The battle for home entertainment supremacy when it comes to cable and satellite providers is among the fiercest around, with each side believing wholeheartedly that their way is best. In the past the argument(s) for or against one service vs. another largely came down to channel selection; then it was all about the quality of one's DVR. Then came VOD and other more convenience-oriented features. Today, it's all about the Hopper. But what is a Hopper? If you've seen the Bostonian-style commercials advocating it you may have a sort of mixed impression of its capabilities, as the ads are equal parts humor and information. Okay, maybe two parts humor, one part information. If you read the news or any technical rag then you've no doubt seen that the Hopper isn't funny at all, at least, not to broadcasters and content providers. So I say again, what is a Hopper?
The Hopper, for lack of a better descriptor, is Dish Network's ultimate receiver/DVR, but rather than look at it only as a satellite receiver/DVR, it's better to see through the lens of what it does beyond mere channel surfing and recording. Therefore for the purposes of this review, I won't be commenting on Dish's plans or channel selection(s), just the Hopper's "unique" capabilities. It is important to note, however, that while the Hopper is more than just a receiver/DVR, it's priced like one, meaning it's an available option - free of charge - with sign-up to any of Dish's many programming packages. The packages start at $24.99 per month and go up from there. Also, while the Hopper may be special in terms of its capabilities, its outward appearance is pretty standard fare, meaning it looks like many of today's modern DVRs. It measures 16 inches wide by nearly 12 inches deep and roughly two-and-a-half inches tall. Around back, you'll find a phone jack, remote antenna, eSATA inputs, two Ethernet ports, two USB ports, an HDMI output, digital audio out (optical) and an analog component video out along with a composite and pair of analog audio outputs. There is also a set of coaxial ins and outs that connect the Hopper to your dish and other Dish-appropriate components. In terms of the Hopper's audio video compatibility, i.e., HD and Dolby Digital surround sound codecs, it is largely dependent upon each individual broadcast. Suffice to say the Hopper does support HD and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks.
Inside, the Hopper possesses a 2TB hard drive capable of storing a reported 2,000 hours of content - 2,000 hours in SD and up to 500 hours in HD. Still, 2TB is nothing to balk at and is more than enough for most users, but more on that in a moment. The Hopper supports both wired and wireless Internet connectivity as standard, which plays a huge role in the unit's now internal Sling functionality. Previous Hopper DVRs had Sling capability, though they had to rely on an outboard attachment whereas with new or current Hopper DVRs, Sling is now internal. There are multiple tuners inside the Hopper - three to be exact - which allow the Hopper to do a great many things, specifically recording multiple streams and shows simultaneously, while also allowing you the ability to watch other content at the same time. Dish says that the Hopper can record up to six channels at once, though it is quick to point out that, of these six, four are relegated to local primetime content, with two being of your choosing. If that sounds a bit weird or even a little confusing, it won't in a minute, for it has more to do with Dish's new Primetime Anytime feature than anything. Excluding Primetime Anytime, you can record three shows at any one time, while watching up to four previously recorded shows on other TVs throughout your home - provided you have Joeys of course.
In sticking with the Kangaroo theme, Dish has named their small, Hopper-connected extenders, Joeys. Cute. Rather than have DVRs in every room of your house, as was the norm up until recently, Dish uses smaller satellite (as in remote) devices called Joeys to access content, live or recorded, via the Hopper. While this type of setup isn't unique to Dish - I enjoyed something similar a few years back with AT&T U-Verse - the Joey/Hopper combo is among the more seamlessly integrated that I've encountered to date. The Joeys therefore act like true extensions of the main Hopper DVR, meaning the end user experience is difficult to tell apart, if discernible at all. More importantly, the whole experience is carried out over a connected coaxial connection, making the transfer of information and/or commands very responsive.
Lastly, there is the remote, which remains largely unchanged from previous Dish remote designs. This is a good thing for seasoned Dish customers, as they will have zero trouble commanding the Hopper, though it's also bad, for I don't believe the Dish remote to be exceptional. Good, yes; great, not so much. However, in terms of range, it's pretty phenomenal and its omni-directional nature is also a huge plus. That being said, the button layout is somewhat strange, though easy enough to memorize with practice, despite the remote having limited backlighting. Still, the remote is of the universal variety, meaning it can be set up (presumably by your Dish installer) to control your display's functionality, as well as a connected device such as a DVD or Blu-ray player. Those with complex or larger home theater setups will probably resort to using more robust universal remotes, rather than rely on the included Dish remote.
Setting up a Hopper is easy because, well, you don't have to do it. Installation is free with new service and/or upgraded service. I've been a customer of all the major satellite and cable companies in my area over the years and can say that, far and away, Dish has been the best in terms of their customer service and in the quality and integrity of their installers. During my review period, I went through two different Hoppers due to updates; the second update coming when I moved to a new house halfway through my review. I had the same installer both times, and both times the gentleman was on time (when does that happen?) and did an exceptional job. He even cleaned up after himself quite thoroughly, going so far as to bring a small handheld vacuum to suck up debris when he had to drill a hole in my home. No DirecTV, AT&T or Time Warner installer has ever done that.
I had the main Hopper DVR installed downstairs in my living room where it was connected to both my 70-inch Vizio E-Series display and my Vizio Co-Star Google TV device. Upstairs in my master bedroom, the installer put in a single Joey, which attached to my Panasonic GT50 plasma.
Once everything was in its proper place, my Dish installer walked me through all the various features and such and made sure I understood them fully before taking off. He even "quizzed" me by asking me to find a program, record it and pull it up elsewhere in my home just to be doubly sure I knew how to operate the new system. From there, he double-checked my home network settings and the system's signal strength, as well as retraced his steps from the Hopper itself back to the dish on my roof to look for any dropped nails, staples, etc. before heading off. I mean it - the guy was thorough. From arrival to goodbye the whole process took about two hours, mostly due to the installation of the physical satellite dish on my roof rather than any sort of setup issues having to do with the Hopper.
Read about the Performance and Features of the Dish Network Hopper on Page 2 . . .
Because the Hopper's AV performance is dictated by the individual broadcast you've chosen to enjoy I'm not going to comment on its AV acuity, but rather break down its main features and discuss how they work and whether or not they're worthwhile, starting with Primetime Anytime.
Primetime Anytime is arguably one of Dish's most touted features at the moment. What it does is record to the Hopper's internal DVR all primetime shows on the four major networks, CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox, without you having to lift a finger. It stores the shows in a special folder labeled "Primetime" for a period of eight days. Once inside the folder, you're treated to a sort of cover flow, with each show possessing its own unique high-res artwork, listed in alphabetical order. Select a recording or show and you'll be treated to an experience not unlike what you'd expect had you scheduled the recording yourself. Very cool. It works and works well, but there are a few drawbacks that Dish doesn't really point out.
First, Primetime Anytime uses one of the Hopper's internal tuners, so while it can record multiple streams at once via the major networks, it leaves you with only two available tuners to record things elsewhere on other channels at the same time. While this may not sound like a bad thing, remember, primetime refers to a "chunk" of time that can span from about 7pm to 10 or 11pm in the evening, which is a long time to tie up a tuner if you'd also like to record say Duck Dynasty (A&E), Diners, Drive Ins and Dives (Food Network) and Gold Rush (Discovery) at the same time. Disable Primetime Anytime and you can easily record all three shows at once; enable it and some programming will have to be sacrificed or recorded at a later time. It should be noted that you can select which programs or networks Dish should include when recording via the Primetime Anytime, which does help eliminate potential recording headaches with non-Primetime Anytime shows, but the only way to truly free up that additional tuner is to disable the feature altogether.
Dish's commercial-free feature is one that has the company in a great deal of hot water lately. While the technology isn't wholly universal, meaning it doesn't work on every broadcast, it's still very cool. Right now, commercial-free viewing is relegated to Primetime Anytime TV only, though certain shows and/or networks can dictate its availability. I was able to enjoy the feature during episodes of Fox's The Following (Fox) starring Kevin Bacon, but wasn't able to on other programming found on other channels. Also, it's not seamless in its integration, meaning your chosen show doesn't fade out to go to commercial and simply fade back in where the commercials would've ended. No, instead, you're treated to the first five or so seconds of the commercial break and then the last five or so seconds of the same break before your show begins. It's as if the Hopper auto fast-forwards through the commercials for you, but doesn't show you the super fast video that typically accompanies such a move. It's also not accurate 100 percent of the time, cutting off content early and cutting into it late. Thankfully, the feature can be disabled in the Hopper's menus, which is ultimately what I chose to do, since I found the inclusion of the commercial-free TV feature more of a distraction than a benefit.
Dish Anywhere is part of the Hopper's internal Sling functionality that lets you "sling" or wirelessly transfer live and/or recorded content from the Hopper to your computer or tablet via your home network or cellular provider. Those with iPads can even transfer content off their DVR directly to their Apple devices for offline viewing, though not all shows are apparently compatible with the service. I'm no longer an Apple user, so I was unable to test this, but I did log a few hours testing the Dish Anywhere service on a variety of devices.
Starting with my Droid Razr Maxx smartphone, I downloaded the free Dish Anywhere App from the Google Play Store and entered my Dish Network account information. From there, via my wireless carrier Verizon, I was able to watch live TV and/or recorded shows via the Hopper. I did this in three different locales, none of which were within the walls of my home, but instead in line at Lowes, waiting for lunch at a local restaurant and while on the road driving to Las Vegas. Each time, the service worked brilliantly, provided I had a strong enough cellular signal, and the resulting image and sound quality were good, though they varied depending on the channel I chose to watch. Here's the rub: unless you have an unlimited data plan on your phone, I don't recommend watching video content via your cellular plan as it chews up a lot of bandwidth. In a pinch or in short bursts, it's cool, but I wouldn't watch entire episodes of anything via a cellular connection. Instead, I'd wait for a WiFi connection to become available.
Via WiFi the Dish Anywhere service is great and works as well if not better than it does via a cellular connection. My wife was able to stay up on the two shows we watch together while out of town via her Google Nexus tablet and the Dish Anywhere App. She accessed our Hopper's DVR from out of state and watched The Following about an hour after it had recorded to our DVR, as the timing hadn't worked out for her to watch it live. She mentioned to me that she did watch live TV while waiting around on set a few times and that the quality of the image and the accompanying sound was better than YouTube on her tablet and nearly as good as what she's accustomed to from downloaded movies. High praise.
Dish Anywhere also (potentially) means that, rather than pay for additional Joeys to be installed throughout your home, you can access content via HTPCs, GoogleTVs, etc., which also afford you other possibilities beyond the Joeys' capabilities.
The Hopper, when connected to your home network either via Ethernet or wirelessly, has access to a myriad of connected apps such as Pandora, Facebook, MSNBC, etc. While I don't use or rely on a great deal of HDTV-based apps, I know a lot of folks do, so their addition here is a plus. However, I maintain that interacting with, buying or adding new apps via your HDTV is easier via devices such as GoogleTV, etc., than via the Hopper.
Blockbuster @Home is basically (apart from the disc-by-mail service in this instance) a VOD service that brings you streaming movies courtesy of a variety of services or channels under the guise of the Blockbuster moniker via your Hopper. This VOD content can subsequently also be "slinged" to your connected devices via the Dish Anywhere App. Not all titles are free, but then what semi-free VOD service is? Also, since the service is 100 percent streaming, quality can and will vary, depending upon your Internet connection.
That pretty much wraps up all the major and not so major features available to you via Dish's new Hopper with integrated Sling whole home DVR. There are a few other items, such as 3D support and such that I didn't really get into on account of 3D being silly and all. I should also quickly point out that, with each update and iteration, Dish's user interface has improved both in usability and in graphic prowess, though it still falls short of my reference standard, which is GoogleTV. Still, navigation is a breeze, as is setting up timers and recalling recorded content. The search functionality is also vastly improved, though it would be made even easier if Dish's remote had an included QWERTY keyboard. All in all, I'm very happy with the newfound features and functionality afforded via the Hopper, which is why I remain a Dish customer, rather than switching back to AT&T and/or DirectTV. While you could've made a case for either service, AT&T or DirectTV, being better just a few short months ago, with the arrival of the Hopper with Sling I feel as if Dish has now taken the lead.
While the Hopper setup is the best version of Dish's service that I've experienced yet, it isn't perfect. The Primetime Anytime feature is cool, but if you're not a power network TV viewer its implementation can be somewhat of a hindrance rather than a positive feature. Thankfully, you can turn off Dish's Primetime Anytime service, though in doing so, you're also doing away with one of the service's party pieces. To each his own, I guess.
Dish's commercial-free TV viewing is a radical idea and the first time it kicks in, it's even impressive, though not all channels or programs are compatible (a list I don't see growing in the future) and its implementation is far from seamless. I ultimately opted not to enable the feature and skip through the commercials manually myself for a) manual fast-forwarding is always compatible and b) my commercial skip timing was often more accurate.
The Dish Anywhere app was among my favorite new features with the Hopper setup, though I warn against using this app via your cellular connection, as it does eat up a lot of data. For those with data caps (who isn't capped nowadays?), it could make for some expensive entertainment. Via a WiFi connection, however, the app is simply brilliant and the feature set it affords you is an on-the-go dream come true.
Competition and Comparisons
Obviously, the most notable competitor to Dish's Hopper service is DirectTV's Genie. I have not tested the Genie myself, so I cannot comment specifically as to how well or poorly it competes with the Hopper. Suffice to say there is one hell of a grudge match going on between the two providers -Dish and DirectTV. AT&T's U-Verse is also worth noting, though my extensive personal experience with the service as well, as AT&T as a company, keeps me from ever recommending it, though current users insist it has gotten better with age. For more on these and other services like them, please visit Home Theater Review's HDTV-Video page.
It's amazing to think just how far cable and satellite TV have come in such a short amount of time. I still remember when TiVo first hit the market and what a revelation that was. Now DVRs such as Dish's Hopper are bordering on being their own form of personal computer, capable of feats that even five years ago we would've potentially laughed at and summed up by saying "someday." Well, someday is now, and the Hopper with integrated Sling capability from Dish is far and away the best DVR-based setup I've encountered. While some of its key features aren't perfect, their presence is not only welcome, but a taste of what's to come. If you're a power primetime viewer, the Hopper is for you. If you like streaming content to your wireless devices, the Hopper is for you. Hell, if you just want the most flexibility when it comes to enjoying broadcast entertainment, well, my friends, the Hopper is most likely going to be for you.
I've been a happy Dish customer for several years now, having left AT&T and DirectTV before that. With the addition of the Hopper DVR into my life, I don't see my support for Dish and their various services waning any time soon.