Sling TV preview: Does this $20-a-month cord-cutter service work as promised?

Sling TV, a $20-a-month service for cord-cutters, made quite the debut earlier this month, winning our Best of CES award amid a flood of attention from press and customers alike. But can the app really live up to its promise to "Take Back TV"? I've had access to the beta for a few days, allowing me to get an early look before the first batch of invitations for pre-registered customers goes out tonight at midnight ET. As far as I can tell, the answer is both yes and no. Internet TV is finally real, but it has a lot of strings left over from the old days of pay-TV, and not just because it's coming from the folks at Dish Network. Getting must-have content from the likes of ESPN has its costs, and those might make the $20 entry fee higher than you're willing to pay.

Sling TV Preview

For now, Sling TV is available on Android, iOS and Roku. Access on the web and through Amazon's Fire TV hardware is in the works, but for the moment, that's it. In any case, after a long weekend of watching ESPN and the Cooking Channel testing, it's clear that Dish has already accumulated plenty of know-how with its DishWorld international service. We'll have to wait and see how Sling TV holds up with more users signed on, but for now, the streams are clear and uninterrupted, with video quality that's more than acceptable over WiFi. Usually the stream reported bandwidth of 2 to 3 Mbps, which was enough to keep the picture clear, although I sometimes noticed compression with fast-moving objects or dark scenes. If you've used Netflix, you have a good idea of what I mean, and if that's acceptable (or if you've been dealing with high compression from your cable provider already), you should have no issues here. I couldn't get quite as good of a connection over LTE, and anything at the "Medium" quality setting (0.8 Mbps) or less looked grainy, as you'd expect.

Aside from the connection, the other big question is: How does Sling TV compete on content? In short, it's a mixed bag. The good news is that you get the promised core package of 12 channels (ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC Family and CNN), but the reality of different contracts with different providers means you get a different set of features on some channels. If I'm watching Bloomberg TV, DIY or HGTV, then life is great; I can flip back and forth through the show that's airing, and use the "Start Over" option to immediately go back to the beginning or see tons of video on demand.

But with ESPN, ABC, TNT, CNN, HLN and the entire Disney family, the service works differently. It's like old-school, pre-2000 analog TV: There's no rewind, pause or seek and you can forget about stuff like Start Over. It's like staying in a hotel or sitting in a waiting room and suddenly remembering you can't skip back to watch the highlight play that just happened, except here, you're specifically paying a monthly fee with the expectation that you can do just that.

Unfortunately, that's not the worst of it; licensing issues can bite users in other ways. It's not that I wanted to watch the Pro Bowl last night (I didn't), but if I did, then I couldn't on my phone (as shown above). On a tablet or TV, it's no problem, but the NFL has an exclusive deal for phones that Sling TV can't get around. Sling TV isn't the only one blocked; the WatchESPN app with my Comcast login suffered the same block for the same reasons. It's understandable, but frustrating on a service we're hoping will move the TV market out of the stone ages. Other than that, I didn't spot any device-specific issues, although I wasn't able to reliably use AirPlay mirroring between my Retina display iPad and Apple TV. Direct AirPlay support should be available once the public comes in tomorrow, though, so that shouldn't be a problem going forward.

So am I already down on our CES champ? Hardly. What Sling TV promised comes through in spades. I can flip through the available channels with little pause and hop from device to device with abandon. This is live TV reshaped for the internet that's ready for smartphones, tablets and PCs. On the channels that allow full features, I can even watch in the ways I like to, without worrying about whether or not the DVR was actually set to record or any other silliness. The video-on-demand feature is well-sorted, if a bit barebones. It's better-designed than Vudu, but not as easy to sort as even Netflix, and I'd expect it to improve in features and content as the service goes forward.

So the million-dollar question (or billion, if you own a cable company) is: Can this replace my current TV setup? For now, and for me, no. I don't watch cable news or the reality-style shows that flood the Scripps family of channels that together make up the lion's share of what's available on Sling TV. Of course, my cable subscription already includes those (at a much higher cost, plus charges for equipment and other add-ons), but it also brings all of the other channels that I actually do watch, and can't currently get on Sling TV. If you're sitting on a big-screen setup and a TV addiction that keeps the DVR full from one day to the next, this probably isn't going to cut it, although you're welcome to try. There are just too many shows missing, and despite the rise of other streaming services it's not quite a competitor for the cable bundle, even given its much lower entry price

Of course, if you do just need SportsCenter, a quick dose of fixer-upper info, some kids shows and the occasional shot of cable news talking heads, then boom -- this package is made for you. But it's still what many cord-cutters say they hate: a bundle. Plugging the holes with more sports or other genres is just falling further into the same trap that the current TV giants have been getting rich off of. Even at launch, adding a Kids bundle for Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV and Duck TV or News & Info Extra for HLN, Cooking Channel, DIY and Bloomberg TV costs an extra $5 per package.

At CES, Sling said there would be more options like that coming, including a sports pack, so it will be interesting to see what's available to mix-and-match going forward. The other great part about working over the internet is that features can be tweaked and released quickly -- while its taken the cable industry decades to bring connected features to our boxes, the options for Sling TV are endless. At the beginning, that will mean adding a channel from internet video provider (and Disney-owned) Maker Studios. I don't know what's next or down the road, but tossing out the need to roll out instantly-obsolete hardware could put Sling a step ahead in the way we've already seen Netflix add features, devices or buzzwords like 4K and HDR video.

If (big if) you're not allergic to a bundle, then it does work for someone who can mostly live without TV, but wants to pick it up sometimes for a few months here and there. There's no contract (with a 1-week free preview period on signup), and no installer, so tossing these channels on top of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, et cetera takes just a few clicks, and so does getting rid of them when you're ready to move on. TV still needs to evolve and Sling TV isn't ready to address all of the industry's issues, but if your need for TV is on the light side due to taste, budget, time or some combination thereof, it could be a great fit.