Sling TV is now available to everyone and I took it for a quick spin

Sling TV Windows client
Credit: Sling TV

Dish's Sling TV streaming live TV service is now available to anyone interested, and you get a 7 day free trial when you sign up. You do have to give them credit card info to get started, so if you don't cancel you'll automatically be billed $20/month (plus tax) for the core service after a week.

I tried it and I have mixed feelings so far. The good news is that it's a way to get a selection of live TV channels for not a lot of money and with no contract. The bad news is that it still feels a little incomplete.

As of right now you can watch Sling TV on iOS, Android, Windows, OS X and Roku. It's worth noting that I got an invite to try Sling on January 31st and at that time there was no Windows support and only the Roku 3 was supported. In just a week and a half they've added and expanded device support (for the Roku platform a Roku LT or better is now required) and I expect they'll continue to add device support pretty rapidly. Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Xbox One and Google Nexus Player are all listed as coming soon.

Currently the $20 core package gets you ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC Family, CNN, El Rey, and Galavision. Yesterday in a press release Sling announced that AMC was coming to the core package and that the AMC Networks portfolio (which includes BBC AMERICA, BBC World News, IFC, SundanceTV and WE tv) was coming to the service. I take that to mean these portfolio channels will be included in an addon bundle but we'll see.

Speaking of addons, three are available now for $5 each: Kids Extra adds Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, and Duck TV; Sports Extra adds SEC Network, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Goal Line, ESPN Bases Loaded, Univision Deportes, Universal Sports, and beIN Sports; and finally, News & Info Extra adds HLN, Cooking Channel, DIY and Bloomberg TV.

If you're worried at what streaming live TV is going to do to your bandwidth, Sling TV gives you some control over that with three settings. Low Quality caps at 500 kbps, Medium caps at 800 kbps, High caps at 1.5 mbps, and there's a Best Quality which in my test was using 4.7 mbps.

I played around with Sling TV on a Roku 3 and on Windows (and it's worth mentioning that you have to download an app to use Sling TV on Windows, it doesn't play through your browser). The interface took some getting used to. Available channels are display in a scrolling horizontal row and then you press (or click) up to get more details on that channel. Below the 'channel bar' is a display of what's on that channel now and what's coming up in the future.

With some channels you'll also see what has been on previously and can go back to watch earlier shows. And some channels offer On Demand content which you can discover by pressing up to get into that channel's details. On Demand seems really hit or miss; often there'll just be a few random episodes of a series available. As best I can figure, it depends on what has aired recently. For instance I was interested in the show Booze Traveler from the Travel Channel but I could only watch episode 6 and 10 from season 1; that seemed like a pretty random selection.

In fact one of my biggest gripes is the lack of consistency. With some channels it's like watching TV through a DVR. You can pause it and rewind it or even start over. With other channels, like ABC Family, it's like watching over the air. You see what's being aired and that's it. No pause, no rewind, just pure live TV.

I should point out the quality of the stream is good once it gets going. When you first start the app things can be a little rough but within a minute, and usually much faster, things smooth out. With the PC app I'd get errors saying my subscription couldn't be verified once in a while (again, when I first started the program) though a retry always sorted that out. It seemed to work better on the Roku.

Aside from complaints about channels that don't let you pause or rewind, my biggest issue with Sling TV has nothing to do with Sling TV. It's all about me. It didn't dawn on me until I started playing around with the service how rarely I actually watch live TV. Almost everything I watch is either from my DVR or from some kind of on demand programming from my cable company or through a service like Hulu Plus.

Since I do pay for cable I'm not really the target audience for Sling TV, at least not until it gets robust enough to be a substitute that lets me cut the cord, and there's too much stuff I enjoy that Sling doesn't have yet. If you have no cable then this package could by potentially interesting.

I'm also not a big sports fan. Sling TV is leaning heavily on ESPN to sell the service right now. The two early access invitation emails I received had subject headlines of "ESPN for $20 a month? Slam dunk!" and "$20 a month for ESPN? OMG." and both referred to the service as a "new way to watch ESPN."

I'm probably going to cancel my 7 day free trial before I get billed, but when Sling TV comes to the Xbox One I'll give it another try; word is Xbox Live Gold members will get a month of service free, and that feels like a better amount of time to test the service. Additionally in my case the Xbox One is hooked up to the living room TV where we watch most of our TV. It might be an interesting experiment to live with just Sling TV and Hulu Plus for a month and see how many of the shows we enjoy aren't available through one of those services.

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