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 . . .