When there’s a pithy catch phrase to describe the mass exodus of customers from your industry, you know you’re in trouble. Or at least, you should know you’re in trouble. But in the face of massive numbers of cable and satellite subscribers “cutting the cord” for online alternatives, the response of most providers, it seems, is to hike the rates of those who remain to make up the difference, without adding any substantial value.
There are a few meager attempts to combat the trend here and there. Comcast’s Xfinity comes to mind. But really, such services amount to little more than tacking the online experience onto a traditional TV service, without addressing the fundamental issues causing so many consumers to ditch said services to begin with.
I got my first taste of the Hopper system—and its PrimeTime Anytime feature—at this year’s CES, and the presentation was enticing. If you haven’t read up on PrimeTime Anytime yet, here’s the simple scoop: enable the feature on your Dish Hopper system, and all four networks are recorded during primetime hours every night of the week, and stored for eight days. So if your coworkers are gabbing about some amazing new show that came on the night before, and you forgot to set your DVR, no worries. It’s there for you to watch, in full HD, on your TV, instead of hunched over your laptop or squinting at your iPad.
Granted, that first taste was intriguing, but it’s the sort of feature that raises all sorts of questions. First, does it work? Second, doesn’t that eat up a lot of DVR space? Third, what if I want certain shows saved for longer than eight days?
I’ve been living with the Hopper system at home for about a month now, and I can tell you: it works like a champ; it doesn’t eat up a bit of DVR space, because PrimeTime Anytime shows are stored on the cloud, from which you can either stream them or save them to your DVR for more permanent storage; and it doesn’t conflict in the slightest with network shows you set to record directly to your DVR.
Honestly, the last month I’ve tried my best to break the feature, coming up with all sorts of scenarios that don’t necessarily apply to the way I watch TV, but might come into play for some viewers. Since PrimeTime Anytime shows are recorded via one tuner (that’s right: all four major networks—ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC—are carried on just one of the Hopper’s three tuners), the first thing that came to mind is, well, what if I want to set dedicated recordings for three network shows at once? Three shows, three tuners—surely that would interfere the PrimeTime Anytime recordings? It doesn’t, though.
Three non-network shows, now? Yeah, that causes problems, but given Dish’s recent revelation that a full fifty percent of DVR activity amongst its subscribers is dedicated to the Big Four, I think the odds of that being a major issue in your household are slim.
Is it something you’ll actually use, though? I’ll be honest: when my Hopper system was initially installed, I turned on PrimeTime Anytime recording, thinking I would give it a thorough testing and then turn it off. A month later, though, and it’s still on, partly because—as I said—it’s not impeding upon my massive 1TB of DVR storage (the Hopper comes with a 2TB internal hard drive, 500GB of which were available for DVR space at launch, although a patch soon upped that to its current amount), and partly because, in my day-to-day, non-reviewing, television-watching life, I’ve found myself using it way more than I would have predicted—to check out shows I might never have recorded of my own volition, mostly at the recommendation of friends, days after they aired.
And yes, I know I could have done the same online, but not in the comfort of my comfy chair, on the big screen, with the big home theater sound system. And certainly not without those annoying un-skippable commercials that the networks force you to sit through online.
That’s another cool thing about PrimeTime Anytime. Just yesterday, Dish added a new feature to the system called “Auto Hop,” which you can enable on any PrimeTime Anytime recording (after 1am the morning after it airs), which completely skips commercial breaks. No, you don’t have to press a button (well, you do once, when the show starts). No, the commercials aren’t deleted, so at any time you can pause or fast-forward the show and the commercials return. And the neat thing about Auto Hop is that it errs on the side of caution. It’s designed to never, ever skip a bit of your show, although it might leave a very brief glimpse of the end of a commercial if it doesn’t nail the timing perfectly. That’s happened once for me. Every other commercial break has been neatly and discretely skipped, making watching this week’s episode of 30 Rock feel like watching the DVD.
As for the regular DVR built into the Hopper, I should also confess that I went in with trepidations, mostly because I’m a decade-long TiVo devotee, and the few DVRs I’ve been forced to use in those intervening years have only made me a bigger TiVo fan. I think the Hopper has kicked my TiVo habit, though. Yes, I do miss the little “puck” and “poguck” sounds. That’s about it, though. The Hopper DVR doesn’t mimic TiVo, but it does match it in terms of intuitiveness and—mostly—in features. One thing I really like about the Hopper DVR experience is that there are no navigational dead ends. Once you get the hang of the buttons, you can navigate between searching for shows, browsing ones you’ve recorded, PrimeTime Anytime recordings, and the like very easily.
Watching live TV (hey, it happens!) is also a neat experience on the Hopper for a number of reasons, but my favorite features are the Picture-in-Picture functionality (remember that?) and the ability to setup the Recall button on the remote for multi-channel recall. That is to say that it can either operate the way you would expect—press Recall and it takes you to the last channel you were viewing—or you can have it display the last four channels you watched at the bottom of the screen. As I understand it, that’s a handy feature for people who watch the sports. For me, though, it’s come in really handy during nasty storms, to hop between several channels displaying local radar and weather updates.
Speaking of weather! I have to admit, although I’ve long been unsatisfied with the two cable providers in my area, I’ve never given Dish any serious consideration, because I’ve heard the horror stories from friends who’ve left the service over outages when the sky so much as hints at rain. I asked my Dish installer about this, and he admitted, “As recently as a few years ago, yes, that was a problem. These days? If Dish goes out at my house, I’d better go ahead and get in the hallway. I lose my signal maybe once a year.” Anyone who’s losing reception during a regular rainstorm these days, he said, probably has a poorly positioned dish. Then he cocked his thumb at the house across the street and said, “I bet they lose their Dish signal when it gets breezy.” So I let him pick the ideal spot for reception at my casa, which ended up being on a pole in the front yard. “Most customers wouldn’t like this,” he said. I don’t mind it, though. I think it looks kinda groovy. It’s certainly no less attractive than the monstrous antenna on my roof.
So what’s the verdict on the reception? Well, we’ve had a handful of really nasty, siren-wailing, lightning-cracking, head-for-the-hallway storms since the system was installed, and it hasn’t flinched once. In fact, during one particularly nasty storm, I called colleague John Sciacca to brag on my reception (he got a Hopper system the weekend after I did), and during our call, lightning knocked out my phone and internet, both of which are still provided by my old cable company. But during it all, the Dish system had a crystal clear HD signal, with no blocking or dropouts.
Getting back to the hookup, if you’re not brand new to Dish, and are upgrading from a relatively recent system, there’s still going to be a bit of tinkering done on the outside of your house. Your dish is probably fine, and the coaxial line running into your main box may be okay, but the splitter box outside will have to be replaced with a new node to support the multiroom functionality of the Hopper and up to three Joey boxes. The Joeys communicate with the Hopper via coaxial backfeed, and access its three internal tuners directly. The Joey itself doesn’t have its own tuner. Mostly because it’s itty-bitty–about the size of a small cable modem or media streamer box, like the Apple TV. It also accesses the Hopper’s network connection through the coaxial line, so you don’t have to worry about running an Ethernet cable to (or installing a WiFi antenna in) every room.
While multiroom DVR has been around for a while (I’ve been using it for ages with my TiVos), I’ve never seen it work this well, this (nearly) instantly, this seamlessly. Not without racks of video matrices and sophisticated automation systems with robust multi-room capabilities, anyway. If I’m watching a show in the media room and want to pause it and pick it up in the bedroom, there’s no transferring to suffer through. I press Stop, go to the other room, and press Play. Or I can have the same program playing in both rooms (almost) simultaneously. There is about a second-and-a-half delay in the video stream, so if you’re playing both streams loudly, you’ll notice the slight lack of perfect sync, but that’s hardly a bother.
You’d expect this to lead to some serious tuner conflicts if you’re watching different content in different rooms, but a press-of-a-button on the Joey’s remote (and the Hopper’s, for that matter) brings up the tuner menu, which lets you see which tuners are in use and which are available. And if you’re watching the same tuner in two different rooms and decide to change channels on one, it doesn’t force you to finagle with the tuner menu—it simply and automatically switches to an available tuner and doesn’t bother you with the fact. Brilliant. Intuitive. Your grandma could figure it out. You’d seriously think that Apple designed the system if you didn’t know better.
My only real complaint at this point is that the system doesn’t include Netflix or—more importantly for me—Amazon Instant Video streaming. Blockbuster is built in, though, for which you get a three-month free trial, and there’s more video-on-demand content than I know what to do with (including 1080p and 3D movies!). Dish also stealthily added Pandora to the Hopper’s app library recently, so there’s some hope on my part that other video services on the way.
One has to wonder just how long Dish can keep up with the regular—and substantial—updates to the system, though. Like I said, in one month we’ve seen an increase from 500GB to 1TB for DVR storage, along with the addition of Pandora, and the completely-out-of-the-blue Auto Hop feature. Dish strongly hinted in yesterday’s press conference that Auto Hop is something that could easily be added to regular DVR recordings, but gave no indication that it would be. I wouldn’t be surprised, though.
I could go on and on digging through the features and functionality of the system, because there’s so much it does so well, but in the interest of writing something you’ll actually read, let me wrap up with a few additional points and call this review done (for now).
Given how robust the Hopper system is, how well it works, everything that it offers, I would honestly expect it to be economically out of reach for most customers. Turns out, all of this—and by all of this, I mean everything mentioned above, plus the Everything Package, which includes 315 channels, 30 of them premium movie channels; over 60 Sirius music channels; and my locals in HD—costs significantly less than what I was paying for cable TV alone, which gave me a mere 30 HD channels, and that was without Showtime and Cinemax. And the only thing my cable company has stealthily added to my service in a long, long time is additional fees. (Speaking of locals, if yours aren’t offering in HD yet via Dish, you should note that the Hopper doesn’t come with over-the-air capabilities out of the box. An adapter is on the way, Dish says, but I don’t think there’s any official word about whether or not PrimeTime Anytime will work with OTA.)
So, yeah—eleventy-gazillion more HD channels, a better, more reliable experience, the ability to record six shows at once, and functionality that you literally can’t get anywhere else, for significantly less money. It’s kind of a no-brainer. And to get pretty much the same channels I had with my cable company, the monthly bill with Dish (after signup incentives expired) would be about half the cost. And I’d still get all of the extra features Dish offers with the Hopper.
Throw in the optional Sling Adapter (a separate purchase, which hooks to one of the Hopper’s USB ports) and you have all of that amazing functionality and all of those amazing features pretty much anywhere you go via your smart phone or tablet. I didn’t get a Sling Adapter as part of my review system, but I’m definitely purchasing one for myself soon. I’ll keep you posted.
One final word and I’ll hush: in addition to the nightmare stories I’ve heard about weather outages (which turned out to definitely not be the case for me, even in the worst of storms), I’ve also read a lot of fuss about controlling Dish boxes with advanced remote systems. The remotes that come with the Hopper and Joey are RF (meaning they don’t require an IR line of sight to operate). There are handy IR inputs on the front of each, though, and I found it incredibly easy to program my URC MX-5000 to operate the system. Unlike so many DVRs I’ve tested, the Hopper responds quickly to an incoming IR blaster signal. I didn’t even have to turn the IR strength down the way I did with my TiVo and, at one point, a Moxi Box that lived with me for a while (which became so laggy in the presence of a direct IR blaster signal that I simply had to evict it).
Two points worth noting, though: if you’re stacking your Hopper and Joeys in a centralized rack, note that they all operate on the same IR signal, with no ability to change IR channels that I can find. So you’ll have to be careful when routing your IR if that’s the route you take. IP control also isn’t an option, unfortunately.
But the Hopper system works perfectly well with most of the buttons from the Dish 722. The only exceptions where the red, green, yellow, and blue buttons, which have some new functions that you’ll end up using quite a bit. A representative from URC tracked down the correct, updated Hex codes for those, which I’ll post at the end of the review for those of you who need them.
All said, I couldn’t be more surprised by how happy I am with the Dish Hopper system. I went in a skeptic on the verge of cutting the cord completely myself, and came out an evangelist. To call it the best DVR I’ve ever used would be the lump it into a category that it simply transcends. It combines all of the best features of every recording option I’ve ever used—including tweaky DIY computer-based options. It addresses all of the issues I’ve had with traditional TV service providers: the inconvenience, the draconian pricing, the inflexibility, the arrogant apathy of every telecom company I’ve ever dealt with. It also deals with all of the issues I have with online alternatives—the time restrictions, the forced commercials, the viewing limitations.
It almost seems like some mythical panacea.
Maybe Dish needs to come up with its own pithy alternative catchphrase—one for TV viewers who have “cut the cord,” and find the streaming experience lacking, as well. “Hopping back onboard,” maybe?
Hey, don’t look at me like that. I’m a long-winded journalist, not a snappy marketing guy.
And here are those Hex codes for the reg, green, yellow, and blue buttons for the Hopper, in case you need them. Codes for the Dish 922 or 722 should work for everything else.
0000 0048 0001 0011 0017 0162 0017 00A3 0017 0060 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 0060 0017 0060 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 0162
0000 0048 0001 0011 0017 0162 0017 0060 0017 0060 0017 00A3 0017 0060 0017 00A3 0017 0060 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 0162
0000 0048 0001 0011 0017 0162 0017 0060 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 0060 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 0162
0000 0048 0001 0011 0017 0162 0017 0060 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 0060 0017 0060 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 00A3 0017 0162