Yesterday I wrote about ESPN’s decline and how it contributed to Disney’s stock taking a dive after their most recent earnings report. I concluded, to the surprise of some, that major networks like ESPN aren’t as doomed as we might think they are. Sure, they’re losing advertising and subscriber fees in the short-term – from people cutting the cord and no longer unwittingly paying them each month – but the fact remains that there are very few sports fans who can exist without ESPN’s content (mostly their live broadcast coverage), and there has yet to be a reasonable solution for a simple streaming package that gives viewers, especially sports fans, most of the content they currently enjoy.
Many of you weighed in and suggested I check out PlayStation Vue, Sony’s streaming bundle which includes ESPN, local channels, and, in Philly and a few other cities, the regional sports network.
I had heard of Vue before, and was aware that it was actually pretty good, but I mostly dismissed it as a fringe, almost experimental solution for a much younger demo used to consuming content on their gaming machine. That may be the case… however, if you have a PlayStation, Vue is worth considering if you’re thinking about cutting the cord but aren’t sure how.
What is Vue?
Sony, impressively, cobbled together what is essentially a cable package that gets streamed over your PS4, PS3 and other devices (more on those in a second). They’ve succeeded in bringing on a wide range of networks and providers where, thus far, Apple and others have failed. Most notable – if only because they’re missing from most other streaming offerings – is the inclusion of your local broadcast affiliates and, luckily for Philly fans, CSN. Sure, you could always get a tuner for ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, but that’s yet another step in the fairly confusing process of cutting the cord. Vue includes those channels as part of your package. Having CSN, though, is what really sets it apart. For the first time, you can get a solid streaming package and watch the Phillies, Flyers and Sixers with it. Additionally, all the other channels you may want or “like having” from traditional cable are there– Disney Channel(s), ESPN, FS 1, NBC Sports, cable news outlets, MTV, Food Network, etc. Along with local broadcast affiliates, many of these are the sort of channels you might not pay for individually and would claim that you can do without, but appreciate having at certain times. For example, having CNN, MSNBC and FOX News during an election year is preferable (or maybe not…), being able to turn on local news during weather events is somehow comforting, and sometimes you just want the mindless background noise that ESPN or the Food Network provides (I don’t mean that as an insult to those networks’ stars such as John Barr and Giada… love Giada).
How does it work?
On the surface, it doesn’t function much differently than your Comcast or Verizon cable service. There are three packages to choose from– the middle option, at $45 per month, is probably the sweet spot, but even the base package gives you an impressive lineup.
Everything is streamed live, and there is a familiar guide-style interface just like your cable box has. But even better, you can also explore by genre, intended audience, and more. Vue’s interface isn’t perfect, but it’s very good. Better than I expected. You can also “catch up” on many previously-aired programs. This is sort of halfway between watching live and recording on a DVR. From the guide interface and other spots, you can scroll backwards in time and watch a show that aired an hour ago or three days ago. It will start playing as if you’re watching in real-time (you can’t fast-forward). This includes Phillies games. It’s not available for every program, but is for many of them. You can also “DVR” programs by adding them to your favorite shows. This will record programs, in the cloud, for you to go back and watch just like on a DVR. The reason Vue doesn’t do this for every show, I think, might have something to do with the legal precedent that the viewer has to choose which broadcasts to “record”– meaning, they “own” the content and are free to skip around. I’m not sure on that, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for why Vue doesn’t just, you know, record every show and provide you with full DVR functionality.
Can I watch Vue on other devices?
You bet your sweet ass you can. You need a PS4 or PS3 to sign up [Edit: It appears you do not need to have a PlayStation to sign up], but you can also watch Vue through Amazon Fire streaming devices and Google Chromecast (no Apple TV), which makes streaming Vue on multiple TVs as simple as buying $39 Fire Stick or Chromecast devices for every room you want to have it in. You can also watch on iOS devices. The catch is that many programs are “mobile restricted,” which means you can only watch them on the aforementioned TV streaming devices. This includes CSN programs. As best as I can tell, this largely applies to NBC-owned properties– CSN, NBC 10, CNBC, NBC Sports, etc. The good news is that most of these networks have standalone apps that allow you to watch on your phone or tablet simply by using your cable credentials… and yes, Vue is included in that list. It really does function very much like a traditional cable package. You can watch ESPN on Vue’s mobile app, or, of course, on ESPN’s excellent mobile app. There are some definite quirks to what you can watch and where (being “outside your home network” seems to block certain things), but everything can be watched on TVs, obvs.
Vue’s FAQ does a really nice job of answering most questions that you may have.
Does it work?
From my limited testing – I was playing dad yesterday and watched it through my PS4 a good chunk of the day, including NBC 10 news and the Phillies game – it works very well! I had no dropouts and very little lag with 75-75 Fios internet. There were two brief hiccups during the Phillies game, but I’m talking minor blips in the feed that were gone before I could even put any thought to it. Your mileage will likely vary depending on what kind of broadband speeds you have, but anything over 25-25 should be fine (though I’d recommend much higher if you decide to cut the cord).
How is the quality?
Here is the one issue. Vue claims it can get 720p at 60 frames per second (TV is typically 30). At times last night it certainly seemed like the Phillies game was getting 60fps. [One reader claimed that’s impossible for live broadcasts, but while I can’t speak to the technical aspects, I know MLB.tv outputs some games at 60 fps starting this season, and what I was seeing on Vue was certainly much smoother than what I see on regular TV… so the effect is the same regardless of if it was technically 60 fps or not (I think it was).] This wasn’t constant, however. The game seemed to jump back and forth between 60 fps and 30 fps. It wasn’t distracting, but noticeable. That, I could live with. What concerned me was the lack of 1080. Flipping back to the Phillies game on CSN, on Fios, which broadcasts in 1080, there was a noticeable difference in quality. Now, I’m a dork about this sort of thing, and if you’re the type of person who isn’t irked by the fact that ESPN and FOX broadcast in 720 whereas NBC and CBS broadcast in glorious 1080, then this might not matter to you. For me, however, it’s a borderline dealbreaker, especially with a good TV. There is certainly nothing wrong with the Vue picture – even if it does take a minute or so to get up to 720 once you switch to a new program – but it doesn’t pop the way your cable picture often does, and certainly doesn’t pop the way some 1080p programs on Netflix or through Apple TV and other devices pop. That was disappointing. But, at no point did I think it was bad enough to be a non-starter. The quality seems reliably decent, but hardly great.
Am I cutting the cord?
Here’s my situation: I’m moving in three weeks. I recently scheduled Fios setup with 100-100 internet, their lowest tier mainstream cable package (not the creatively-curated skinny bundles that compel you to keep spending more), and phone service. The plan costs $80 per month for the first two years. But in addition to that advertised price there are box rental fees, taxes, and other charges that I can only assume go toward harvesting the brains of small children for sheer enjoyment. All in: $150 per month for the first two years for cable, internet, phone, a router rental ($10), three cable box rentals ($12, $12, $10), and one DVR rental ($10).
Here’s the two-year calculation for me, which I think would be a pretty typical scenario for most.
[Few notes: I signed up for three cables boxes. Vue allows you to stream on up to five devices at once. I’ll split the difference and do the math based on four, because I’ll probably need another box anyway. We purposefully didn’t have two bedrooms wired for cable because we figured that if they’re ever filled, whoever is in them won’t need "cable.” With four boxes, we’d put one in the family room, one in my office, one in the master bedroom, and another in one of the spare rooms. I’m not even sure the Fios pricing doesn’t go up in Year 2, but typically you can get the up-front offer for two full years. I’m not including league-specific streaming packages, because they really don’t apply to local sports fans.]
With cable (Fios– taxes and fees not included):
Cable box rentals: $816
DVR rental: $240
Router rental: $240
HBO Now: $360
Amazon Prime (with Instant Video): $200
Total: $4,424 ($184 per month)
With Vue (assuming you already have a PlayStation or Fire TV device):
Fire TV HD: $100
Two Fire TV sticks or Google Chomecasts: $80
Router rental: $240
HBO Now: $360
Amazon Prime (with Instant Video): $200
Total: $4,388 ($182 per month)
*The 100-100 internet plan is $60 per month, but if I cut the cord and went full streaming, especially working from home and with heavy web use, I’d probably bump up to 150-150, at $70.
As you can see, cord-cutting really isn’t a cost-saving proposition. Cable companies charge essentially the same amount for just internet as they do for cable and internet combined. Where they get you is the box rental fees. Of course, if you cut the cord, those rental charge savings are offset by the cost of the streaming service, not to mention any additional equipment (Fire TV, Chromecast) you might need to buy.
But will I cut the cord?
Here are my considerations:
For Vue: I actually prefer their interface, both on TV and through their app. I like the intangible concept of cutting the cord. Having an essentially unlimited DVR, accessible from all over the house and on mobile devices, is a huge bonus. I love what Sony has done here and think there’s a lot of promise.
For cable: Though I would have to pay about $40 more per month – which is a racket – to get full-house DVR functionality, I prefer the reliability of a cable box over streaming… at this point at least. Video streams are fairly reliable, but I’m still not sure I trust them 100%. Put it this way: I’m glad I was watching the final play of the Villanova-North Carolina game through a cable box. Those moments are few and far between, but missing that live thanks to an ill-timed buffer would have, no joke, had serious psychological effects on me for years to come. The better and more stable picture quality, and the still-more-familiar convention (for everyone– family, guests), are bonuses.
I’m sticking with cable for now.
Again, your mileage will vary. You might not need 150-150 internet. Hell, you probably don’t. You might not care about 1080 HD. You might already have three Amazon Fire TV sticks, or a Chromecast. You might own a router. You might not actually care about watching local news or sports (which changes the consideration entirely). With Vue, Sony has created a compelling product that deserves serious consideration from anyone. There is a FREE 7-day trial. It has a lot going for it and is a reasonable alternative to cable. But at the moment, if you want to cut the cord and still be a local sports fan without crazy, confusing, and less-than-reliable workarounds, cutting the cord won’t save you much money.
UPDATE: If you live out-of-market, you can’t get CSN Philly and the local affiliates.