At some point, TV became complicated. It used to be this thing I would plop down in front of after school and mindlessly flip through. Then, in 2009, everything changed: analog signals were outlawed, and the new digital TV signals failed me in every way: my old television wasn't compatible, my house was too far from the broadcasting stations. A nearby traffic jam blocked the signal. For whatever reason, I gave up on regular TV years ago, and went digital. If it wasn't on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon, it didn't exist.
Then CES 2015 happened, and Dish revealed Sling TV. It's like Netflix, but for live television. It streams live cable channels to your phone, tablet, PC, Roku box and anything else that can run the Sling TV app. It's the $20 answer to everything that's kept me from paying for cable TV service. It's wonderful. It's also ruining my life.
Television doesn't need to do much to impress me — I've never had DVR and I don't mind watching commercials — it just needs to give me the right content. Sling TV does that. In fact, its small collection of cable channels (only 12 in the basic package) is almost a perfect fit for the kind of garbage television we watch under my roof: immature, annoying and whimsical cartoons for me and ridiculous, indulgent and completely gluttonous cooking competitions for my wife.
There's plenty to watch outside of my niche tastes: in all, Sling TV's basic package includes CNN, ESPN and ESPN2, the Travel Channel, HGTV, Maker, Food Network, TNT, TBS, the Disney Channel, ABC Family and Cartoon Network. There's more if you pay extra.
In one clever way, Sling TV feels like television: when you start up the app for the first time (or any time) something immediately starts playing. Just like turning on a TV.
Once you're watching something, the interface feels more like Netflix. Channels are separated into categories, each one underlined by a colorful parade of title cards representing each show. Naturally, these shows are ordered to match their airtime: if a card is on the right side of the screen, the show is happening later. If it's on the left, you probably already missed it. You pick what to watch next while you continue watching whatever's currently on air.
You can also look at a more condensed "on-now" list that only shows programs playing right now or sort channels by Sports, Entertainment, News & Information, News (a little redundant) and Family. It's a more visually rich program guide than the ugly grids of blue text I'm used to seeing on my friends' cable boxes, and it feels more modern. As someone whose television experience has been dominated by on-demand menus for the last 6 years, Sling TV makes me feel right at home.
Even so, I miss channel surfing. Oh, did I forget to mention? Sling TV is live, but it isn't fast. Channels take about 5-6 seconds to load and another two to buffer up to HD quality. It's not a dealbreaker, but it spoils the age-old practice of mindlessly flipping through an endless ream of channels until a brief flash of color catches your eye. That's how I picked my evening entertainment for decades, and now I can't. The modern equivalent is aimlessly scrolling through Netflix options for 40 minutes and never picking anything — and I can do that on Sling TV — but it's just not the same. Like I said, TV has changed.
There's also on-demand content, but it's confusing, incomplete and pretty weird. Some channels let you dive backwards into their schedule and watch anything that aired in the last three days. This strange DVR stop-gap works, but with so few channels it's hard for me to care.
Sling TV has regular on-demand content too (not just stuff that aired recently), but it took me days to stumble across it on my own. ABC Family, for instance, looks like it only plays live TV, with no access to previously aired shows — but I accidently found some on-demand programming while playing around with the search function. There's a menu for this too, but it's not obvious: every channel has a "channel details" page that shows its full schedule. SOME of these pages also have a list of on-demand content. I'm glad that these shows are available, but the fact that it took me almost a week to find them is ridiculous. There really should be a central on-demand hub.
In fact, the only dedicated on-demand menu is the Movies section, which is stocked with new releases, old classics and a bunch of Bollywood films. Like, a lot of them. You can rent most domestic movies for $3 to $5 a pop, but Indian cinema is free. I wish I understood Hindi.
When I started looking through Sling TV's menu, I stumbled upon an item called "Watchlist" and immediately assumed I could use it bookmark my favorite shows so I could watch them later. Sadly, I was wrong: it's just a simple log of which movies I'd rented and when their rental periods expire. Man, what a disappointment. Sling TV isn't just something I use on my television at home, it's something I can watch anywhere — on my tablet in an airport or, if I was a terrible person, my phone during dinner. If the Watchlist was smarter, it could push notifications to my phone. What's that, I'm about to miss the latest episode of Star Wars: Rebels? No I'm not, I have Sling on my phone. Bam. I'm genuinely sad that isn't how it works.
Maybe it's for the best — right now, a Sling TV account can only support one active stream at a time. If I try to watch some space adventures in a cab, I might unexpectedly stop my wife's Chopped marathon. That wouldn't end well for me.
Still, Sling TV's best feature is simply playing live TV — and if you want more of that, you can get it with add-on packages, each $5 extra a month. Here, I encountered some of the "channel bundling" that turns me away from traditional cable: Sling TV's "Kids Extra" package includes Disney XD and Boomerang (more cartoons!), but also bloats my line-up with channels aimed at toddlers: Disney Junior, Baby TV and Duck TV. At $1 a channel, it's not a bad price, but I don't have kids (Yes, the cartoons are for me, shut up) so I don't need those younger channels. What I'd really like is a pick-and-mix option: the News and Info package has HLN, the Cooking Channel, DIY and Bloomberg — why can't I cherry pick a few grown-up channels to go with my youthful indulgences?
This adherence to cable packages is probably Sling TV's biggest drawback — it's gunning for cord-cutters (or cord-nevers, like me), but it's still subscribing to the tenets of a service I don't want. Sports, for instance, is the hinge-point of many cable packages, but I have almost no need for it. If I could punt ESPN off of the basic package and add Boomerang and DisneyXD, I'd do it in a heartbeat. That isn't an option. It's not a total loss — I've always wanted to try being a baseball fan. This season, I'll be able to give it a shot.
I really like having live TV again, but it's kind of a double-edged sword: productivity in my household has come to a grinding halt. I used to pass the time reading books, drawing or even taking care of household chores. Now I just watch Sling TV. I'm the couch potato my mother always warned me about. I should probably go outside.
I have TV! On my TV! And in my pocket! And in the kitchen when I wash dishes! That's amazing.
It's (just barely) within my stingy price-range.
I've always wanted unfettered access to Cartoon Network and Boomerang. Now I have it.
It has sports! I might get a chance to become a baseball fan and that excites me. Also I can recommend Sling TV to sports friends without them looking at me sideways.
A bunch of channels have free on-demand stuff for popular shows, and Sling says more is coming. That could be great for when I can't find something to watch on live TV.
My TV has a bunch of (well, two) toddler channels on it now, and I don't want them. Why can't anybody respect my adult interest in children's cartoons? It's not weird! You're weird!
I love how the menu looks, but navigating it is a pain in the ass. It took me a week to find one of Sling TV's key features. What the hell, man?
Some channels don't allow you to pause, rewind or fast-forward live TV. That's fine. Those same channels' on-demand programming also blocks fast-forwarding, rewinding and pausing. That's ridiculous.
It doesn't replace my broadcast TV antenna: major networks like NBC, CBS, FOX and ABC just aren't available.
Speaking of three-lettered networks, where's my HBO? (Yes, I know a standalone package is in the works but still.)
Watching commercials on my phone is a really weird experience.
When my internet connection is bad, so is my TV experience.
Reruns (I forgot about those) and the slow, creeping realization that every moment I spend watching Sling TV could probably be put to better use doing chores, exercising or pursuing a less passive hobby. Everything my mother warned me about is coming to pass.
Should You Get It?
Maybe! If you already have cable, love your DVR and need to be able to watch more than one channel on one TV at a time, then Sling TV isn't for you. If you already have a digital solution for most of your favorite shows, but want to throw some live TV in the mix too, check it out. It's not perfect, but it has a lot of room to grow. For now, it's good enough for me, and I'm willing to give it a few months to see if it can get even better.
When can you get it? Soon: Sling TV will be sending out invitations to pre-registered customers later this week, and plans to open general registration early next month. If you have a supported device (you know, any iOS or Android device, a Roku, an Amazon Fire TV or TV Stick, an Xbox One or an LG or Samsung Smart TV) you can try it free for a week. Just like any good drug, your first hit is free.