Sony’s attempt to compete with cable TV starts today: the long-awaited PlayStation Vue TV streaming service is now available for PS3 and PS4 owners in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Much like Dish’s new Sling TV service, Vue lets you pay a monthly fee to get live access to a variety of broadcast network channels as well as networks that are typically only available from cable providers.
Probably the two most important factors for any service like Vue are price and channel lineup, and the network lineup Sony has on board is impressive. Sony has deals set up with CBS, Fox, NBC, Discovery, Scripps, Turner, Viacom, and AMC — that adds up to more than 85 total distinct channels. Of course, that won’t come cheap. The entry package costs $49.99 per month and covers about 50 different channels.
Lots of channels, but they come at a cost
For most Vue users, that $50 package should be sufficient, as it covers a whole host of some of the most popular channels you’ll get in any cable package. It includes local broadcast channels from NBC, Fox, and CBS as well as cable networks like TNT, TBS, USA, MTV, Animal Planet, BET, FX, Comedy Central, AMC (starting next month), and many more. It’s an impressive lineup — when I thought about how I use cable TV currently, I realized that the entry level Vue package would cover a huge chunk of the shows I like to keep up with.
Unfortunately, there’s one huge hole in Sony’s lineup — ABC. That means no ESPN, no Disney, or even the local ABC affiliate so you can keep up with Modern Family. It’s a real shame, as it keeps Vue from truly being a one-stop service you can use to cut the cord for good — we’re keeping our fingers crossed that ABC and Sony will be able to come to an agreement sooner than later.
Still, there’s a lot to like in Vue’s basic channel lineup. Sony’s $59.99 step-up "Core" package is mostly aimed at sports fans — it includes national sports networks BTN and the Golf Channel as well as regional sports networks like New York’s YES and Comcast SportsNet in Chicago and Philadelphia. There’s also a $69.99 "Elite" package that mostly adds a bunch of niche channels; for most users, the standard package will probably be more than enough.
The last piece of the puzzle for Vue is the interface, and fortunately Sony has put together something that’s a lot nicer and easier to use than what you’ll get from most cable providers these days. When you start Vue, you’ll automatically be in live TV mode on whatever channel you were on previously, just like turning on most cable boxes. When you jump into the interface, the live TV keeps playing in the background and you’re presented with your "timeline" — what you’re currently watching, what’s up next, and (if you scroll backwards), what you’ve watched recently.
Favorite as many shows or channels as you want
From there, you can scroll down into the other main ways Vue organizes your content: My Shows, Favorite Channels, and Live TV. They’re pretty self-explanatory — the first two collect any show or channel that you save while browsing through Vue, while Live TV shows you every single program that is currently airing. By default, all these areas let you scroll left to right to view the programs and channels you look at most often, but you can also jump into a bigger, grid-style overview that gives more of a bird's-eye view of what’s available.
Adding things to your lists is quite simple — at any time while you have a network or show highlighted, you can hit R1 to save it. Since Sony’s DVR is cloud-based, you don’t have to worry about any conflicts when saving items for later — and once you’ve saved a show, you’ll have access to all episodes of the show that have aired in the last 28 days. Vue also makes the last three days of "popular programming" available without needing to schedule it for a recording, making it easier to catch up on a premiere you might have forgotten to save.
There are almost too many ways to find shows to watch
Other ways to find content include a traditional search; recommendations based on viewing habits, as well as what’s popular with other Vue users; filters that let you find shows by picking genre, style, rating, length, and so on; and a twist on the traditional cable box guide. Instead of a guide that shows time going from left to right and an endless stream of channels, Vue’s guide puts channels left to right, with all of your favorites right up front. You can easily scroll back in time and "catch up" on shows that you’ve missed (assuming the network has given users the rights to do so).
It’s not the most bare-bones or simple interface, and there are lots of options for finding content, but the main categories — live TV, favorite shows, and favorite channels — are probably what most users will use most of the time. Fortunately, they're simple to understand and right up front. Since it's so easy to favorite channels and shows, those areas will fill up with content fast.
That’s Sony's vision for the future of TV. It’s probably the most comprehensive, over-the-top TV service to launch thus far, and it's the one that gives the most people the best option for cutting cable entirely — or it will when it launches nationwide. Sony says more cities will be online before the end of the year, but they didn’t quite give specifics on when it’ll be available to everyone in the US.
Of course, notable caveats abound: right now, it’s only available on the PS4 and PS3, with an iPad version coming later. While Sony’s consoles are popular video streaming devices, there’s still a swath of other set-top boxes that can’t use Sony’s service. And the lack of ABC and its associated networks leaves a big hole in Vue’s channel lineup. That said, a channel lineup that’s still quite strong and an intelligent and customizable interface (even if it is a bit busy) are two big wins for Sony’s first efforts here. We’re hoping that Sony and Dish’s Sling push each other to get even better, and that Apple shows up with its rumored service soon. The more competition we see, the better it’ll be for those who want to cut the cord. If you want to give it a shot and live in one of the launch cities, Sony's offering a free week trial.