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.