Live TV streaming services are designed to replace cable TV by letting you stream live channels over the internet. That’s great, but this newfangled way of getting TV is in a state of constant flux. Big names like YouTube TV and AT&T are either increasing the prices of their plans, removing or adding large chunks of programming or bowing out altogether. Amid all of the turmoil there’s one service that sticks out as a potential oasis for the budget-conscious cord-cutter: Sling TV. But it’s also the most convoluted, so let’s explain.
- Solid selection of channels for the price
- Numerous choices and add-ons
- Optional $99 AirTV 2 tuner for local channels
- No local channels beyond NBC and Fox in a few cities
- Package options can be confusing
- Limited DVR
- AirTV 2 has several caveats, including no live TV pause
What makes Sling TV confusing is that there are essentially two main plans for the same $30 price: Sling Orange and Sling Blue. They share many of the same channels (like CNN, History and TNT) but other channels are exclusive to one or the other. Sling TV Blue is essentially the Fox and NBC option, while Sling Orange is the ESPN and Disney package.
The biggest downside to both is that if you want a full slate of local channels — namely your local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations — you’ll have to augment Sling TV with an over-the-air antenna or something like the $99 AirTV 2 DVR. (Editor’s note: CNET, like CBS, is a division of ViacomCBS.) More-expensive alternatives such as Hulu Plus Live TV do offer local channels, no antenna required.
Despite its shortfalls Sling TV remains my favorite affordable live TV streamer for the money. The Blue plan in particular is a great deal, especially with the last-minute addition of NFL Network and optional RedZone, just in time for football season. Sling TV says it will guarantee the $30 price until Aug. 1, 2021, a promise no other competitor makes. Since saving money is the biggest reason to cancel cable, Sling continues to deserve the CNET Editors’ Choice award as the best budget live TV streaming service.
Read more: YouTube TV vs. Sling TV: Which live TV streaming service is best for you?
What is Sling TV, anyway?
Sling TV is a subscription service that lets you stream a selection of TV channels live over the Internet. The channels are just like the ones offered by cable and satellite TV, but Sling has fewer of them and costs less money every month. You can watch Sling TV on televisions using the Sling TV app on media streamers (like Roku, Amazon Fire TV), smart TV systems LG and Samsung) and game consoles (Xbox One), as well as to phones, tablets and computers, no cable box required.
Sling TV was the first of its kind, having debuted in 2016, but it now has a bunch of competitors at different prices, including Hulu Plus Live TV, YouTube TV, AT&T TV Now, Philo and Fubo TV. For ease of categorization, I’ve separated these into budget ($30 and under) and premium ($50 and up) services. Even with last year’s price hike, Sling TV is still a budget service, alongside the $15 AT&T Watch TV (which is basically discontinued) and the $20 Philo.
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Of the two $30 tiers, I believe Sling Blue offers the best deal for most people. It has more channels than Orange and allows up to three people to watch different streams at once, while Sling Orange only allows one stream at a time. You can combine the two Blue and Orange services for $45 a month, but you’re only getting five more channels than Blue, though this does include ESPN and ESPN 2. If you’re already paying that much, then Hulu Plus Live TV is a better option for $55 — it’s more fun to use, has way more channels (including locals) and a better DVR.
Sling is also the only live TV service to offer a bunch of add-on channel packages. You can pay $5 or $10 monthly for packages such as Sports Extra, Comedy Extra, Hollywood Extra, The Best of Spanish TV and more. The channels in each vary depending on whether you have Blue or Orange, and some channels (like Animal Planet and Fox News) are missing completely, but between its Extras and multiple base packages, Sling offers more ways to customize your channel lineup than any of its competitors.
The Sling TV guide
Check the chart at end of this article for all of the Top 100 channels Sling’s numerous services offer. It’s a condensed version of our complete list of the Top 100 channels offered by every service.
Sling stays inexpensive by eschewing most local channels. The Blue package has Fox and/or NBC in a handful of major cities but doesn’t include any ABC or CBS stations. The Orange package offers no local channels, period. As any cord-cutter knows, local channels are also available via over-the-air antenna.
The cheapest way to watch locals is to just connect an HD antenna to the back of your television. Sling TV offers another option, however: the AirTV 2 over-the-air streamer. The AirTV connects to an antenna and your network and streams any local channels you receive into the Sling TV interface, integrating them right into Sling’s program guide and other areas. You can also connect an external hard drive to the AirTV to record over-the-air channels. Other OTA DVRs are available too, although no others feed into Sling’s interface.
The $100 AirTV 2 is an over-the-air DVR
Whether you use an AirTV 1 or 2 or not, Sling includes a cloud DVR for free that allows you to record almost any streaming channel on the service (the only exceptions are Local Now, ESPN3, ACC Network Extra and SEC Network Plus). It only comes with 10 hours of storage, however, which isn’t much, and the free version won’t let you protect your recorded shows. You have to pay an additional $5 a month for 50 hours of storage and the ability to prevent shows from becoming automatically erased. Sling’s cloud DVR works with any Sling device except for Comcast’s Infinity X1 platform.
What’s Sling TV like to use?
As far as the cable-cutting experience is concerned, Sling TV is pretty good. The menus are clean and uncluttered, particularly on the Apple TV ($180 at Best Buy) version. There you get a choice of My TV, On Now Guide or Sports. The Sling logo takes up half of the Apple TV screen, and while it’s a placeholder for show information, I’d prefer to see more shows at all times. If the screen could slide up when you select a show and down when not needed, that would be better. The Roku interface offers more information at once, including further menu options like On Demand and Rent, but is also more cluttered for it.
Navigation is zippy, and it was easy to find the shows I wanted to watch and record. With the multiple discovery screens, including the main My TV screen, there were plenty of options even when I didn’t know what I wanted.
Although Sling has upgraded its cloud DVR recently to allow you to record channels you couldn’t before — namely on the Disney and ESPN channels bundled with the Orange packages– I found that I still couldn’t pause live TV on those channels. On other channels, live TV pause worked fine.
Integration with AirTV 2
Remote streaming local channels from the AirTV 2 on an iPhone.
Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury/CNET
While it’s not the most elegant solution I’ve seen, the AirTV 2 is still a solid option for integrating local OTA channels into Sling TV. It will let users tune in to all of the available channels in the area, and in my tests in New York I was able to view and record 76 different channels.
Of course to record anything you’ll need to add a compatible external hard drive, which basically turns the AirTV into a DVR. The company says, “Hard drives must be larger than 50GB, AirTV 2 currently supports recording up to 2TB of storage for DVR.” I connected a WD 2TB Elements Portable without issue.
The AirTV 2 has a few limitations that stunt its usefulness, however. The first is that the DVR won’t let you pause live TV on local channels. Given you can pause (on most) streaming channels using the cloud DVR, this is a little annoying.
The second is that AirTV 2 doesn’t work on Apple TV or via a browser — you won’t be able to see any of the OTA channels or watch any of the recordings provided by AirTV 2. To use the tuner you’ll need to use the Sling TV app on Roku, Amazon FireTV, Android TV, iOS or Android, or via the AirTV mini or AirTV player.
Also, be aware that the AirTV can’t record streaming channels, just local ones, and so you’re still limited to either the 10-hour or 50-hour recording times there.
Lastly, setup is also a little confusing — it doesn’t use the AirTV app like the original version of the hardware, but is accessed by an easy-to-miss option in the Settings tab called Over the Air Channels. If this was called AirTV 2 setup or even Over the Air Channels Setup it would have been much more straightforward.
Should you subscribe to Sling TV?
While you can save some money with Philo ($20), it’s worth spending more on Sling TV Blue. The experience is better overall, zippier and it offers more channels. It’s not perfect, but as a cable replacement it’s quite decent, and it should save you a chunk of change in the long term. Just be sure to have a local channel contingency in place before you start.
The chart below compares the top 100 channels on Sling to its two budget rivals as well as YouTube TV. “Yes” means the channel is available on the cheapest pricing tier, “No” means the channel isn’t available at all on that service and “$” means the channel is available for an extra fee, either a la carte or as part of a more expensive package or add-on.
Live TV streaming services compared
|Channel||Philo ($20)||Sling Orange ($30)||Sling Blue ($30)||Sling Blue and Orange ($45)||Hulu with Live TV ($55)||YouTube TV ($65)|
|BBC World News||Yes||$||$||$||No||Yes|
|Big Ten Network||No||No||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|CBS Sports Network||No||No||No||No||Yes||Yes|
|Fox Sports 1||No||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Fox Sports 2||No||No||$||$||Yes||Yes|
|Lifetime Movie Network||Yes||$||$||$||$||No|
|Nat Geo Wild||No||No||$||$||Yes||Yes|
|NBC Sports Network||No||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|NFL Red Zone||No||No||$||No||No||No|