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Review: Sling TV Delivers ESPN for $20 a Month, No Cable Required

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

Finally, you’re going to be able to watch ESPN online without paying your cable company for a hundred bizzaro channels you don’t care about. Starting tomorrow, Dish Network will start taking customers for a $20/month, online-only service called Sling TV

(If you have a cable subscription that includes ESPN, or if you know somebody who does, you can still view it on the WatchESPN site or app instead.)

I’ve spent the past few days trying Sling TV extensively on three devices: an iPad mini, a Nexus 9 tablet, and a Roku 3 (loaned by Dish PR) plugged into a 40-inch HDTV. Research, you know.

What You Get
Sling’s basic $20/month no-contract-required service gets you ESPN and ESPN2 (plus WatchESPN access), CNN, the Cartoon Network (including Adult Swim), TNT, TBS, the Food Network, HGTV, the Travel Channel, the Disney Channel, and ABC Family. 

A $5/month “Kids Extra” option adds Baby TV, Boomerang, Disney Junior, Disney XD, and Duck TV, while the $5/month “News & Info Extra” throws in Bloomberg TV, Cooking Channel, DIY, and CNN’s HLN. And that’s it; you don’t need to rent a cable or satellite box.

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The Sling apps show what’s on in a simple horizontal list of channels. It’s not the most elegant interface, but when you have only 20 choices, you don’t need much.

There’s also a search feature, but the version I saw was blindly literal and not worth the bother: it found no programming about football because that exact word didn’t appear in any show titles, for example.

When you’re watching a show, you can pause live TV, rewind it 10 seconds, or skip ahead by 30 seconds, if the network allows it. ESPN, CNN, HLN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, ABC Family, Boomerang, and all three Disney channels locked out those features. 

Sling TV’s Apps Aren’t the Same
Sling looked its best on the Roku 3. On a 15-Mbps Fios connection, programs began playing within seconds and never buffered or paused. Two minor outbreaks of pixelation cleared up almost instantly. 

For some bizarre reason, Dish hasn’t said what resolution Sling can deliver, but from my couch the picture looked about as clear as anything I’ve seen on Netflix or Amazon. From up close, though, it didn’t seem as sharp as over-the-air reception. 

The iOS app also generally worked well, but the one feature you’d think would be there — AirPlay video output — failed when I tried it with a borrowed Apple TV. Each attempt ended with Apple’s generic “An error occurred loading this content” message.

The Android app, alas, was unusable on the Nexus 9. The audio kept dropping out, followed seconds later by the video halting for a few seconds before picking itself up again. 

Cord Cutting for Beginners
Sling, introduced at CES, doesn’t represent a total break from cable TV. It’s a similar idea, although with a vastly smaller and cheaper bundle of channels. But you’ll still probably wind up paying for stuff you didn’t want.

And like a lot of “cord-cutting” solutions, Sling TV lacks important offerings. It has no local stations, for example. The national and regional sports networks out to cash in on ESPN’s money-printing formula aren’t on Sling’s menu either. 

And if you sign up for enough online-only services to replace a cable TV subscription — Netflix, Hulu, maybe HBO’s upcoming addition of online-only viewing — you might get close to paying as much as you would for cable or satellite, anyway. 

But by merely offering a budget-priced, online-only alternative, Dish Network has officially recognized that cord cutters like me exist. We aren’t interested in the same old thing, and now we don’t have to settle for it.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.