Why Sling TV is an essential part of a balanced cord-cutting diet

Caleb Denison
Digital Trends
sling tv hands on with video
sling tv hands on with video

Dish Network stole the show at CES 2015 when it premiered Sling TV, a service that streams popular live TV channels with no cable or satellite subscription required, winning our Best in Show award for it innovative take on pay TV. Since then Sling TV has gone through multiple evolutions, and while it’s become an ever-present option for the cord-cutting crowd looking for live TV without the bonds of cable, the service’s multiple options have made it increasingly complicated.

Related: Prepare for kickoff — NFL Network and RedZone land on Sling TV

To help simplify everything Sling has to offer (it’s a lot!), we’ve put together a comprehensive hands-on evaluation so you can see if it’s right for you. (Note: If you’re here to catch up on the latest channel additions, scroll down to page 2 below.)

Sling TV: What it is and isn’t     

Dish Network would still be happy to sell you 250 channels for $85 per month, and it doesn’t intend Sling TV to replace full-blown satellite service or cable. Instead, it hopes to meet the needs of so-called cord-cutters (those who quit cable) or cord-nevers (those who never had it) who can’t get everything they want from traditional streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. That’s what makes Sling TV’s inclusion of sports networks like ESPN and NFL Network so attractive – live streaming sports are hard to come by outside of a contract.

Sling TV’s selection of channels was lean to start, but it’s starting to beef up, and the channels it does offer (listed below) are fairly popular. The service also offers video-on-demand from a handful of the channels it offers, as well as movie rentals. Best of all, Sling TV requires no sign-up fee, no contract, and you can test it out with a one-week free trial before fully diving in.

Single stream vs. multiple streams, time shifting, and more

There are some important asterisks.  First, only certain subscription packages allow for multiple simultaneous streams. If you opt for the basic package, Sling Orange, you’ll be restricted to streaming from just one device at a time. You can easily jump from your tablet to your streaming set-top box, for instance, but you can’t use both at the same time. The other, more expensive subscription plans allow for up to three simultaneous streams, however. Also, many channels don’t allow time shifting; that means no pausing, rewinding or fast-forward. (We’ve outlined which channels do allow time shifting below.)

Available channels

Below, you’ll find charts for each of the base Sling TV channel packages, followed by a listing of the channels included in $5 add-on packages. The number of available channels for each package has grown and changed over time, and is likely to continue expanding and altering into the future, but we’ll do our best to update these listings asd they change. Current listings here are up to date as of October 14, 2016.

Included in $20/month “Sling Orange” package

sling-tv-20-orange
sling-tv-20-orange

Included in $25/month “Sling Blue” package

sling-tv-25-blue
sling-tv-25-blue

Included in $40/month “Sling Orange and Blue” package

sling-tv-40-orange-blue
sling-tv-40-orange-blue

Sling Orange and Blue subscriptions also include the Broadcast Extra add-on pack at no additional charge.

A quick glance at the above listings shows that there are some major differences in channels included with each of the package options. Sling Orange includes multiple sports channels, most notable a suite of ESPN channels including ESPN, ESPN 2, and ESPN 3. Sling Blue, on the other hand, drops the sports but adds in networks like Fox and NBC. This is a bit of a conundrum, as being able to stream both live sports and network content without a cable subscription are major draws of services like Sling TV.

If you’re looking to keep costs low, you’ll have to pick between the two options. Luckily for those who don’t mind paying extra there’s a third option, “Sling Orange and Blue,” which includes all the channels from both Orange and Blue packages for $40/month. It’s a bit more expensive, to be sure, but you won’t have to decide between live sports on ESPN with Orange or network streaming with Blue.

Note: Below are the available add on packs. Be aware that some packages differ depending on which color of Sling TV you choose. If you subscribe to both Orange and Blue, every channel from each will be available.

$5 add-on packs

  • World News Extra (Orange): BBC World News, HLN, News18, euronews, France 24, NDTV 24×7, RT Network
  • World News Extra (Blue): Everything above, plus CNBC and MSNBC
  • Broadcast Extra: ABC, Univision, UniMas (Broadcast Extra is included as a free addition in “Sling Orange and Blue” subscriptions for select markets, specifically: Chicago, Fresno-Visalia, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham and San Francisco.)
  • Comedy Plus Extra: MTV, TruTV, Spike, MTV2, CMT, GSN, Logo, TV Land
  • Lifestyle Extra: VH1, BET, Cooking Channel, DIY, FYI, WE TV, Lifetime Movie Network, Oxygen, E!, Vibrant, Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries
  • Kids Extra (Orange): Disney Junior, Disney XD, Nick Jr., Nicktoons, TeenNick, Boomerang, Baby TV, and Duck TV
  • Kids Extra (Blue): Nick Jr., Nicktoons, TeenNick, Boomerang, Baby TV, and Duck TV
  • Sports Extra (Orange):  NBA TV, NHL Network, ESPN Bases Loaded, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Goal Line, ESPNEWS, ESPNU, ESPN SEC Network, ESPN SEC Network+Motors TV North Am, Outside Television, beIN Sports, Campus Insiders, PAC12 Network, Univision Deportes
  • Hollywood Extra pack: Epix, Epix2, Epix Hits, Epix Drive-in, TCM, HDNET Movies, Sundance TV

$10 add-on packs

  • Sports Extra (Blue): NFL RedZone, NBA TV, NHL Network, Motors TV North Am, Outside Television, beIN Sports, Campus Insiders, PAC12 Network, Univision Deportes

In addition to these add-on packs, Sling TV offers live and on-demand content from premium network HBO for an additional $15/month, the same price as the HBO Now standalone app. Similar add-ons are also available from Cinemax for $10, and Starz for $10. (Note that you may stream HBO on up to three devices via Sling TV regardless of your subscription plan.)

Video on demand

Sling TV offers a fairly robust selection of movies on demand at launch, with even more promised in the near future. Rental costs are $2.99 for SD and $3.99 for HD. The eclectic library includes a healthy selection of Disney flicks, accented by old and new hits like Guardians of the Galaxy, Reservoir Dogs, Sin City, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc. In addition, a new deal with Epix will bring in around 2,000 VOD titles, with titles new and old, spanning the gamut from Creed to The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay Part 2.

DISH-Sling-TV-app_0020
DISH-Sling-TV-app_0020

Titles are broken down into categories including Action & Adventure, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Foreign Films, Horror, Kids and Family, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Thriller, Classics, Romance, War & Westerns. A search feature is also available to make finding out if a specific title is available much easier.

User experience

Interface

We expected it to take some time to learn how to wade through a new layout, so it came as no surprise that Sling TV felt a little awkward at first. But in less than a day, we became accustomed.

Sling TV avoids the blocky “guide graph” of your home DVR in favor of a slicker timeline-based programming guide, enriched with thumbnail graphics for each show. We’re also glad to see an integrated search feature, which makes finding a specific movie in Sling TV’s on-demand catalog much easier.

sling tv hands on with video dish app
sling tv hands on with video dish app
sling tv hands on with video dish app
sling tv hands on with video dish app
sling tv hands on with video dish app
sling tv hands on with video dish app

The UI feels better on a tablet or phone than it does on our Roku, probably because Sling TV’s design lends itself better to a touchscreen or point-and-click interface than it does the Roku’s directional cursor navigation.

Video quality

We tested Sling TV on a 65-inch TV screen, which we expected would expose any shortcomings in video quality … and it did. With a strong internet connection and good throughput, we felt like we were watching 720p at best. Cable, Satellite, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu all have better-looking HD streams in our estimation. On smaller screens, compression artifacts and poor resolution are much less noticeable. We think Sling TV looks just fine for screens 47-inches and smaller, and beautiful on tablets and phones.

Loading and buffering

A solid, speedy Internet connection is recommended for the best Sling TV experience, but not required. Users can choose to stream at Low quality (0.5 Mbps) Medium (0.8Mbps) High (1.5Mbps) or Best (no limit). We streamed at the best quality and experienced longer load times and some buffering depending on the state of our Internet connection, but it’s nice to know those with fast connections can get a quality experience, and those with bandwidth caps can control data consumption.

Shifty time shifting

Whether or not you are able to pause, rewind or fast-forward the channel you’re watching will depend on which channel you’re watching. ESPN, TNT, Disney, and CNN, for example, don’t allow it, while HGTV, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel, Bloomberg, DIY BabyTV, and Duck TV do.

On the plus side, those channels that do allow time shifting will let you go back as far as three days in the channels program history so you can catch that episode of Property Brothers you may have missed. In any case, there’s no recording shows, so if you miss your favorite when it airs, there’s a good chance you’ll have to find another way to watch.

Supported devices

Sling TV is available on a whole host of devices, and very likely on on (or multiple) you already own.

Available on:

Not yet … 

  • PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4

Our take

Sling TV isn’t for everyone, and Dish knows that. Still, at $20 a month for the basic package (or $25 or $40 for the more expansive ones) with no contracts, commitments, or cancellation fees, it’s certainly worth a shot for those who have only kept cable around for channels like ESPN, CNN, or HDTV. With more channels to come, Sling TV’s value proposition will increase, but even now, it’s worth giving it a try. Pair it with an HD antenna, and a couple of other streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, and Sling TV begins to look like a very important part of a complete cord-cutter’s diet.

In the end, what’s there to lose besides your cable provider?

Try Sling TV free for 7 days