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One Month With Sling TV: Why I’m Not Cutting the Cord Yet

Sling TV isn't perfect, but it's going to make cutting the cord easier.

Bonnie Cha for Re/code

I’ve been thinking about canceling my cable subscription for years, but one thing keeps preventing me from cutting the cord: Sports.

I’m an unapologetic sports fan. Football, basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey — I watch them all, and a lot of the time, the events are broadcast on cable networks like ESPN, TNT or TBS. That’s why I continue to grudgingly fork over a good chunk of money to Comcast*. (I currently pay about $150 per month, which includes premium channels like HBO and Cinemax, HD/DVR, Internet and phone services.)

So I was stoked when I heard about Dish Network’s Sling TV service.

Sling TV is one of several new Web TV services that provide an alternative to premium cable packages. In March, Sony launched a similar service called Vue that costs $50 per month. Apple is said to be working on a TV service. HBO and Showtime are also offering Web subscriptions.

Bonnie Cha for Re/code

For $20 per month for the base package, Sling TV lets you stream live TV over the Internet from 22 channels, including CNN, TBS, the Food Network and, yes, ESPN. You can add other channels, too, for a fee.

For example, you can get HBO for an additional $15 per month. And there’s a Kids Extra package that includes Disney Junior, Boomerang and Baby TV, and the Lifestyle Extra bundle adds the Cooking Channel, DIY Network, WE TV and others. Each costs $5 a month.

Sling TV doesn’t require a contract, and you can use the service on various gadgets, including set-top boxes like Roku and Amazon Fire TV, Xbox One, Mac and PC computers, and iOS and Android phones and tablets, as long as you have a stable Internet connection. Wi-Fi and cellular are both supported.

Bonnie Cha for Re/code

“Huzzah!” I thought. “My prayers have been answered!”

Except … not.

After using the service for the past month, I’m sticking with my cable subscription. Sling TV requires a few too many trade-offs for me to make the switch, such as the lack of the major broadcast networks (NBC*, ABC, CBS and Fox) and DVR capabilities.

That said, I do think Sling TV and others are going to make it easier than ever to cut the cord in the near future.

Before I get into my Sling TV experience, I thought it might be helpful to explain how I watch TV. Usually when I get home in the evenings, I’ll turn on the TV and channel-surf until I find something interesting to watch while eating dinner. I’d say I only use about 30 percent of the channels offered by my cable package.

I have a lineup of shows that I watch regularly, like “Scandal,” “Louie” and “Silicon Valley.” But it’s rare that I watch a show at its scheduled time. Instead, I usually record it on my DVR and view it later. Sports are the exception to this.

I suspect a lot of people have similar TV habits.

With that said, I did my best to forgo cable altogether and just use Sling TV for the month of May. Dish granted me access to its full lineup of 68 channels, which will cost consumers about $70 per month. I watched on my Samsung HDTV via Roku 3, and I used the Sling TV app on my iPad, iPhone 6 and Nexus 5.

Bonnie Cha for Re/code

The service itself is easy enough to navigate. Pressing the “*” button on Roku’s remote brings up a strip across the bottom of your TV screen where you can scroll through the different channels. Each channel provides a brief description of what’s currently on, and a preview of what’s to come in the next hour or two.

Press the button again, and you can look for channels by genre or access other content like movies, settings and more. The mobile experience is a bit different, but I was able to figure it out pretty quickly.

The streaming experience was generally good. Most of the time, I used my home’s Comcast broadband connection (with average download speeds of 20 megabits per second), and picture and video quality was sharp and smooth.

That said, there were a few times where the stream paused to buffer, though the interruption only lasted a couple of seconds. I also experienced a few instances where the stream stopped for a significant period of time, so I had to return to Roku’s main menu and reselect Sling TV to get it going again.

When I streamed Sling TV over AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s LTE network, I found that the video looked jagged and stuttered more often.

Like regular TV, Sling TV includes commercials, and for a majority of the channels, you can’t pause, fast-forward or rewind a program due to rights issues.

Bonnie Cha for Re/code

You also can’t record any shows, though Sling TV does have a three-day “replay” feature where you can view some programs that aired in the previous three days. The company also hasn’t totally nixed the idea of adding DVR capabilities in the future. But for now, you’re basically forced to watch whatever is on at the time.

On the upside, I was able to watch a majority of the NBA Eastern and Western Conference playoffs on Sling TV. But there was one exception: Game 4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers-Chicago Bulls semifinal series was broadcast on ABC. I went to the gym to watch it there, while sweating on the elliptical machine.

I never realized how many shows I watched on the basic cable channels until I didn’t have access to them. I missed the “Scandal” season finale and David Letterman’s final show (the sting of missing them was lessened knowing that had I set my DVR to record them, so I could watch after my experiment).

Dish says that at some point it would like to add a tier for broadcast networks, but they won’t be part of the base package. The company added that it doesn’t want to force customers to pay for channels they can get for free using an over-the-air antenna.

Fair point, but I was too busy to pick up an antenna, so instead I spent a lot of time channel-surfing on Sling TV, trying to find something to watch. More often than not, I didn’t find anything of interest, and would switch over to Netflix to catch up on other shows and movies.

Another restriction of Sling TV is that you can only watch it on one device at a time (the sole exception is HBO, which you can view on up to three devices). I live by myself, so this wasn’t a huge deal, but it’s going to be an issue in a multi-person household.

Bonnie Cha for Re/code

While Sling TV didn’t convince me to cut the cord, it certainly appealed to my brother Frank. He’s part of Sling TV’s target audience, called “cord-nevers” — those who have never paid for a cable subscription (read: Millennials).

My brother isn’t a millennial, but he is an extremely frugal guy, so he refuses to pay for a cable subscription when he only wants a few channels. Instead, he uses an antenna to get the basic network channels on TV, and then watches shows on Netflix or Hulu.

But I also know that he’d like to get the Food Network, HBO, ESPN and certain other cable channels. So when I asked him if Sling TV would appeal to him, he said, without hesitation, “Yes!”

He explained that cost was a huge part of it, but he also liked that he could add channels a la carte, without paying for a bunch of other channels he didn’t want. And he wasn’t bothered by the lack of DVR capabilities, because he’s never had the luxury of it in the first place.

For people like Frank who can live with its limitations, Sling TV offers a simple, affordable and flexible alternative to the pricey cable subscriptions. But it comes with a number of trade-offs that might not win over all would-be cord cutters yet.

* Comcast’s NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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