and one that doesn't hog your precious Wi-Fi bandwidth.

The cheapest Vue hardware is the Fire TV Stick, but it's also the slowest. It takes an agonizing 30 seconds to launch and at least another 20 before the interface becomes fully responsive. Many button presses have a delayed response, and navigating Vue's image-heavy menus is more tedious. The Stick still works fine, but the other devices provide a much smoother Vue experience.

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Using a game controller to watch TV kinda sucks. My main complaint about using the game controller is that it's designed to be used in two hands, while a typical clicker can be used with one. Losing that free hand in the living room is inconvenient and feels unnatural when watching TV.

The other big issue is that the controls aren't intuitive, especially for people who aren't used to PlayStation's logic. Even as someone who's owned a PS3 since launch and played hundreds of hours of games on it, I was often confused. I had to refer to the Button Guide in Vue's help menu fairly frequently -- I even printed it out to put behind my test TV:

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Try explaining this to a family member who's never used a PlayStation before.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you Vue with a console, I definitely recommend a universal remote -- one of the few that can actually control a PlayStation, such as the excellent Harmony Home Control -- instead of the game controller. Sony also sells a dedicated PS3 remote, and a company called PDP makes an official version ($30) for the PS4.

I tried all three of those remotes (and a Harmony Elite) during testing and they worked fine, and were all significantly more convenient than the game controllers. Keep in mind that those hub-based Harmony remotes can control everything but power on a PS4, and provide full control over a PS3.

The Vue app for iPad and iPhone works well too, but there are many limitations. The iOS app is generally a great way to watch TV via Vue, and it behaves basically the same as the TV version of the service, but it's more limited. First off, it's worth noting again that to sign up and use Vue, you can't just use an iOS device; you need at least one PlayStation console or Fire TV device.

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Second, certain channels are not available to be watched at all on the iOS app, namely NBC/Universal properties like NBC's broadcast channel, Syfy and Bravo. Shows on these channels are clearly marked "mobile restricted" on iOS. There are also a number of channels you can only watch in-home (on your own Wi-Fi network as opposed to via your 4G or cellular data connection), including CBS, Animal Planet and Discovery. Check Vue's FAQ for the full list of mobile-restricted channels.

Finally, shows recorded to the cloud DVR won't play back at all outside the home. You can schedule recordings, but the Play button will be disabled unless you're on your own Wi-Fi network. On-demand shows will play back outside the home, however.

I love that the iPad and iPhone apps also work with Chromecast, allowing you to watch on a TV connected to a Chromecast or other Google Cast device. I tested it with both the new and old Chromecasts and an Nvidia Shield, and it worked as expected. Unfortunately for owners of Apple TV, it doesn't work with AirPlay or AirPlay Mirroring in my testing.

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Vue's TV app support is excellent. It's worth noting that Vue supports more than 60 "TV Everywhere" apps that require authentication from your TV provider. People with an active Vue subscription can use apps like Watch ESPN, FXNow, Watch Disney Jr and Showtime Anytime (the last requires Vue's Showtime add-on) on their iOS or Android devices, or even TV devices like Roku. See the full list of supported apps on Sony's FAQ under "How to Use Key Features."

I've asked Sling TV to provide a similar list, but they have yet to do so by publication time.

Should you switch?

The best way to know whether Vue is for you is to try it for the trial period. The variation in people's viewing habits, channels watched and budget priorities is so vast that it's impossible for me to say "you should switch," or not, for every (or even any) reader.

The main reason anybody ditches cable TV is to save money. So the first thing to consider is whether the monthly cost of the Vue package you want in your area ($30 and up), plus the cost of "just Internet" from your local broadband provider (typically $50), saves you anything compared to a TV-plus-Internet bundle from that provider. Don't forget to include the cost of cable's fees, such as equipment rental (particularly HD and/or whole-home DVRs) or the fact that you might need new hardware to use Vue. After that you can weigh the benefits of each service -- cable's likely superior selection of regional sports channels, for example, compared to Vue's modern interface and family member profiles.

That said, this is the ultimate low-risk purchase: Even if you sign up and end up regretting it, you're only out the cost of one month's bill -- unlike a lot of cable and satellite services, there's no contract or long-term commitment.

Cutting cable is not an easy decision, but the mere existence of an excellent, feature-rich TV alternative like Vue at least makes it relatively painless. And competition is usually a good thing.

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