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

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, 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 and what other services arise to compete against it, like PlayStation Vue and whatever Apple has up its sleeve, but for now it’s the only game in town with ESPN. And for just $20 and no obligation, it’s definitely worth testing yourself.

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

Launch details so far

The general market launch of Sling TV is expected within the next two weeks, according to Sling TV’s representatives. That means it should be available to everyone in the US by February 9. We’ll update this section when we’re given an exact date.

At that point, “Sling users will have two options,” according to the company. “1) They can choose a one-week free trial, or 2) they can sign up for a device bundle that will be announced soon.” After that point the account will automatically switch to a paid account.

Since the announcement of the service at CES, Sling has been accepting pre-registrations at Sling.com. On Tuesday, January 27, the first batch of invites for those who pre-registered will be sent out, and subsequent batches will continue to be sent until the general market launch. Sling will continue to accept pre-registrations up until the launch.

The basics: Packages, channels, and devices

The base $20 per month package includes 11 of the most popular basic cable channels, including ESPN, Disney Channel, TBS, TNT and HGTV. Sling bills Cartoon Network and Adult Swim as two separate “Nielsen-rated” networks to get the total to 12, but just like your cable company, presents them on a single channel split between day and evening. 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, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Disney Channel, ABC Family, CNN
Kids Extra +$5 per month Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, Duck TV
News & Info Extra +$5 per month HLN, Cooking Channel, DIY, Bloomberg TV

Dish has mentioned a “Sports Extra” $5 add-on pack said to include other ESPN channels, as well as other, unspecified sports channels. No other details are available yet.

You’ll notice that major broadcast networks, namely CBS, ABC, Fox and NBC, not to mention PBS, are not included. (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, AMC, Bravo 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 Sling.com and set up an account, then install the app on a supported device. At launch, Sling TV is said to be available on the devices listed in the table below. Note that device support has been pared down somewhat from previous announcements; the Xbox One and Google Nexus Player apps have moved from the launch timeframe to “coming soon.”

Sling TV devices

TV devices Roku (TVs, boxes and streaming stick), Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick
Computers and mobile devices Android phones and tablets, iOS phones and tablets (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch), PC and Mac computers
“Coming soon” Xbox One, Google Nexus Player, Chromecast, 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, and the compatibility on that product with AirPlay from an iOS device is currently murky, although we expect Sling to get it working soon (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 sub-optimal connection might mar your experience.

The largely un-skippable 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?

I also noticed a couple of differences right off the bat. Changing a channel causes a “loading” or “buffering” delay of 2 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 three of the apps I tested — Roku (on a
Roku 3
), iOS (on a pair of iPad 2s) and Android (on a Galaxy Note 2 phone) — had similar feel and mostly common menu arrangement. Sling says other platforms will be supported by the time the service fully launches, but for my initial review only those three were up and running, so they were all I could test.

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 a 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 any 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, namely both ESPNs, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, the Disney channels, ABC Family, Boomerang and HLN, 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).

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.”

Sarah Tew/CNET

Other channels allow limited DVR-like functions

On Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Cooking Channel, DIY, Bloomberg TV, Baby TV and Duck TV, 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. This only works for the current show, however.

Those channels also allow you to watch any show aired within the past three days, an extra Sling TV calls “3 Day Replay.” It basically acts as video on demand (VOD) for any of those shows. Unfortunately it’s a pain to scroll backward through numerous thumbnails and identical descriptions to find the one you want, but it’s better than nothing.

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