Q. I know you have been a frequent critic of the picture on live streaming such as DIRECTV Now and Sling TV. But come on, Swanni, is the picture really that bad? Is it buffering all the time, or are you just going a little nuts about this? — Bob, West Hollywood, California.
Live streaming services such as Sling TV and DIRECTV Now are rapidly expanding their subscriber numbers thanks to relatively low programming fees and no equipment costs or cancellation fees.
But, yes, Bob, as you note, I have written frequently about live streaming services having technical difficulties, particularly during shows and sporting events that have a high viewership. The picture will sometimes buffer, freeze, or go complete blank if more people tune in to watch than the live streaming service expected.
Think of it like your home’s WiFi Internet network. If one person in your household is using the Net, the Internet speed is usually pretty good. But if everyone in the house is using it at the same time, your speed will likely decline, making surfing the Net less enjoyable.
Live streaming’s technical snafus don’t happen during every major event, nor does it happen on every service. But it does happen a lot, and consumers contemplating subscribing to a live streaming service deserve to know that the technology is still a work in progress.
Plus, if your Internet service is not particularly fast, you might experience picture interruptions during any show or sporting event. This is not the fault of the live streaming service, but it goes with the territory.
Generally speaking, the distribution of live programming over the Internet is simply not as reliable yet as the delivery of programming over cable or satellite connections.
Now, that said, watching live streaming is usually an error-free experience. If you decide tonight to watch live channels on Sling TV, Hulu Live or DIRECTV Now (or any other major live streamer), you probably will be pleased. The picture will likely be crisp and clear without any interruptions. And it probably will be again tomorrow night and the next night.
But sometime next week, during a season finale, or major sporting event, you might suddenly be gnashing your teeth because all you see on your screen is a spinning circle or square (symbols some streaming services use during buffering moments.).
I say ‘might’ because the technical glitch might not happen, too. That’s the problem with live streaming. It’s not quite at the point where you can comfortably say that the picture will be solid tonight, and every night. You just never know for sure.
That’s not to say that cable and satellite don’t have occasional problems. But compared to live streaming, their issues are few and far between.
Live streaming will get better. Companies behind live streaming services, such as AT&T (owner of DIRECTV Now), are investing heavily in improving the technology and infrastructure. But right now, it is what it is. Unpredictable.
And anyone who tells you otherwise is not being honest with you.
Final note: Despite the occasional technical uncertainty, I wouldn’t advise against subscribing to a live streaming service, such as Sling TV or DIRECTV Now. The entry price ($20 a month for Sling; $35 a month for DIRECTV Now) for live streaming services is very attractive, particularly when you consider that cable and satellite operators continue to raise their already too-high monthly fees.
But know what you’re getting into. The lower price also comes with a picture quality that’s sometimes lower, too.
If you’re okay with that, sign up. You will save some money.
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— Phillip Swann