AirTV offers a bargain option to cable/satellite TV

A $279.98 “onetime” investment in hardware/labor. Modest internet service. Then, with discipline, a monthly entertainment software budget of $20 to $45.

That’s all it takes to cut the cord without slashing your throat, to substitute a cheaper alternative to the monthly cable or satellite TV bill that still delivers essential local and pay TV channels you need to see on a big (or little) screen.

At the heart of this plan is the new AirTV Player, which pairs nicely with program service from Sling TV. Both are developed by parent firm Dish Network, with Android TV support from Alphabet/Google.

With an opening price of $20 a month for the most basic 25-channel “Sling Orange” package that’s delivered to your home through the internet, Sling TV has earned the reputation as the cheapest of the new “slim bundle” pay TV alternatives.

But a serious gripe about Sling until now is that it slings only a couple local channels (Fox, NBC) in its pricier packages. The “Big Four” of  commercial broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) are included in web-TV-delivered alternatives such as PlayStation Vue (which just raised its 47 channel starter price from $30 to $40) and Hulu with Live TV (a 50-channel alternative available here, likewise starting at $40).

Delivering Philly locals is expensive for the service providers (and, ultimately, the consumer). Each network channel commands about $1.50 a month a subscriber in retransmission carriage fees, reports SNL Kagan. And that’s only rising.

AirTV lets you avoid the big four’s $6-a-month fixed cost by building a small receiver and antenna adapter ($129.99 total), which can “tune” free, over-the-air and paid streaming channels with an on-screen TV guide that mashes them all together.

Lacking a good outdoor antenna for broadcast TV? An AirTV Pro installer will come to the house and set you up with a sweet antenna for rooftop, balcony or attic-mounting. The total bill with their better all-weather antenna and installation is $149.99.

The small, discreet Televese DigiNova Boss antenna that the guys installed on my rooftop looks nothing like the arrow-style Channel Master antennas or double basket Antennas Direct models I’d previously used for digital broadcast channels. Even if you’re in a condo with a “no outdoor antenna” restriction, you might be able to mount this cute, bulbous thing on your balcony railing without creating neighborly fuss.

More important, this amplified antenna, when properly pointed, is good at channel nabbing. In my signal challenged, South Philly ‘hood, it’s finally bringing in all four WHYY digital channels that were un-tunable in over-the-air form, plus a bunch of previously unseen classic movie and TV channels, mucho Spanish-language, religious and shopping outlets, as well as core essentials 3, 10, 17, 29, 35 (soon, RIP), 57 and 61.

Now the only local broadcast station still M.I.A. at my place is ABC 6 (WPVI), reflecting a longstanding technical issue (signal blockage by Center City high rises) that could be resolved when digital channels are “repacked” in a year or two.

Another way that Sling TV (and other skinny bundlers) shave costs is by not presenting viewing options with the typical “grid” style on-screen program guide, a multi-patented access path that makes lots of moolah for Rovi, parent of grid developer TiVo.

Instead, an AirTV user works the wireless remote control buttons to scroll sideways, then down through glossy menus that herd content by channel and type, favorites and recently watched. This mapping sometimes demands an extra jab or three to land where you want. But if obsessed with a genre — sports, kids, movies — you might find this alternate formatting more efficient and thorough, as it neatly compiles each channel’s live, upcoming and on-demand content.

Sling TV service also gets closer than others in fulfilling the “a la carte” purchasing concept that bargain hunters crave. (“Why do I have to pay for channels I never watch?”)

A sports die-hard or topical comedy/news fan can get by with Sling Orange (a $20 bundle with three ESPN channels, Comedy Central, CNN, Disney, TNT, TBS, Adult Swim, BBC America, Travel, Bloomberg, History, IFC, Viceland, Bloomberg, A&E and a few more) and maybe a $10 Sports Extra or $5 News Extra bundle.

Not into sports at all? Your money is better spent on the $25 Sling Blue, which can pile on lots more channels (40) when extra-pricey ESPN isn’t in the picture and supports three users watching at once (on different devices) versus one “screen” with Orange.

A movie buff might layer on the $5 Hollywood Extra (four EPIX Channels and deep on-demand library, plus HDNet Movies, Sundance, TCM and Fandor) or pump it up with HBO (live and on demand) for $15, or your choice of  Cinemax, Showtime or Starz (for $9-$10 each.)

A six-channel Kids Extra bundle is $5.

To record stuff for viewing later, DVR functionality costs $5 more a month. Pay-per-view movies are $3 to $5 each.

The AirTV remote also has dedicated buttons to present Netflix (though not Amazon Instant Video) and free/paid Google/You Tube content. Both are likewise tunable by tapping the microphone button on the remote and saying “play Taylor Swift” or “House of Cards” or “what’s the weather forecast?”

High-definition over-the-air broadcast content on AirTV blows up beautifully on my 55-inch Panasonic plasma screen. Streamed HD content — maxing out at about 3 Megabits a second — isn’t up to the razor sharpness of the best cable and satellite TV and Blu-ray discs — but respectable if your internet streaming is stable. Stereo and surround sound tracks are well-realized.

I’m disappointed, though, by how often the “voice recognition“ processing on this “Android TV”-based product misinterprets me, and by the system’s inability to call up other web-based and broadcast channels and shows by voice command. But AirTV is in its infancy. Give it time.

Want to consider other cord cutting options? The cover story (“Cable or Streaming?”) for the August 2017 issue of Consumer Reports has more to share on the subject, though AirTV landed too recently for them to cover.

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