I’ve been a fan of DISH Network for many years and have come to expect more features and better performance from every new generation of DVR, but nothing prepared me for the Hopper. This new whole-house DVR is not an incremental improvement but a virtual reinvention of the category. The Hopper brings unprecedented features and capabilities to high-definition satellite television while at the same time creating an amazing new user interface.
The Hopper gets its name from its ability to record and play back shows from any room in the home—all in full HD. Just connect each of those remote TVs to the tiny Joey set-top box (Hopper and Joey—get it?) and you have the same functionality on up to three remote TVs as you have on your main television—any television can access any content on the DVR (the same functionality is available on six TVs with two Hoppers). The Hopper works by distributing HD signals through existing coaxial cable in the home using the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) specification. Installation and setup were simple, and I welcomed the newfound ability to watch remote TVs in HD as well as to access all the DVR functions from any room in the house.
That’s just the beginning of the Hopper’s capabilities. The Hopper also offers three satellite tuners along with a feature called PrimeTime Anytime that records, off a single tuner with one remote click, all the prime-time programming from ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. Once you activate PrimeTime Anytime the Hopper will automatically record all the prime-time programming from these four networks every evening and store them for up to eight days. Because all four networks are recorded from the same satellite tuner, two additional satellite tuners are free for watching or recording other programming. This means the Hopper can record up to six shows at the same time (four PrimeTime Anytime channels and two other channels)—all in HD. In addition, DISH has added to the PrimeTime Anytime capability a new feature called AutoHop that automatically skips the commercials in most recorded primetime HD programs from ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. Here’s how it works: When you select a recorded program the day after the program aired, the Hopper asks if you would like to engage AutoHop. After selecting “yes” you simply start the program playback and Hopper plays the program with gaps of perhaps one second where the commercials were. No more scanning forward and then jumping back. Once you start playback, you can put down the remote for the rest of the show. AutoHop performed flawlessly, and I must say it was a tremendous convenience.
The Hopper’s disc drive has been increased to 2TB, providing storage of up to 500 hours of HD content and up to 1000 hours of SD programming. The new interface shows the number of shows and the percentage of the drive consumed—at one point I had 96 shows recorded that consumed just 12% of the hard drive. For all intents and purposes, that’s unlimited storage. But if you need more capacity, the Hopper provides a USB port for off-loading content from the Hopper’s hard drive to an external drive.
Speaking of the user interface, this improvement alone is worth the price of admission. The interface has been redesigned from a blank sheet of paper to take advantage of the 750MHz Broadcom processing chip at the Hopper’s heart. This high-speed device allows many more functions and lightning-fast operation, as well as full HD program guides and menus. Frankly, this new interface makes DISH’s ViP722 DVR seem archaic. For example, scrolling through the program guide (vertically through the channels or horizontally through time slots) is faster than you would ever need. The menus pop up instantly—and in beautiful HD—and there are many more of them for accessing the Hopper’s broad array of new features.
One of these features is DISH’s Blockbuster @Home ($10 per month) that allows you to stream movies to your DVR. More than 10,000 titles are available, about 3000 of them free, with others costing between 99 cents and $2.99 to “rent” for 30 days. Some movies are available only in standard-definition, but newer titles are presented in HD. To use this feature you’ll need a broadband Internet connection. The download speed was quite fast—as high as 12Mbps—and the picture quality with HD movies was excellent. The streaming speed was so fast that I could start watching a movie in HD immediately after initiating the download. In addition to Blockbuster @Home, DISH also offers recent releases via On-Demand, with typical prices of $4.99 per movie.
If you don’t have a broadband connection, the Hopper offers on-demand content with a feature called DISH Unplugged. This feature delivers TV shows and movies on-demand through the satellite to the DVR’s hard drive.
Those subscribers with DISH’s America’s Top 120 programming package or higher also receive 73 channels of SiriusXM, and a very cool collapsible list of music channels that makes it much easier to find the music you want. Browsing by album art will be available soon. The Hopper also expands the musical options by giving users access to the music service Pandora, which allows you to stream personalized radio stations through your TV. Pandora support for Joey will be realized with a software update in June. A recent software upgrade offers apps that provide real-time access to Facebook, Twitter, photo-sharing, games, news, weather, stock quotes, sports, and other information.
DISH has developed what it calls TV Everywhere technology that, along with the DISH Remote App, allows you to watch live and recorded TV anytime, anywhere on mobile devices such as an iPad. In fact, the app has been optimized for viewing content on the iPad 3’s Retina display. This capability extends to streaming Blockbuster @Home and On Demand content to your iPad wherever you are (provided that the iPad is Internet connected). The DISH technician will install a pair of Sling Links that enable this feature. The DISH Remote Access app is available for free on iTunes.
So, how do all these features affect the user experience? In a word, the Hopper is phenomenal in every respect. The Hopper is clearly the state of the art in DVR and satellite-television technology—by a wide margin. The ability to control the DVR from any room in the house, along with full HD quality on the remote TVs, is only the beginning. The three tuners, coupled with the PrimeTime Anytime feature, virtually eliminate timer conflicts. And with the Hopper’s 2TB disc drive, the storage is practically unlimited. This combination forms a synergy that creates what is essentially a video-on-demand system; you turn on the Hopper and are presented with a huge array of programming from which to choose.
I also liked the Blockbuster @Home feature that streams movies to the Hopper, particularly the depth of the movie library. The number of free movies is significant, and the pricing of the rental titles is reasonable, with many costing 99 cents.
As a long-time DISH user, I was thrilled by the completely new user interface. The Hopper’s graphical interface is much more attractive, the menus more logical and intuitive, the way information is displayed vastly more usable, and, most of all, the speed at which the system operates is now lightning fast. DISH has added features such as predictive search to make finding content easier. It took all of about half an hour before I was completely comfortable with the new interface. For all the Hopper’s advanced capabilities and sophisticated features, controlling this DVR was a pleasure rather than a challenge. In fact, I’d call the Hopper’s user interface the most intuitive and friendly of any consumer-electronics products I’ve evaluated.
The Hopper is also a forward-looking platform that can be upgraded to expand its usefulness. I had just a sampling of this upgradeability with the recent addition of Pandora and Auto Hop, just to name two new features. (The Hopper gets its software upgrades automatically in a way that is completely transparent to the user; you turn on the Hopper one day to discover that new functions have been added.) Incidentally, I should add that DISH’s customer support is exceptional. The representatives manning the phone as well as the installation technicians are courteous, efficient, and knowledgeable.
Finally, I appreciated that the Hopper is smaller, quieter, and cooler-running than the ViP722 it replaced. In a four-room installation the Hopper and Joey system is 50% more energy-efficient compared with DISH’s previous-generation DVR.
To say I was thrilled by the new Hopper/Joey system would be an understatement. This isn’t a conventional DVR with a few new features and tricks, but a complete re-invention of the category. If you are able to demo the Hopper, you’ll instantly discover that there’s simply nothing else like it.