Sling TV is the best live TV service for budget cord-cutters

id=”article-body” class=”row” section=”article-body”> Sarah Tew/CNET The wild world of live TV streaming services, which are designed to replace cable TV by letting you stream live channels over the Internet, is in a constant state of flux. The big names are all increasing the prices of their plans, removing or adding large chunks of programming, or in AT&T’s case, creating three different versions of its live TV streaming service. Amid all of the turmoil there’s one service that sticks out as a potential oasis for the budget-conscious cord-cutter: Sling TV.

Sling TV may be the oldest such service, but with some savvy updates and a low price, it is still the best if you want to save money. It may not have the most flashy interface — especially on the desktop or Roku — but the service is dependable and offers a lot of channels and myriad choices for your $25.

The downside is that Sling TV’s worst enemy is itself. It’s complicated to pick a plan and there are a couple of hidden costs and gotchas in there as well — like the $5 charge for the DVR. And if you want a full slate of local channels (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) you’ll have to augment Sling TV with an over-the-air antenna or choose a more-expensive alternative like YouTube TV (Note that CNET is a division of CBS). 

Despite some of its shortfalls and numerous competitors, Sling TV remains the most powerful budget service and is the best value service overall. Sling TV earns the CNET Editors’ Choice for the best budget live TV streaming service.

What is it?

Sarah Tew/CNET While we cover what kind of services Sling TV offers in depth here, in short it’s a selection of channels, streamed over the internet, for a monthly fee. Sling streams to TVs via media streamers, 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 price points, including Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, AT&T Watch TV, Philo and Fubo TV. For ease of categorization, I’ve separated them into budget (under $40) and premium (over $40) services. Sling TV is therefore a budget service, alongside AT&T Watch TV ($15) and Philo ($20). 

Now playing: Watch this: Live TV streaming services for cord cutters: How to choose… 2:44 What makes Sling TV tricky is that there are essentially two main plans for the same $25 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/Disney package. 

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 like 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.

Check the chart at end of this article for all of the Top 100 channels Sling offers. It’s a condensed version of complete list of Top 100 channels offered by every service.

The Sling TV guide

Sarah Tew/CNET Of the two $25 tiers, I like Sling Blue best. It has more channels than Orange and allows up three people to watch different streams at once. Sling Orange only allows one stream at a time. To add to the complexity, you can combine the two Blue and Orange services for $40 a month, but if you’re paying that much YouTube TV is a better option — easier to use, more channels and with a more generous DVR.

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, clunkiest way to watch locals as a Sling subscriber is to just connect an HD antenna to the back of your television. The next method, and Sling TV’s preferred solution, is for you to buy the $120 AirTV OTA streamer. The AirTV connects to an antenna and your network and streams the missing local channels via the Sling TV interface, integrating them right into Sling’s program guide and other areas. Other OTA DVRs are available too, although no others feed into Sling’s interface.

The $120 AirTV feeds local channels into Sling TV’s program guide.

Dan Ackerman/CNET What’s it like?

As far as the Sling TV experience is concerned, it’s pretty good. The menus are clean and uncluttered, particularly on the Apple TV version. There you get a choice of My TV, On Now Guide or Sports, However there are still things it could do better, for example 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 On Demand Filma and Rent.

Sarah Tew/CNET Navigation is zippy, and it was easy to find the content I wanted to watch — and record, with the $5 DVR option, of course. 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.

My only main issue with the service was with the DVR. First off, you can’t record anything at all on the ESPN and Disney channels. It’s not always clear which channels you can’t DVR, and sometimes when time-shifting a live program you’ll come across unskippable, undefeatable ads. You just have to wait them out. On some recordings I had a better experience — for instance I was able to fast-forward on recordings of Discovery without issue.

Should you subscribe?

While you can save some money with AT&T Watch TV ($15) or Philo ($20), it’s worth spending more on Sling TV, especially the Blue package. The experience is better overall, zippier, and it offers more channels. It’s not perfect, but it’s a decent cable replacement, 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 channels on Sling to its two budget rivals. “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.

Products and services are independently chosen by our editors. CNET may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

See it at Sling Budget live TV services compared

Channel AT&T Watch TV ($15) Philo ($20) Sling Orange ($25) Sling Blue ($25)

Total channels: 37 39 24 39

ABC No No No No

CBS No No No No

Fox No No No Yes*

NBC No No No Yes*

PBS No No No No

CW No No No No

MyNetworkTV No No No No

A&E Yes Yes Yes Yes

AMC Yes Yes Yes Yes

Animal Planet Yes Yes No No

BBC America Yes Yes Yes Yes

BBC World News Yes Yes $ $

BET Yes Yes $ Yes

Big Ten Network No No No No

Bloomberg TV No No Yes Yes

Boomerang Yes No $ $

Bravo No No No Yes

Cartoon Network Yes No Yes Yes

CBS Sports Network No No No No

Cheddar No Yes Yes Yes

Cinemax No No No No

CMT No Yes $ $

CNBC No No No $

CNN Yes No Yes Yes

Comedy Central Yes Yes Yes Yes

Cooking Channel No Yes $ $

Destination America No Yes $ $

Discovery Channel Yes Yes No Yes

Disney Channel No No Yes No

Disney Junior No No $ No

Disney XD No No $ No

DIY No Yes $ $

E! No No No Yes

EPIX No No $ $

ESPN No No Yes No

ESPN 2 No No Yes No

ESPNews No No $ No

ESPNU No No $ No

Food Network Yes Yes Yes Yes

Fox Business No No No No

Fox News No No No No

Fox Sports 1 No No No Yes

Fox Sports 2 No No No Yes

Freeform No No Yes No

FX No No No Yes

FX Movie Channel No No No No

FXX No No No Yes

FYI Yes Yes $ $

Golf Channel No No No $

Hallmark Yes Yes $ $

HBO No No No No

HGTV Yes Yes Yes Yes

History Yes Yes Yes Yes

HLN Yes No $ $

IFC Yes Yes Yes Yes

Investigation Discovery Yes Yes Yes Yes

Lifetime Yes Yes Yes Yes

Lifetime Movie Network Yes Yes $ $

MLB Network No No $ $

Motor Trend Yes Yes Yes No

MSNBC No No No $

MTV Yes Yes $ $

MTV2 Yes Yes $ $

National Geographic No No No Yes

Nat Geo Wild No No No Yes

NBA TV No No $ $

NBC Sports Network No No No Yes

Newsy No No Yes Yes

NFL Network No No No Yes

NFL Red Zone No No No $

NHL Network No No $ $

Nickelodeon Yes Yes No No

Nick Jr. No Yes $ Yes

Nicktoons Yes Yes $ $

OWN Yes Yes No No

Oxygen No No No $

Paramount Network No Yes $ Yes

Science No Yes $ $

SEC Network No No $ No

Showtime No No $ $

Smithsonian No No No No

Starz No No $ $

Sundance TV Yes Yes $ $

Syfy No No No Yes

Tastemade No Yes No No

TBS Yes No Yes Yes

TCM Yes No $ $

Telemundo No No No No

Tennis Channel No No $ $

TLC Yes Yes No Yes

TNT Yes No Yes Yes

Travel Channel No Yes Yes Yes

TruTV Yes No $ Yes

TV Land Yes Yes $ $

Univision No No No No

USA Network No No No Yes

VH1 Yes Yes $ $

Viceland Yes Yes Yes Yes

WE tv Yes Yes $ $

Weather Channel No No No No

*Fox and NBC available in select cities only on Sling Blue.

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