For people looking to cut the cord and rescue themselves from the likes of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, or any of the other traditional pay-television providers, the alternatives have never been more plentiful.
In addition to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon, which offer huge archives of licensed and original programming, a number of companies are launching (or have launched) streaming services featuring live television. Though the new, unconfirmed Apple TV and Sony Vue may be the most highly anticipated of these choices, the DISH Network (NASDAQ:DISH) Sling TV was first to market and the most radically different from current pay TV.
Sling is a slimmed-down service offering about 20 channels, including ESPN, AMC, TBS, TNT, CNN, and other popular cable stations for $20 a month. The company also offers the new HBO streaming service, which does not require a cable subscription, for $15. In addition, the service features sports, kids, lifestyle, and world news packages for $5 per month each. Sling rounds out its offerings with a $5 movie add-on that includes four Epix channels and Sundance TV.
Sling can offer a true cost savings to traditional cable packages. However, you are giving up a lot of channels for those savings, as the service offers no broadcast channels and is missing a number of top cable networks.
Still, the idea of replacing my $100-plus monthly cable bill with a much cheaper service has its appeal, so I decided to spend a week with Sling TV.
A bit about the experiment
My Sling account, provided by DISH Network, has the full package of channels, but I chose not to use any of the add-ons, including HBO. I spent a full week using the basic service on my laptop while traveling with my 11 year old son. It is easy enough to get Sling running on a full-size TV with a Roku player, Amazon Fire TV stick, or Microsoft Xbox One console, but for my test, I stuck with a MacBook Air.
Over free, mediocre hotel Wi-Fi, Sling performed admirably. The picture was not always perfect, sometimes coming in a bit fuzzy when changing channels, but it rarely timed out. In general, the viewing experience was extremely smooth. Switching between networks had more of a lag than seen with traditional pay television, but it was not long enough to greatly impact the viewing experience.
The basic $20 Sling package has a decent selection of channels. ESPN makes up for the overall lack of live sports, since I could at least catch up on scores watching SportsCenter. CNN allowed me to do the same with news, and TBS offered Conan each night, so there was at least a smattering of current content.
The lack of the broadcast networks might not matter to millennials, the main target market for Sling, but it was frustrating to this 41 year old. Similarly, the limited amount of live sports content -- even if you add the sports package -- was a problem.
Not having access to NBC's Sports Network reduced me to listening to game one of the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins NHL playoff series on an Internet radio station. It was nice to get a smattering of Major League Baseball on ESPN and some NBA basketball on TNT, but the holes were obvious.
It was also frustrating not having access to local traffic and weather, while I was dressing in the morning. Of course, apps on my phone offer those services, but there is a level of convenience to simply turning on the local news while preparing for your day.
It is a good service
Most of my complaints with Sling are minor, and had I used it at home rather than on the road, I could solve the local channels issue with a sub-$30 HD antenna.
And though Sling offers far fewer choices than a traditional cable package, I never felt there was a shortage of programming. DISH has put together a nice package of channels that delivers a little bit of everything.
It may not be as good as cable, but for $20, it is certainly good enough. Add a Netflix subscription (which I also have), and it is hard to imagine running out of things to watch.
I am not going to join the cord cutters permanently just yet, but were I single -- my wife and child have their own favorite channels -- I probably would. Sling has the technology and viewing experience down. The service offers enough programming for most people, and while the missing pieces do sometimes matter, the service is still impressive.