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Sling TV review: How does Dish Network's service compare to cable and satellite?

Consumer Reports tries this new over-the-Internet live-TV streaming service

Published: January 26, 2015 06:00 AM
A Sling TV screen

Less than three weeks after Sling TV was announced and a few weeks before public availability, we got an invitation to try out Dish Network's new $20-per-month, Internet-based streaming-TV service. We’ve been using it in our labs and in a home environment for around a week. Here are our first impressions.

What do you get for $20 per month?

The basic Sling TV package has 12 channels, including Cartoon Network, CNN, Disney Channel, ESPN and ESPN2, Food Network, TBS, and TNT—a cleverly designed list of some of the most popular basic-cable channels.

We tried the full suite of channels, which includes Sling TV's two $5-per-month add-ons: Kids Extra (Baby TV, Boomerang Disney Junior, Disney XD, and Duck TV) and News & Info Extra (Bloomberg, Cooking Channel, DIY, and HLN).

This $30-a-month package is incredibly tempting for anyone who’s ever wondered why they’re paying $50 and up (plus a monthly fee for a cable box) to get hundreds of channels when they watch only a few regularly. Sling TV is the closest service yet to à-la-carte cable television.  

Sling TV doesn't include any of the broadcast networks, so you’ll need to hook an antenna up to your TV to get ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Premium channels, such as HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime, are also unavailable on Sling TV.

No launch date for Sling TV has been announced, but the company assured us it's coming soon.

Looking to change your cable company? Check our telecom services buying guide and reviews.

Sling TV on an Apple iPad mini

How Sling TV works

Like many other streaming video services, Sling TV works through an app that you can install on multiple devices. At launch, Sling TV should work with streaming media players from Amazon and Roku as well as with the Xbox One, Google Nexus Player, and smart TVs from LG and Samsung. It should also work on Android and Apple iOS devices.

If you want to watch Sling TV on your television, you might need to spend $40 to $100 for a streaming media player, but that’s still a significant savings over the multiyear cost of a DVR or a cable box.

We tried Sling TV on a Roku 3, an iPad 2 and an iPad mini. We also wanted to try it on an Amazon Fire TV, but the apps for Amazon devices weren’t ready during our trial.

Navigating Sling TV is a bit of a departure from the standard-issue cable and satellite service numerical channel guide. On Sling TV, channels have no number and instead are grouped by type (Sports, Family, News, etc.). The organizational logic makes a lot more sense than assigning arbitrary numbers to channels, but its difficult to know how it would scale beyond the dozen or so channels currently on Sling TV.

How does it compare with cable and satellite?

Our TV testers set up Sling TV in a side-by-side comparison with our in-house Optimum cable feed using two identically calibrated TVs. During lab testing, they saw a noticeable downgrade in picture quality of the Sling TV feed relative to Optimum cable. Sling TV seemed more heavily compressed than cable, causing the images on Sling TV to look softer and less detailed. They also noticed more banding (course steps from dark to light parts of the picture where ideally you should see a smooth transition) and jagged edges around text and other rounded objects.

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How much you care about those issues depends on how much you care about HD picture quality. Streaming services are notoriously inconsistent when it comes to picture quality, because, like Sling TV, most of them use a technology known as “adaptive bitrate streaming”: The service constantly adjusts its compression to deliver the best possible picture given the speed of your broadband connection and Internet traffic.

To optimize picture quality, some streaming providers (most notably Netflix) have set up specialized content distribution servers or peering arrangements with Internet service providers to ensure the fastest and most reliable possible pipeline for streaming video.

According to a Sling TV spokesperson, the company has no such deals. That’s hardly surprising, considering most major ISPs are cable providers with little incentive to optimize Sling TV’s competing service.

In our labs, Sling TV (left) ran one to two minutes behind cable TV (right).

How live is Sling’s 'live TV'?

The most striking difference we saw between the cable and Sling TV feeds was one of latency. Side by side, we found that Sling TV was running one to two minutes behind the programming on Optimum cable. We even tried it at the home of a staff editor who subscribes to Dish Network's satellite service and found Sling TV to be running about a minute behind the company’s own feed from space. We asked the Sling TV spokesperson about the delay, and got this explanation:

“Television signals of all types are never truly live. They all have delay from the time of content was captured and produced to the time a viewer sees the signal. 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 . . . We expect the perceived delay will be significantly reduced over time.”

Truth be told, most subscribers to Sling TV would never notice the delay. After all, how often are you watching the same TV program from two different sources at once? But it does raise the curious possibility that while you're watching a big basketball game on ESPN you could hear raucous cheering from your neighbors’ house only to discover—two minutes later—that the fuss was abut a mind-blowing, buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer.

You probably will notice a lag when you change channels. Even with a 15-Mbps broadband connection (ample for HD streaming), we generally experienced five-second buffering delays when changing from one Sling TV channel to another. That increased when we used the service on a 2.5-Mbps DSL connection, but we were impressed to find that, once a channel buffered, we were usually able to watch interruption free on that DSL line.

Sling TV's dynamic ad insertion system wasn't running during our test, so we saw this.

Your very own ads

We noticed one other bit of weirdness about Sling TV’s service that surfaced during the review period. ESPN wasn’t showing commercials—instead, the channel would display the ESPN logo and the message “Commercial break. We’ll be right back.” Sling told us that Sling TV would be using “dynamic ad insertion” to serve targeted, customized ads to each user.

The reason we saw the “We’ll be right back” message was because Sling TV isn't fully up and running yet. Presumably, the dynamic advertising will be invisible to the consumer, but it says a lot about Sling TV’s business model and suggests that advertising on Internet-distributed TV will look a lot like it does on the Web.

Bottom line

After less than a week with Sling TV, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about whether it could truly replace cable or satellite television for most users. In the end, it’s all about what channels matter to you—if you like AMC, Comedy Central, Fox News, or Nickelodeon, then you’re out of luck for now—and how much of a stickler you are for the absolute best picture quality.

Sling TV is a streaming service, and it acts like an over-the-Internet product, subject to the variability and inconsistencies of your connection. Then again, it is remarkably liberating to know that the option of Sling TV exists.

Cord cutters no longer have to give up the most popular sports channel in the land. You can still entertain your kids with Mickey Mouse Clubhouse without having to pay for the Home Shopping Network.

And if nothing else, Sling TV adds a little healthy competition to a marketplace that sorely needs it.

—Glenn Derene

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