Friday, September 9, 2016

Sling TV: Cord Cutting has it's Issues

After many years of sharing an apartment with roommates and a requirement to have enough cable TV to be able to watch all of the local sports teams, a little over two and a half years ago I moved into my own apartment for a planned limited stay. Since it was just me, I decided to forgo television service, something I'd done in my own room of the apartment years before. What I had found was that, if there was a TV that could be turned on, it often was -- and only the tiniest fraction of content on it was actually worth watching.

While I've missed lots of things on broadcast TV over the past two and a half years, live sporting events, the last Jon Stewart Daily Show, Letterman's retirement, I've never really felt like it was a great loss, particularly given what I've seen when I have tuned in. Meanwhile, I've had Netflix, Amazon Prime video and HBO Now, all of which provide service that makes up for crappy TV and way too many commercials. But I've always wished for just a little bit more.

Which brings me to Dish's SlingTV. Last week I came across an article about how they were expanding the promotion on this service -- essentially a way that you can get a limited number of channels delivered OTT (Over The Top, i.e. through your Internet Connection). Paying for a limited number of HD channels seemed like an interesting prospect. Not giving Comcast stupid money for crappy TV also seemed like a win. Best of all, the site offered a free 7-day trial of the service.

Sling TV offers one bundle of channels for about $20 per month, one for $25, and then a whole block of what they have available for $45 per month. Their options include ESPN if you're so inclined, plus a bunch of Food channels and others. You can also add Cinemax for $10 per month, something I wish they would do like the HBO Now app, but anyway -- that being said, I decided to sign up.

The Results
I really wanted to like SlingTV. I really did. But my experience with the service has been colossally frustrating. Of course, sign up was a breeze. A quick plug in of my information and a credit card and I was on my way. But that's where the joy of the experience ended.

First, the bad: SlingTV offers apps for the iPhone, iPad, and AppleTV. Oh, but not the old AppleTV, only the new one. Want to watch on your older AppleTV, you need to use the iPad app and mirror it through Airplay. That took a bit to work out. They also offer an App for the Xbox One -- which we tried, but the performance was worse than the iPad through Mirrored Airplay. Specifically, the movie that we started to watch appeared to only run in stereo, not surround, and it had more frame drops than an oversubscribed online game. Even the iPad App has suffered through frequent lock-ups and buffering issues. Contrast this with Netflix, Amazon Prime, or HBO Now, and you'll quickly realize that you don't want to pay for this service.

But it get's worse. The app is so poorly designed that, every time we've tried to use it, we've been frustrated. Take the Cinemax channel as an example. We were trying to binge-watch our way through an on-demand series and every time you launch the app, it jumps to the live broadcast. You then have to work your way through the interface to get to the show you were watching and relaunch it. Pop out of the app for just a second, like to check your email, and when you return, you're dumped back into the live TV feed.

But wait, there's more. The entire interface is set up on a layered set of scroll wheels. At the top is the channel selector, below that, the programs that appear, first live, then on demand below that. When you want to choose a channel, you need to move the slider from left-to-right or right-to-left, and whatever it lands on in the center, it will pause a few seconds for in order to attempt to buffer in the info on what's live. If you're trying to scroll through the channel list, this can take a while. And with all of these delays and buffering, you can probably imagine that the app hangs. A lot.

Perhaps the worst was, on one of the iPads we were watching SlingTV on, the app just crashed at one point and would no longer function. We tried rebooting the app, rebooting the iPad, nothing. We restarted it on a different iPad and everything worked again, but if it you didn't have a second iPad, I suspect you would have had to delete the app and reload it... maybe.

Over the seven day trial, we barely managed to get through binge-watching one series. And it goes without saying, not once were we wowed by the app -- unless it was being wowed by how bad the software was.

Also funny was, in the process of canceling the service, they offered to give me a Roku2 if I signed up to a 3-month commitment. Unfortunately, my blood pressure couldn't handle 3 months of the service, so I had to opt out -- but your mileage may vary.

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