Test driving the new TV options

Even a whiff of a rumor about Apple brings people running as if pie were about to be served. And so it was this week when old rumors were revived about Apple's imminent launch of a television service that would rival cable companies’ offerings. But there are already two such television channel bundles — Sling TV and PlayStation Vue — available that are streamed over the Internet.

So how do they fair?

Sling TV

Sling TV is an online package of television channels from Dish Network that's streamed over the Internet using an app. The basic bundle costs just $20 a month and includes about 20 channels, most notably the big Kahunas of sports — ESPN and ESPN 2. There's also TBS, CNN, and the Disney Channel. What's not included are any of the networks, so there's no programming from ABC, CBS, Fox, or NBC. Movie and children's bundles are available for $5 more a month.

Nevertheless, I found Sling TV appealing. It can be viewed on a regular HD TV using a streaming media player like the Roku 3 or on an iPad or any Android device. It's also rolling out on some smart TVs from LG and Samsung, as well as Microsoft''s Xbox One. That makes Sling TV television anywhere.

On the Sling TV app, channels are listed along the bottom of the screen with preview thumbnails of upcoming shows on that channel below. You can access stations relatively quickly — at least on my broadband connection using a Roku 3. In fact, Sling TV changed channels more quickly than Time Warner's online app. I also did not encounter the kind of hesitation or hiccups that can mar Netflix viewing. Picture quality across all the stations in my tests was comparable to cable.

Unfortunately the Sling TV interface could use a redesign. You have to scroll horizontally across the bottom of the screen to find stations and then below that to see other shows. To see what's available on demand, you have to scroll upwards. In short, it's a muddled mess.

Two other points of frustration: You don't get the sort of DVR functions we're accustomed to on all channels. You cannot record an ESPN show or pause CNN, for example. The second point is that in order prevent people from sharing subscriptions (you know who you are, Netflix users), you can only watch Sling TV on one device at a time.

PlayStation Vue

Sony's PlayStation Vue is a less audacious offering that's being rolled out slowly (a so-called “soft launch,” in industry argot). It costs $50 for the basic package of about 80 stations. Vue includes networks, such as CBS, NBC, Fox, and Telemundo. There's also news ranging from Fox News to CNN. However, there's no ABC, Disney, or ESPN, which is a significant programming gap my 12-year-old was quick to point out.

So far, Vue is only available as an app on PlayStation 3 and 4 consoles and only in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia to start. Sony will be introducing it more broadly in the future, and it's likely to work as an app on Sony's smart TVs. Sony's televisions are switching to Android software, so it's a reasonable bet that Vue will eventually appear on Android devices.

PlayStation Vue has a snappy interface designed for the big screen. Scroll down to the bottom portion of the screen and you'll see free shows on demand, such as “The Blacklist,” “The Daily Show,” and “American Idol” (yes, the judges did use their one “save”). Next, you'll find a list of live channels, and more recommended shows, such as late night talk shows, Fox 5 News from the previous evening, and a real estate program from HGTV. You can also easily set up a separate list of favorites.

The icons on Vue are big and colorful – a much more attractive presentation than the dull electronic program guides most cable and satellite services provide. There is also a more conventional program guide available on PlayStation Vue that flips the traditional grid on its side with stations along the top. It does take some practice using the game controller buttons to navigate the TV menus but regular PS users won't have any trouble.

The bumps come along while streaming programs. Watching NBC live, the sound was clipped and tinny and the program repeatedly stopped to reload. When it did work smoothly, the HD picture quality was quite good compared to a regular cable feed. Unfortunately, I encountered other glitches. While watching American Idol on demand, the show inexplicably stopped and switched to the live local Fox affiliate. These growing pains are no doubt why Sony is introducing the service gradually, working out the bugs in the process.

Bottom Line

An unraveling of the traditional cable TV subscription model is definitely underway. With one of these two online bundles, an $8-a-month Netflix subscription, and an HDTV antenna for local stations, a TV viewer could easily make the switch. However, it's still an awkward arrangement, switching between apps and inputs, rather than having the convenience of a single guide of hundreds of channels that satellite and cable companies can offer. And if you've got kids in the house who insist on having every channel, you may have to wait until they go to college to trim your cable bill.