Cord Cutting Guides, News, and Reviews
Last modified: February 14, 2019
By Stephen Lovely
We're big on skinny bundles here on Cordcutting.com, but it's a relatively recent obsession – because skinny bundles themselves are really quite new. The very first major skinny bundle rollout happened just a few years ago, in 2015. The service was Sling TV, and it changed everything. We published our first Sling TV review that same year.
But, while 2015 might seem recent to us, it's an eternity in the streaming world. We've reviewed a ton of different skinny bundles since then, and that has changed our expectations and perspective. Sling TV, too, has changed: no longer a grand experiment with few other pioneer competitors, it's now a stronger, more mature service with a whole lot more legitimate competition. In our original Sling TV review, we noted problems with Sling TV that are no longer nearly as severe; we also were more forgiving of those problems, because we recognized that Sling TV was doing something new, exciting, and tremendously difficult.
For these reasons, Cordcutting.com is starting fresh with a new Sling TV review. Sling TV will have a chance to show our reviewer – that's me! – how much it has improved over the course of nearly three years. I won't be as charitable about any flaws that I find, and we'll all end up with a more accurate idea of how Sling TV stacks up against its growing number of competitors, many of which we've reviewed far more recently than 2015. Let's return once more to the service that started it all: this is our (new!) Sling TV review.
Signing up for Sling TV is pretty quick, and once you have an account it's quite easy to add devices by logging in, with one big exception.
I tested Sling TV on various devices for this review, but I hit a roadblock on Roku. Apparently, I'd tried Sling TV on my Roku before – and Sling TV's app wouldn't let me change the account.
I'm not the only one with this problem. And it seems as if this might actually be a feature, not a bug – an intentional design choice by Sling TV aimed at curbing free trial abuse. The bottom line is this: if you've ever signed up for a Sling TV account through Roku, that is the only account you can ever use on your Roku account.
That's… pretty dumb, obviously. It blocks all sorts of legitimate uses of Sling TV. If your new roommate or girlfriend has a Sling TV account they want to use on your Roku, you'd best hope you haven't ever signed up for a free trial through that device. Want to sign into your account on a friend's Roku when visiting? The same issue could come up. Or maybe, like me, you just forgot you ever used that trial and now have to decide between starting entirely over with your Roku account or just… using one of Sling TV's many competitors, who don't do stuff like this.
The fact that Sling TV has a frustrating issue on Roku – a platform known for simplicity as well as for its large market share – is, unfortunately, emblematic of Sling TV. Sling TV is an elite skinny bundle service in a lot of ways, but it tends to sabotage itself by making simple things complicated.
The goods news is that once you're actually able to use one of Sling TV's apps, you'll love it. Sling TV has a great user-friendly app, strong features, and a good live TV interface. Let's talk about it!
More so than many competitors, Sling TV encourages channel surfing. That's a big deal, in my view. One of the main appeals of any skinny bundle is its ability to replicate the perks of live cable TV. Big on-demand libraries and functional cloud DVRs are good, but I came here to channel surf, baby, and I'm very happy that Sling TV understands that. When live TV is on, the tap of a button brings up a sliding menu of channels that makes it easy to jump to a new channel. You'll also see a menu of other programs airing on the channel you're currently viewing.
The content discovery features you'd expect are here, as is is a straightforward favorites system – that's all standard skinny bundle fare at this point, and that stuff shows up here and does its job. More impressive is the cloud DVR, which isn't as standard yet. Sling TV's version costs $5 a month, but at least it exists on (nearly) every platform. Only PlayStation Vue's DVR is as widely available and fully functional as Sling TV's (PlayStation Vue does have one edge here, though: its cloud DVR is free).
For the most part, Sling TV is simple and fun to use. But there are some weird bits about it, and they exist thanks to the sometimes confusing relationships between Sling TV's two different base packages and their various Extras. We'll be talking about this a lot in the coming sections, so get used to it.
See, Sling TV's big idea is that it allows you to customize your skinny bundle. You have to start with a base package, but the two base packages Sling TV offers are pretty cheap, and once you have one you can add on “Extras,” which are small bundles of like-minded channels available on the cheap. The idea is that you are better able to avoid paying for channels you don't want, and that you have more cost-effective paths to niche channels that would otherwise be trapped in enormous and pricey high-tier bundles – as is the case with those channels on some of Sling TV's competitors.
Clever, right? But the problem is that Sling TV has cut some weird content deals that make its two base packages different in ways that affect the whole service.
One of the clearest examples, and the one most relevant to this section of our Sling TV review, has to do with limits on simultaneous streaming. Sling Orange, which features Disney properties like ESPN and lacks Fox properties like FX and FS1, allows users one stream. Sling Blue, on the other hand, allows three simultaneous streams. You can get both together at a discount, but this won't change the streaming rules: though Sling tries to brand this combo as “Sling Orange + Blue,” you're still subscribing to Sling Orange and Sling Blue separately. If you're signed up for both, you can still stream a Sling Orange channel on only one device, and a Sling Blue channel on up to three. You can do this at the same time, if you want, for four simultaneous streams, but you must always be allocating your streams properly. You can't stream ESPN more than once, for instance, even if you're not using all of your “four” streams – it's on Sling Orange, and one is the limit.
It gets weirder: since Sling Orange and Blue overlap, you actually have access to channels certain channels twice: once as a Sling Orange subscriber (limit: one stream) and once as a Sling Blue subscriber (limit: three streams). When you sign up, Sling TV gives you the option to streamline things by displaying only the Sling Blue versions of these extra channels. But if you want to see both versions, you can! Weird stuff.
One more thing about the base packages that affects the user experience: channels are also sorted by bundle in the app. It's not a huge deal, but it means that ESPN and FS1, for instance, are not near each other in the channel selection menu despite being similar in focus.
The differences between base packages also affect how the Extras work, which we'll cover more in the Content section of this Sling TV review.
Sling TV still has great network television channels streaming live. But plenty of different services can say that now, so let's take a close look at what Sling TV is really offering.
Most of usual suspects are here: AMC, ESPN, TBS, and so on are all hanging out with us. The selection is strong, and it's especially impressive to see the Viacom-owned channels like Comedy Central, which are often missing from skinny bundles. Competitors like fuboTV, Hulu with Live TV, PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV are among the skinny bundles that currently give you no way to get these channels. Their presence is a big advantage for Sling TV. As of this writing, the only true competitor that can match Sling TV in Viacom channels is DIRECTV NOW.
But there's also some bad news. Most skinny bundles have all four major networks in their base packages (in select markets) these days, but Sling TV does not. Fox and NBC are available together at the $40 price point, but ABC is relegated to an add-on, and CBS is MIA.
There is a major bit of weirdness to address here, too: the screenshot above shows the channels available in “Sling Orange + Sling Blue,” which is the Sling TV deal most comparable to the smallest bundles available through competitors. But “Sling Orange + Sling Blue” is not Sling TV's smallest bundle – and, actually, it's not really a bundle at all. It's two bundles: Sling Orange and Sling Blue, which overlap but each have some exclusives.
And the two bundles have different rules governing simultaneous streams, which we discussed in the User Experience section of this Sling TV review. Bundling them also has price implications, as we will cover later in the Price section. And, finally, they have consequences for Sling TV's Extras – and that's something we will discuss right here in this section.
One of the best things about Sling TV is its Extras, which are small add-on bundles of channels grouped by genre. These make it easy and affordable (more on this in the Price section) to build out a custom skinny bundle. Want sports coverage? Start with Sling Orange (ESPN) and/or Sling Blue (FS1) and then add “Sports Extra” for in-depth coverage. You won't need to add channels of other types – once you're beyond the base package, you can choose to go with nothing but sports channels in your Extras.
That really opens up the content selection, particularly when you consider the cost: a hyper-specific channel might be available through both Sling TV and its competitors, but Sling TV's more Ã la carte methods could make it a much cheaper option for accessing that channel.
But you have to be careful: the weird web of content deals that Sling TV has made mean that an add-on may have different channels available depending on whether you're building on Sling Orange or Sling Blue (you can dodge this nonsense by signing up for both, ensuring that you have whatever prerequisite channels you need).
Not all Extras have this issue, though, and there are a lot of great Extras to look at. You can also tack on premium channels like HBO individually.
Overall, Sling TV has fantastic content, and they make it very affordable to get the content you want. The only downside is the somewhat confusing relationships between the different base packages and add-ons.
Looking back at our original Sling TV review, we found that our streaming quality section was the one most in need of an update. Back then, we noted some pretty serious problems with Sling TV's streaming quality – but we also were quick to forgive the service for its sins, because we understood that they were doing something brand new and immensely difficult. At the time of our original Sling TV review, the streaming world was excited about the possibilities that services like Sling TV represented – growing pains were expected, and early adopters tend to be patient about such things.
Revisiting things this new Sling TV review, we're arriving with a very different perspective. This is a more mature space now, and competitors have shown that live TV streaming can be smooth and beautiful. Has Sling TV improved, too?
It has, thankfully. I found Sling TV to be fairly strong in streaming these days – it's roughly on par with other elite services, like PlayStation Vue. In practice, this means that I had very few issues streaming Sling TV on Wi-Fi and virtually no issues when using a beefier streaming device and a wired connection. Stoppages were rare and short, and for the most part I got uninterrupted HD streaming. It was very watchable and not at all frustrating.
Sling TV has had plenty of time to roll out apps for the major streaming services, and its current platform support doesn't disappoint. Sling TV has apps that work for an with all of the major streaming services: you can watch it on Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, or Android TV. Other supported platforms include LG and Samsung smart TVs.
You can watch Sling TV on the go with its mobile apps, which work on iOS and Android. The service also has an app for you desktop or laptop computer: Windows users can download a desktop app, while users of other operating systems may still be able to watch using the web app, which works for Google's Chrome browser. I wish it worked on more browsers, but that's more Chrome's fault than Sling TV's – like Internet Explorer before it, Chrome has begun to use its popularity to boss around web designers and ignore industry standards, which means that it's harder and harder to design web apps that work the same on both Chrome and other browsers.
Overall, this is very impressive platform support. I tested Sling TV primarily on iOS and Roku.
As we touched on briefly earlier, one of Sling TV's most distinctive features is its pricing system.
Most skinny bundles are priced in a pretty basic way. They offer a skinny bundle with around 50, 60 channels or so at a cost that's somewhere around $40 per month. Some also offer larger bundles for higher prices, up to around $70. And then they usually offer a very limited slate of add-ons: maybe a sports mini-bundle for an extra $10 or $15, and then, typically, individual premium channels at their usual prices.
With Sling TV, though, add-ons are the main idea. The base packages matter, but the appeal of Sling TV's pricing structure is that you can choose from a big menu of add-on bundles (Sling TV calls them “Extras”) and, by picking and choosing only the categories you want, get a cost-effective bundle that is tailored to your tastes.
Sling Orange ($20 per month) and Sling Blue ($25 per month) are cheaper than most entry-level bundles from competitor services, but they're also smaller and each missing some very key channels. Getting both together for the discounted rate of $40 per month makes Sling TV's pricing look very typical – but then the Extras come into play, which can change the game for viewers who want certain channels.
Fans of niche channels may find Sling TV to be an absolutely steal. For example, let's say you're a big fan of classic cartoons. The Boomerang channel is perfect for you, but it's not the most popular channel out there. In tiered pricing systems, you really have to climb the ladder to get Boomerang: PlayStation Vue subscribers have to pay at least $54.99 per month to unlock it, and DIRECTV NOW fans have to pay $70 per month. With Sling TV, though, you can just add Kids Extra for an extra $5 per month. It's available for Sling Orange, so you can get a bundle that includes Boomerang for as little as $25 per month total – half of what Vue would charge and a third of what DIRECTV NOW would.
In short, Sling TV charges a fair price for Sling Orange and Sling Blue. If you can live with just Sling Orange or just Sling Blue, Sling TV is more appealing. And if you have particular tastes that make its add-on system work for you, Sling TV will become the clear choice.
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Sling TV is a great streaming service with some frustrating quirks. Its pricing structure makes it the single best skinny bundle for folks seeking niche programming. But issues like the sometimes-weird relationship between Sling Orange and Sling Blue, while not necessarily dealbreakers, do make Sling TV less intuitive and beginner-friendly. That's a significant problem for a service that is trying to woo cord cutters of the sort that Roku and Apple TV are targeting (too say nothing of YouTube TV or DIRECTV NOW).
Since our last review, Sling TV has strengthened its streaming quality significantly. It works well! But I'm disappointed with how little progress Sling TV has made in simplifying its user experience. An a la carte pricing structure is necessarily more complicated than a tiered one, sure, but Sling TV's complexity runs deeper than that. Plus, they seem to have spent their time “improving” features that protect their free trial system while making the service harder to sign up for and use on popular devices.
Ultimately, Sling TV is a service I like a lot but is not one that I would recommend to my parents. If you want specific channels and are willing to wade into the weirdness, you may emerge with the most cost-effective skinny bundle possible for someone of your tastes, and you'll enjoy great apps and streaming to go with it. But if you just want a simple way to watch live TV on your Roku, or if you just want a straightforward deal for a standard skinny bundle, Sling TV's quirks might not be worth dealing with.