Television is experiencing a digital renaissance. Cutting the cord no longer means severing you from live TV. We're witnessing the birth of true internet television, and Sony's PlayStation Vue is the service with the most to offer as of today.
I'll be honest: I've missed cable. For me, live TV was like a security blanket, warding off moments of boredom and providing much-needed entertainment during bouts of insomnia. But I've been on a five-year-long detox, spurred by a cash-strapped college budget that followed me to my 143-square-foot Brooklyn bedroom.
So when I downloaded PlayStation Vue, I was beyond excited. Live television and recorded shows, all through the internet… my days spent scrolling through legally dubious streaming sites were over! But soon, PlayStation Vue started feeling like a long-forgotten ex. Sure, I used to like you, but we're different people now.
Before going too much further, let's talk about what PlayStation Vue is and what it isn't. At its very basic, Vue is like having cable, but you don't need to call a cable guy to set it up. It works over the internet—much like YouTube or Netflix—by streaming your shows. Oh, and you don't need to set up a DVR, either. Vue can "record" any show, any channel for up to 28 days with absolutely no storage caps. As long as you're somewhat vigilant with your viewing habits, you'll never miss an episode again. This means that all of the headaches you suffer from WiFi limitations will now apply to your television, but you don't have to deal with cable companies ever again. Unless you're paying them for your internet, of course...
So yeah, think cable with added perks. But just because customer service nightmares are a thing of the past doesn't mean the pricey bills are, too. Unlike the $20/month Sling TV service, the only other internet television option out there, Vue will cost you at least $50 for the base package and up to $70 to go "premium." So we're talking anywhere from $600 to $840 a year. That's a significant chunk of change.
Here's what that gets you.
Currently available in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago—and only for the PS4 and PS3 game consoles right now—setting up PlayStation Vue is painfully simple. Download the app → open the app → watch TV. That's pretty much it. Once you're in, the layout is similar to what you'd see on any streaming service, especially if you've ever used Netflix or a Fire TV.
When I first started navigating PlayStation Vue, it was sort of unwelcoming. Everything is labeled—Guide, Explore, Live TV, You're Watching, etc—but not really explained. For instance, PlayStation Vue saves up to 28 days of content and will automatically record your favorite shows, but doesn't actually tell you that. You just need to figure it out.
So here's a good tip. When you first power up PlayStation Vue, immediately start adding all your favorite shows. Vue's search feature makes it pretty easy if you want to look by genre, channel, or just alphabetical order, and all it takes to favorite anything is a single tap of the R1 button. This will make it so you have at least something to watch on demand the next time you log on. It's important, because PlayStation Vue is not a Netflix or HBO Go replacement. No shows are archived or ready to watch at a moment's notice. No binge-watching here. Just the content you've recorded, plus live television.
Speaking of live television, you'll spend most of your time on the Guide menu, which is the heart and soul of Vue. Guide is a chart of what's on TV, with channels being your x-axis and time slots your y-axis. A very handy thin red line runs across all the columns as a reminder of what's currently playing and how much time you have left in any given show.
The interface is pretty clean and straightforward, but it could definitely be better, too. The Guide only gives you the name of the show and a one-sentence description that's usually cut off and not very helpful. PlayStation Vue does have longer descriptions but they're always a button press away. It would be muuuuuch better if Sony used some of the dead space on the guide UI (*cough* top right corner *cough*) to show names or descriptions... the extra button presses make the experience jarring for typical channel surfers like me.
As as minutes trickle by, little light blue icons labeled "Catch Up" start populating the Guide. This is where PlayStation Vue starts to be really awesome. Early one morning, I hopped onto Vue and cursed the gods that I had just missed one of my favorite movies—Angels in the Outfield. After the credits died away, the blue "Catch Up" tag popped up, and to my amazement, I just went back and pressed play even though it wasn't a favorited channel or anything. And while Angels definitely hasn't aged well, the experience was a major +1 over traditional cable.
Oh, and I also watched some Kindergarten Cop.
The only thing is, "Catch Up" doesn't work universally across channels or even across shows on a single channel, so what you're left with is a patchwork of shows you can watch and other stuff that's greyed out and lost to television history. So the easiest way to make sure you never miss a show is to just favorite...everything. From what I can tell, there's no limit to how many shows you can fave because everything's being recorded anyways. So the whole DVR thing is really an annoying restriction that doesn't need to be there at all.
The big difference between "Catch Up" shows and recorded shows is that you can skip commercials when you record a show. But Sony doesn't make that very easy either. When you fast-forward, Sony doesn't give you a preview of what you're watching. You'll try to skip the commercial, realize you're in the middle of episode (spoilers), try to go back, and be back in the middle of the commercial. You can do your best to guess with the timestamp, but this is all mental math that could be avoided with a few design tweaks. Also, there were a few times where the stream would cut out a minute or two before the show actually ended—a DVR annoyance I'm more than familiar with.
Despite all the weirdness and downright confusion, live internet television is wonderful. But there is one absolute rule that you MUST follow—have decent internet. Sony says 10Mbps download speeds are the requirement for the "best experience" streaming at 720p, Vue's only resolution setting. But you better pad that if you have an internet-greedy spouse, offspring, parent, sibling, house cat, roommate or whatever. My internet, which is admittedly shitty, has a streaming pipe of around 15Mbps. But add three other millennial roommates to the mix, and you're in the buffering nightmare that is my life.
Now, that's not really a knock against Vue in itself. After all, they said I needed a certain threshold, and by checking my connection speed while streaming, those numbers are on point (you could even get by on 5mbps, probably). I just wish I could reduce quality if needed, so I don't have to see that annoying buffer symbol every 10 seconds. This frustration also applies in reverse. If you have a big, beautiful, gorgeous, stunning, 64-inch 4K display and all of this and that, there's no native support for 1080p (and definitely not 4K), so you'll be relying on your television's upscaling superpowers, which isn't ever as good as native resolution anyways. Enjoy all that pixelation!
As a self-described "cord cutter," my tastes have drastically changed since I owned live television. Twelve years ago, I VCR recorded episodes of Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network's Toonami while I was still in high school. If the show decided to jump to another episode, I was going to be jumping with it. Some cable providers have pretty decent episode-on-demand catalogs that won't let you binge watch a whole show, but at least a season or two. But on PlayStation Vue doesn't have anything nearly as cohesive.
For example, Robot Chicken only had two episodes that were labeled "On Demand," which means these episodes were just sticking around longer than the average three-day delete period. Instead, Sony basically outsource on-demand content to channel-specific streaming services, like Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, TBS, and TCM to name a few. Definitely a bonus, but now you've got to juggle of whole handful of apps for watching on demand, which should just be in the service to begin with.
Finally, the one big, huge, awesome thing about internet television is being able to watch anywhere, right? Well, Sony seems to disagree: right now the only two pieces of hardware that support it are the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3. Oh, and youou can't log in on a friend's console, or even take your console to a friend's house because Vue is tied to your specific ISP. Sony says more platforms are coming, first to iPad and then (hopefully) smartphones, set-top-boxes and smart TVs, but right now Vue's internet TV is still tethered to your television. That's kind of annoying.
The interface looks nice and is easy enough to navigate after you get your bearings, though a few tiny tweaks here and there could make it even better.
The channel selection is pretty great, and with the exception of ESPN, BBC America and movie channels like HBO or even Epix, I can't think of much else I would want.
Vue lets you sign into specific channel apps like you would with any other cable service provider. Did you spring for the $60 tier to get TMC? You'll be able to log into that channel's free mobile app, so you can sorta work around the Vue's mobile deficiency.
No contracts. None. Don't like the service after a month, just stop paying. That's it. No Comcast phone call. No nightmares. Easy.
Live TV is so nice, you guys. I almost forgot.
PlayStation Vue is a little pricey. More than double Sling TV and even approaches many standard cable packages out there.
You need a PS3 or PS4. Closed ecosystems immediately make me mad, especially when it's something like television. Give me the convenience that I'm paying for, please.
I think the Recommended For You feature might need some work. No, I don't want to watch Teen Mom, The Voice, or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. PlayStation Vue, you don't know me at all.
All the different deals among channels and TV shows makes "catch up" episodes and "recorded" episodes really confusing. I'm confident that after some more time with Vue, I'd get a good handle on it, but it's a steeper learning curve than I'd expect, especially for a new technology that's trying to supplant the well-cemented old guard of cable companies.
It made me hate Angels in the Outfield. Like, did you know Matthew McConaughey and a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt are in that movie? LOL.
Should You Pay For It?
If you have cable now and are only interested in internet TV to save some cash, then you're going to want to keep looking. You'd probably lose channels in transit and not really gain the expected conveniences, like an improved DVR and watch-anywhere mobility.
But if you're looking to get back into live television after a long hiatus, don't care much for sports (R.I.P. ESPN), and don't want to hassle with cable companies, then PlayStation Vue may be just for you. But so might Sling TV. Take a look at channel packages and prices, and see what works best for you.
For me, I think I'll be sticking to my Netflix-viewing, website-sleuthing ways for now. Like any nascent service, internet television just needs some time to grow. I have no doubt that it will get there. When it does, I'll be waiting.