by Tom McNamara / April 20, 2018
If you're starting to hate your cable TV bill and you're looking for relief, a number of alternatives have emerged that stream live TV over the Internet to your mobile device, smart TV, or home computer. Sony has put the full force of its media mojo behind PlayStation Vue, which starts at $40 a month, with a free 5-day trial if you live in one of the areas where its live service is available. This might not sound like much of a discount, but the price is all-inclusive, plus there are some added features that we'll get into. Let's see how PS Vue fares against regular cable and competitors like YouTube TV, Sling, and Hulu with Live TV .
It's probably a better deal than you'll get with cable: While $40 probably doesn't sound like a bargain, it's also an all-inclusive price tag. There are no regulatory or service fees, no fee to upgrade to HD, and there's no cable box to rent. Plus, PS Vue comes with a respectable DVR function, which is rarely found at this price point (and we'll talk more about that in a minute). You get all your broadcast networks and a passel of basic cable like AMC, BBC America, CNN, the Disney Channel, ESPN, the Food Network, FX, HGTV, MSNBC, and we're only halfway through a sampling of the alphabet.
This "basic" tier contains 48 channels altogether, all in HD, and the next tier at $5 more per month adds 18 others, mostly sports networks such as NBC Sports (previously known as Comcast SportsNet and notoriously the only way to watch most major league baseball games).
You can also add HBO and Showtime to any tier, for $15 and $11 a month, respectively. If you are a PlayStation Plus subscriber, that will shave $2 a month off Showtime. However, you may still prefer the native apps for these two channels, and you can also get Showtime for $9 a month from Amazon if you are a Prime subscriber. Hulu offers the same deal for its customers. (Disclosure: Download.com and Showtime Networks are owned by the same parent company.)
Other add-ons include a Spanish-language cluster of channels, such as Fox Deportes and Nat Geo Mundo; a combo of HBO and Cinemax for $20 a month if you have a PlayStation Plus subscription; and a "Sports Pack" containing eight niche channels, such as the Longhorn Network and NFL RedZone.
Finally, all tiers of Vue receive an on-demand library of shows, but as with regular cable, it's customarily limited to the most recent show episodes. For a more robust selection, we'd recommend Hulu or Netflix instead.
The DVR function is quite solid: When you tag a show to be added to your DVR library, PS Vue doesn't just slot that one episode. It will automatically add every episode after that, until you remove the tag. This also works for sports -- you can tag your local baseball team on NBC Sports, for example, and PS Vue will record every remaining game of the season. "Record" is a bit of a misnomer, because it's all in the cloud instead of stored on a local device. Because you don't have to deal with storage, the amount of content you can tag is hypothetically unlimited, although your "recording" will customarily expire after 28 days.
Some programming and channels can be blocked from your DVR at times. The live feeds for the premium cable channels are entirely off the DVR list, though you can tag anything in their on-demand libraries.
Lastly, if you cancel Vue and sign up again later, it still remembers all the shows you tagged and even maintains access to previously DVR'd airings.
Tons of viewing options: Although it has "PlayStation" in the name, PS Vue can be watched over your mobile device or PC's web browser; via Roku, Nvidia Shield TV, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV; or cast from your mobile device to a TV via Google Chromecast or Android TV. (The Xbox consoles do not get access because they are PlayStation platform's arch-enemy.) You can also stream on up to five devices at once. However, because Vue is geographically limited, you can't stream if you travel outside the service area.
In terms of the content itself, Vue also does a good job of making sensible viewing recommendations. If you watch a reality show, sitcom, or a swashbuckling adventure, Vue will notice and suggest similar shows and movies. And unlike Hulu with Live TV, PS Vue has a channel guide for more intuitive navigation.
Sign-up woes: Unfortunately and confusingly, PS Vue did not support signing up for the service within the app during our testing, and this is actually more vexing than it sounds. What happens is that you log in to your PlayStation account within the app, then it informs you that you don't have a PS Vue subscription, then it gives you error code 5001, and then when you press the only on-screen button that's available to acknowledge this message, the app minimizes itself and dumps you onto your phone's home screen. The app does not provide a sign-up URL or otherwise make any attempt to facilitate the sign-up process, leaving the user to literally hunt on the Internet for the correct website.
We experienced this process on an iPhone SE, iPhone 8+, a 2017 iPad, and a Moto X4 running the latest version of Android, so it's unlikely to be a device-specific bug.
Some channels and content will look pretty bad on a 4K TV: Granted, if you're watching PS Vue on a phone or tablet, the difference may not be that noticeable. But since you can stream Vue to your home theater, it's something worth considering if you want to get the most out of the product.
Basically, anything streamed at 720p instead of 1080p will be stretched pretty badly (and there is no native 4K content in Vue). Fox, in particular, has a bad habit of favoring 720p. Just compare the NFL games on Fox to the ones on NBC or CBS, and you should see a clear difference when viewed on a 4K TV, even if it has a high-quality upscaler. This issue shows up on regular cable as well as live streaming.
This problem definitely comes into play when you're viewing content that's also available on Netflix, Hulu, or other streaming services that don't have resolution limitations. It puts PS Vue (and regular cable) near the bottom of the list of services we'd recommend for watching content that's available anywhere else. But for live sports and current TV episodes, the overall package is still preferable to a comparably priced cable subscription. And if you have a 1080p TV or prefer to watch on a mobile device, then the 4K issue is minor -- but it may become a problem if you decide to upgrade later.
PS Vue's sign-up obstacle is annoying and odd, but the 4K issue is something that every live TV service has to deal with. But overall, PS Vue is a very good package with lots of add-ons and tiers to customize to your tastes and budget.