As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I signed up with Sling TV because I wanted to see what web TV is like. My household is already a big user of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, and I have a very good opinion of all of those services. I will admit that I don’t watch Hulu as much as the other two since I have yet to buy the premium service there, and so for now I suffer through the commercials. But all three of these services have a decent level of quality and I have rarely had problems watching what I want to watch.
I also have access to HBO Go. Comcast forced me into a small TV bundle in order to get faster Internet, and so I have the basic package that consists of the major networks plus they threw in HBO. I like the quality of the HBO online product, and in fact it seems to have better picture quality than the other web services, although it boots me from time to time.
But sadly I have not had the same experience with Sling TV. One of the reasons I got Sling TV was to watch the NCAA basketball tournament. It turns out that my favorite team, the University of Maryland, was playing two games on TNT, and these games were not available anywhere else on the web. I also caught U of M’s women’s basketball game on ESPN2.
The experience of trying to watch basketball on Sling TV was painful. It started when I first tried to log on to the service and repeatedly got the message that the feed was not currently available. It took me almost ten login attempts to make a connection. When I finally connected, the ‘reception’ was pretty good, about the same quality that comes with standard definition service on Netflix. The picture was clear enough and it looked good on my 27 inch monitor.
But after about ten minutes it started to have problems. First, I lost my connection and it took me a full ten minutes to reconnect. To a basketball fan that’s an eternity. I finally got the game back and it was pretty decent quality again. But then I started having problems with the audio. The announcers’ voices started clipping to the point where I had a hard time understanding them. Within another ten minutes the audio had also gotten almost two seconds out of synch with the video, with the voice coming in before the picture. This was really disconcerting.
I found that if I restarted the service that I could fix the voice, but I again needed multiple attempts to get reconnected. By the second half of the basketball game the audio was just so awful that I turned off the sound and listened to the rest of the game on Sirius radio while watching the video. There were times during the game when I got significant pixilation, although this tended to clear itself after a few minutes each time.
I had this same thing happen on other channels including ESPN, ESPN2, and the Food Network. The problem was not as pronounced on ESPN, but the audio problems were still there.
I have a 50 Mbps cable modem that has low latency, and I can’t remember ever having any major issues on Netflix or Amazon Prime. In hundreds of hours of viewing I may have been booted from those services maybe three times. So I know it’s not my Comcast connection. The problems I had with Sling TV are puzzling since it’s a unicast and every viewer gets the same signal at the same time. I’m curious how many other viewers had the same problems I did.
There are some good features of the service. While they advertise that you get ESPN and ESPN2, a subscription also gets you a feed into ESPN3, the online ESPN programming. I looked at several college baseball games, some wrestling, and soccer on ESPN3. The feeds I watched for past events did not have the same issues, so perhaps the problem is only with real-time feeds. I was not given access on ESPN3 for content on the SEC network, but I find that understandable.
But for now, until Sling TV figures out these issues, the service is not ready for prime time. This makes me sad because I want web TV to be successful. But my experience of watching several basketball games was horrible and was some of the worst sports viewing experiences I have ever had. This was even worse than trying to watch sports via satellite on days when the pixilation is bad. Luckily you only have to buy it one month at a time and I will come back in the fall when it’s football season and try again. I would certainly caution folks against signing up for the three month subscription they are offering without trying it first.
If web TV is going to succeed they have to be able to offer the same quality that people expect elsewhere. They are directly competing with Netflix and Amazon Prime and customers can easily compare their quality against those services. But they are also competing against the quality of normal cable TV systems and satellite. If web TV isn’t at least as good as those two alternatives they will have a hard time retaining customers.