Let me just go ahead and be blunt about this right from the giddy-up: if you’re not a Dish Network customer already and you’re thinking of subscribing to the service simply because of all the touted 4K capabilities of the company’s new Hopper 3 DVR, hold your horses for just a bit.
I’m not saying the Hopper 3 is a bad DVR by any means. Quite the contrary! The Hopper 3 is a significant technological leap over its popular predecessors. It still boasts amazing commercial-skipping capabilities for network TV shows. Its PrimeTime Anytime feature, which uses just one tuner to record all primetime content on the four major networks every night of the week, is still an incredible convenience. Thanks to hardware upgrades, the new Hopper 3 delivers all of the features that made its older siblings so popular and does so at breakneck speed. And I still think that, even ignoring considerations of hardware, Dish Network offers the best value in traditional subscription-based linear TV.
Still, if 4K content is motivating your purchasing decision right now, the Hopper 3 isn’t quite the be-all and end-all of UHD content…but it definitely has the potential to become so in the coming months and years.
Let’s back up a few months, though, to the CES press conference at which the Hopper 3 was announced. It was the talk of the show amongst the crowd I run with, and for good reason. The press conference came across like one of those Ron Popeil commercials, except for a product you definitely want. First, the Hopper 3 jumps from three tuners to 16. Say goodbye to recording conflicts for every family except maybe the Duggars.
But wait, there’s more!
It boasts a newly redesigned user interface with comprehensive search capabilities that cover broadcast, on-demand, and Netflix all in one convenient list. That’s exactly the sort of thing Dish has needed for a long time.
But wait, there’s more!
It supports 4K on-demand video and 4K streaming from Netflix. What could be better? How about a new Sports Bar Mode feature that allows you to watch four mosaic HD channels at full resolution on your UHD TV, with future support for six 720p channels onscreen at once?
If all of the above doesn’t get your tail wagging, you’ve probably given up on linear subscription-based TV altogether and have no desire to go back. But for the rest of us, that press conference was like a magical wonderland of promise, a hope for a better and brighter future with puppy snuggles and unicorn rides 24 hours a day.
But hey, let’s not forget that, when Disneyland opened in 1955, the paint was still wet, and some of the rides didn’t last through the first day. As such, don’t consider this review-in-progress to be our last word on the new Dish Network Hopper 3; instead, consider it a snapshot of its first month in action, which will be updated as new features come online, and a few bugs are stamped out.
I’ll admit it: after having been one of the first journalists to review the original Dish Hopper back in 2012 and having replaced it with the Hopper with Sling (now dubbed the Hopper 2) myself back in 2013, I was a bit disappointed to hear that Dish wouldn’t allow me to handle the installation of its new Hopper 3 on my own. There’s a reason for that, though. The new hardware requires some outside work, including a new hybrid LNB and hub, which must be installed by a Dish technician. Thankfully, my local tech allowed me to do all of the inside work myself–which wasn’t much work at all, to be honest. My old Hopper with Sling slid right out of my rack and was immediately replaced with the new Hopper 3. I plugged in the Ethernet and HDMI cables, plus my external hard drive (with 1.5 terabytes’ worth of recordings copied over from my old Hopper), and that was that.
Replacing the Joey in my bedroom required a little extra work. Just in case you’re not familiar with Dish’s product names, perhaps a bit of explanation is in order here. In Dish parlance, the Hopper is your main DVR and the brains of your entire Dish Network system. When you record a TV show, no matter which room you’re standing in when you set the recording, it’s the Hopper that does the work and the Hopper’s two-terabyte hard drive onto which it’s stored. It also houses all of your tuners; so, if you change channels in a second room, you’re really changing channels on one of the Hopper’s tuners.
The Joey is a whole-home DVR client: a small box that connects to the Hopper via MoCA (Multimedia over Coax) unless you opt for the wireless version, and effectively serves as a local video output and remote control input for additional rooms throughout the home. The reason the Joey installation required a little extra work in my case is that the updated Joey I received (not the 4K version, which I don’t need in the bedroom) did require a different power cord than my original Joey, which necessitated a bit of digging behind heavy furniture.
With me working inside and my local Dish technician working outside, though, we were up and running in about 15 minutes. We then spent the rest of his visit going over the new features of the Hopper 3’s streamlined remote control and user interface.
You might imagine that was a short conversation, or one that I tolerated merely for the sake of getting the complete customer experience. You’d be wrong. As it turns out, the four years I’ve lived with the Hopper ecosystem actually put me at something of a disadvantage when it came to wrapping my mind around the new Hopper 3 user interface. I had to unlearn what I had learned.
My tech and I spent a good five minutes digging through the Hopper 3’s Settings menu looking for the screen that would allow me to transfer all of my old recordings from my external hard drive–because that function was no longer located in the same place that it has been for years. Almost by accident, I found the screen I was looking for, and it wasn’t under Settings. It was on the main DVR screen. Plain as day. A big, bold “Sources” folder that, once clicked, gave me direct access to all of the hours and hours of shows that I had archived and now wanted to move to their new permanent residence. Incidentally, restoring all of my saved recordings took much less time than did backing them up, thanks to the Hopper 3’s USB 3.0 connectivity.
“That almost makes too much sense,” my tech said. And those words stuck with me for the next few days as I learned to navigate the simpler, more streamlined, vastly more intuitive and responsive UI of the Hopper 3. Things aren’t where they used to be; they’re where they ought to be. That’s mostly thanks to a new tabbed home screen that gives you easy access to not only apps (like Netflix) and features (like on-demand content) that you might be interested in, but also a handy Trending Now list (of shows that are popular at the moment), as well as series premieres you might be interested in, season premieres, and finales.
Searching for content is also vastly quicker and easier than ever before, despite the wealth of new content returned in searches. When you start typing in the search box, for example, a list along the side of the screen is populated with TV shows, movies, sporting events, and even people whose names match the letters you’ve typed so far. Best of all, your searches are no longer limited to results that are available in the current content guide or on-demand listings. There’s a new option labeled “Record When Available” that allows you to set timers for shows or movies that might not be returning to air for months yet. And when you’re browsing the episode list for a show of interest, it contains not only episodes that are stored on your hard drive and yet to air, but also on-demand offerings and episodes available via Netflix.
All of this is pretty huge if you’ve been frustrated by the Hopper’s search capabilities in the past. While it may not quite be up to the quality of TiVo’s search capabilities (for example, when I still had cable, my old TiVo would record any shows about Corvettes, even if they didn’t have the word “Corvette” in the title, which is something the Hopper 3 can’t do), it’s getting close enough for hand grenades and horseshoes.
That same integration of broadcast, on-demand, and streaming sources comes in handy when you’re watching shows, as well. After watching an episode of a series, a screen pops up that shows the next episodes to be watched. My wife and I tend to save up shows and binge watch them, which can cause problems when we don’t realize that a show didn’t record until weeks or months after it’s aired. Such was the case with a recent marathon of Marvel’s Agent Carter, an episode of which we lost due to severe weather and a power outage. (As an aside here, I should note that, in the four years we’ve had Dish Network, we’ve only lost our satellite signal perhaps half a dozen times, which is a far better track record than we ever had with cable–and a counterpoint to the perceived notion that Dish loses its signal every time the wind picks up. We now joke that, if our satellite signal goes out, it’s probably time to get in the hallway anyway.)
Getting back to that marathon of Agent Carter: as we were sitting down to watch, I noticed that episode three of the second season was missing from our list of recorded shows (shows that had been recorded on our old Hopper with Sling). When episode two ended, though, a direct link to the on-demand download of episode three popped up right in the center of the screen.
Likewise, due to scheduling conflicts, we also recently noticed that a couple of old episodes of Brain Games from three seasons ago (yep, we’re show hoarders) were missing from the DVR. As was the case with Agent Carter, we got a pop-up notification that our missing episodes were available, not via on-demand but on Netflix, and pressing that button took us directly to the stream of that episode.
One new function of the Hopper 3 that wasn’t available at release but has been recently added via an update is the Sports Bar Mode, or Multi-View Picture-in-Picture, which allows you to fill a UHD TV screen with four 1080p high-definition channels (if you have a 1080p TV, you’ll get four 540p windows). Unfortunately, this featured launched with some kinks, which caused the screen to go black when trying to access it, requiring a power cycle to get the image and sound again. A recent firmware update nipped this in the bud, though, and Multi-View Picture-in-Picture now works perfectly and intuitively. The scaling of the four separate channels is spot on, and switching between audio streams for each active channel is as simple as moving the cursor around the screen.
If there’s one major shortcoming of the new Hopper 3’s search capabilities, it’s that searching for the minuscule amount of 4K content available at the moment is a bit like trying to find Waldo in one of those cross-eyed Magic Eye books. There simply isn’t much of it, and there’s no category I could find to narrow the search. I found a handful of on-demand selections from Sony Pictures, including the 2015 film Chappie, which is available to rent for 24 hours at $7.99. The film played at 3,840 x 2160p/24, with eight-bit color and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio at 48-kHz/16-bit, and it’s worth noting that it didn’t require HDCP 2.2, since it played just fine through my Emotiva XMC-1 (which won’t be fully HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 compliant until sometime this summer). The video looked pretty fantastic, to be blunt about it–on par with 4K streams from Netflix, just without the buffering issues or occasional drop in quality due to bandwidth issues, since it was coming over the satellite, not my network.
It’s also worth noting that the new Hopper Remote with Voice, which should simplify the searching process even more (assuming its voice recognition is up to snuff), still isn’t available to Dish subscribers. For the time being, we’re left with a remote control that’s much simpler than the Hopper remotes of old (as it should be, given that the UI is so much more streamlined). If you use an advanced control system such as Control4, as do I, the old Hopper IP driver still works perfectly well with the Hopper 3, and it even gives you access to buttons that are gone on the new remote: the red, green, yellow, and blue buttons, for example, which provide direct access to things like your tuner list, Closed Captions, settings, and apps.
As for the few remaining glitches and grumbles, I think chances are pretty good that many of them will be stamped out by the time this review posts. I feel confident in saying that because Dish is making constant updates to the Hopper 3, and bugs of this nature are disappearing at a rapid rate. One particularly frustrating bug that has recently been addressed caused all recorded shows to appear as having already been watched by default, which meant an extra couple of button presses to start a show from the beginning.
Comparison and Competition
The most obvious competitor to Dish Network’s Hopper 3 is DirecTV’s Genie whole-home DVR platform. Hardware differences are only one thing to weigh when considering which (if either) of the major satellite providers you opt for, but there are some differences to be pointed out. The Genie does look rather limited as compared with the Hopper 3 in a number of key areas, including the fact that DirecTV’s offering features half of the hard-drive space, less than a third the number of tuners, no PrimeTime Anytime feature (which records all four major networks automatically during evening hours and stores the shows for eight days, unless you choose to save them to your hard drive automatically or manually), and no automatic commercial-skip feature for primetime network content.
The Genie does offer one feature that the Hopper 3 lacks, though: Program Suggestions, which recommends shows for you based on your viewing habits. Dish has a Recommendations feature, but it’s not influenced by your personal preferences. DirecTV’s system also has a slight edge in that it supports a maximum of eight TVs; however, it only allows for five simultaneous streams at a time, whereas the Hopper 3 allows you to watch seven TVs at once.
If you’re not a satellite subscriber, TiVo’s Bolt is probably the Hopper 3’s closest competitor. It also features 4K support (presently in the form of 4K YouTube and Netflix), along with TiVo’s unparalleled search and recommendation capabilities, as well as seamless integration of streaming services. It does max out at 1 TB of internal disc space, though, compared with the Hopper 3’s 2 TB, and it features only four tuners, compared with the Hopper 3’s 16.
For what it’s worth, my daughter recently asked me if I really needed a DVR with 16 tuners, and the simple answer to that question is no, no I don’t. Then again, I only have a two-room Hopper system. Since upgrading to the Hopper 3, there have been evenings where the missus and I tied up a grand total of eight tuners (and that’s given the fact that PrimeTime Anytime, which records four stations at once, hogs only one tuner). Is that out of the ordinary? Of course it is. But at least with the Hopper 3, we don’t have to worry about scheduling conflicts. Like, ever.
What about the other concerns? The general lack of 4K content at this point? Features like the YouTube app and voice search that haven’t debuted yet? Quite frankly, the weight that you place on these bugs and missing features is yours to determine. If you’re considering a switch to Dish Network from another provider, you’ll have to weigh them individually.
But if you’re already a Dish customer and you’re on the fence about upgrading to the Hopper 3, go ahead and hop down from that fence. There’s simply no reason to wait. The bugs that exist are, as I said, being addressed more quickly than I would have expected, the features that are missing aren’t available on any previous iteration of the Hopper anyhow, and the vast advancements in terms of speed, responsiveness, and functionality (especially in the search and playback departments) make the Hopper 3 such a monumental leap over its forebears that Dish could have almost gotten away with pulling a Microsoft and calling the thing the Hopper 4.
• Check out our Satellite Receiver, Cable Box, and HD DVR category page to read similar reviews.
• Visit the Dish Network website for more product information.
• Dish Network Introduces 4K-Friendly Hopper 3 DVR at HomeTheaterReview.com.