Cord Cutting Guides, News, and Reviews
Last modified: February 13, 2019
By Stephen Lovely
We're fans of Dish's Sling TV on this site, both because it's a great skinny bundle and because it helped kick-start a revolution that gave us a whole bunch of other good skinny bundle options. Cord cutters who long ago traded in their cable box for a Roku lived without live TV for quite a while. Thanks to Sling TV and its competitors, we can watch live TV again.
But tech-savvy long-time cord cutters aren't the only market for Sling TV. Sling TV is also hoping to steal customers directly from legacy pay TV services. There's a problem, though: these people are presumably less likely to own devices they can use to watch Sling TV on their big screen.
In the past, Sling TV and other skinny bundles have battled this problem and the inertia it creates by offering customers discounted or free streaming boxes in exchange for small commitments: pre-pay a few months of skinny bundle X, get a free streaming box from company Y. Now, Sling TV parent company Dish is trying something new: rather than rely on joint deals with Roku and other streaming box companies, they've come up with a streaming box of their own.
It's called the AirTV Player, and it retails for a hundred bucks. It runs a version of the Android TV operating system. And, of course, it puts Sling TV front and center for users.
It's hard to tell if the AirTV Player is mainly here to support Sling TV or if Dish sees it as a realistic competitor to Roku and Fire TV. The price tag suggests that they're taking it fairly seriously – $99.99 doesn't exactly scream “loss leader.” So let's take a look at this new device and see how it stacks up. This is our AirTV Player review.
Companies like Sling TV send their products out to reviewers for free. Just about every tech review you read is the result of a free sample, though not all blogs make this clear. Our policy at Cordcutting.com is to always disclose when we get this type of consideration. That was the case here: Sling TV sent us a free AirTV Player and antenna adapter. This will not affect the objectivity of our review. We do not accept cash for reviews, only product samples.
The AirTV Player itself is a pretty attractive box at a typical streaming box size. It's white and blue, as is the included remote. The remote has shortcut buttons, including (of course) one for Sling TV. They stuck the Sling TV button where you might expect the home button to be, which is a bit annoying. The real “home” button is the one with the diamond on it, because… well, I'm not sure. The remote is a nice size, but the buttons could have used a bit more thought.
It's a small thing, but I was pleased that the AirTV Player came with an HDMI cable – not all streaming boxes do.
Perhaps the most important feature of the AirTV Player is its OTA antenna adapter. You'll have to pay more to get it, but this bit of hardware is the best argument for the AirTV Player. With it, you'll be able to view over-the-air broadcasts through the device, switching seamlessly from Sling TV's streaming national channels to your own local OTA stations and back again.
You can tell right away that the AirTV Player loves Sling TV. You'll see Sling's logo every time you boot up. The first time you boot up, you'll have to connect to your Wi-Fi network (if you aren't wired in). Then you'll be prompted to log into your Sling TV account or create a new one (if you squint, you'll be able to make out the tiny print explaining how to bypass this step and create a free account). Other than that, all you need to do to set this up is log in with a Google account.
You'll need the Google account because the AirTV Player runs the Android TV operating system. The Android TV platform is used by other devices as well. The most notable of those is the Nvidia SHIELD, which has long been the undisputed king of Android TV devices.
I consider the Android TV platform to be good, but not great (that's going to become a bit of a refrain in this AirTV Player review). It's notable that the platform is never the best thing about the good devices that use it: the Nvidia SHIELD is the ultimate streaming box for gamers, and the AirTV Player offers the relatively rare option of connecting an antenna to your streaming box. The platform is not the selling point of either of these devices the way the Roku platform is for Roku devices or the Fire TV OS is for Fire TV devices. The AirTV Player and Nvidia SHIELD each have a unique raison d'ªtre, and their platform is merely counted upon to not be a liability. The AirTV Player is a Sling-focused box that's antenna-ready: those are the selling points. As for the platform, it's merely not bad.
And, to be clear, it really isn't bad. The Android TV platform is easy enough to use and has plenty of app support. It's app-driven, like Roku, and doesn't have a ton of menus by default (like Fire TV does). It's fast and decent-looking and perfectly good. If Android TV were the only streaming platform, we'd all still be cord cutters, and we'd all be perfectly happy. It's just that, in my opinion, Android TV isn't quite as slick and simple as Roku's platform and isn't quite as comprehensive as Fire TV.
Android on AirTV Player looks pretty much like it does on Nvidia SHIELD, so feel free to check out our review of that device (last generation) for a bit more on the platform.
The coolest thing about this device by far is its support for over-the-air broadcasts. It's a feature that bests Roku and Fire TV (the only way to watch OTA on these devices is to use an OTA DVR and a corresponding app, which is a pretty expensive solution) and matches the more expensive Nvidia SHIELD. All you have to do is plug an antenna (sold separately, of course – we can help you find one) into the USB adapter (included in the AirTV Player + antenna adapter combo – more on that in the “Price” section of this AirTV Player review), which is in turn plugged into the AirTV Player itself. You'll be prompted to scan for channels the next time you open the Sling TV app. The scan is location-assisted, so you'll be prompted to share your location and enter your zip code.
And, yes, you read that right – the OTA interface is part of the Sling TV app. That's great if you have Sling TV, because it lets you switch back and forth between Sling TV's national streams and your local OTA broadcasts smoothly. If you don't have Sling TV, it's less great. As mentioned earlier, you can create a free account and still use the device and this app, which would then have only OTA channels available.
I had no issues with streaming quality on the AirTV Player, even when using Wi-Fi. Sling TV worked well (as you might expect!), as did Netflix and other streaming services. It's worth noting that Sling TV's live feeds are on a bit of a delay, just as they are on other devices – it's a pretty short delay, but it can make it risky to, for instance, check Twitter during a sporting event.
The AirTV Player costs $99.99. That makes it slightly more expensive than the Fire TV ($89.99 as of this writing), but a great deal cheaper than the current Android TV champ, the Nvidia SHIELD. It's also cheaper than the Roku Ultra.
You'll need a USB antenna tuner to make your OTA antenna work with the AirTV Player, and you can buy both the adapter and the device together in a bundle. At $129.99, AirTV Player + antenna adapter combo is the same price as the Roku Ultra (which does not support OTA). The antenna isn't included, however.
Price is yet another place in this AirTV Player review in which the device seems good, but not great. If the AirTV Player could undercut the Fire TV, it would make a much stronger case for itself.
The AirTV Player is a streaming box. It does its job well. It's functional, has plenty of app support, and works well.
Of course, you can say that about a lot of streaming boxes – and that's the major problem for the AirTV Player. Dish is pretty clearly using this device to target a segment of the population that wants to like Sling TV, but doesn't yet have way to put it on their big screen. “Here,” Dish is saying, “use this!” But it's hard to imagine that folks still in the dark about getting Sling TV on the big screen wouldn't prefer Roku's simple, user-friendly platform to the slightly clunkier Android TV. And for more tech-savvy consumers and Android TV fans, it might be more tempting to spend the extra dough on the newest version of the Nvidia SHIELD.
The only particularly compelling reason to choose AirTV Player over other streaming boxes is the support for OTA antennas – but that requires accessories that are sold separately and is also possible on the superior Nvidia SHIELD.
So why buy an AirTV Player instead of one of its competitors? Frankly, you probably shouldn't. If connecting an antenna is vitally important to you and the Nvidia SHIELD is too pricey, then by all means, go for this perfectly respectable streaming device. If Sling TV runs a promotion that makes this thing a steal, again, feel free. But if there's no big sale on and if you're okay with switching your TV's input whenever you want to access OTA broadcasts, you'll probably prefer the better operating systems of the Fire TV and Roku. It's not that the AirTV Player is bad (on the contrary, it's good!) – it's just that there are other devices that are better.
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