This has turned out to be one of the most difficult and time consuming reviews I’ve ever written. You wouldn’t think that would be the case, since I reviewed Dish Network’s original Hopper last year, and on the surface, the Hopper with Sling is just a revved up version with new features and more power. But an attempt at an exhaustive overview of all the improvements that Dish has made—and continues to make—to its Hopper ecosystem has nearly paralyzed me.
Why? Because Dish just keeps on adding. New features. New functionality. New bug fixes and tweaks and apps and app partners. Just when it think I have a handle on the Hopper with Sling and am ready to write a review, the company rolls out a new patch that has me scouring my checklists and notes and drafts yet again to make sure I’m being comprehensive enough to justify my time and yours.
In attempt to get the review done before Dish inevitably rolls out another update, I decided to abandon that approach and take more of a big-picture approach to the Hopper with Sling. If you haven’t read my review of the original Hopper, check it out now. The only addendum I would like to make to that original review is that I was wrong about once aspect of the system’s Prime Time Anytime feature: Dish doesn’t use the cloud for PTA storage. That was a misunderstanding on my part based on information I received at CES 2012. The original Hopper, and now the Hopper with Sling, gives you 1.23 total terabytes of recording space, roughly 230 GB of which is used for PTA storage, if you turn it on and opt to save a full eight days of recordings at a time. Turn PTA off, and you have the full 1.23 terabytes at your disposal.
At any rate, a terabyte (or 1.23 terabytes) of DVR storage is way more than any human being reasonably needs. Right now I have the entire last season of American Horror Story, True Blood, The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, and Brian Cox’s The Wonders of Life stored on my DVR, along with five episodes of The Dog Whisperer, the entire run of HBO’s John Adams, and nine random movies recorded from various premium channels, and I’m nowhere near running out of DVR storage space.
Of course, the same could be said for the original Hopper, as well. So, what has changed? Well, first and foremost—as its name implies—the Hopper with Sling features integrated Sling technology, so you no longer need an external Sling Adapter. This turns out to be way more than merely a space-saving convenience. For some reason, having the Sling technology built in, rather than connected via USB, means that it works so much better, with quicker access, less lag, and overall better performance, whether you’re connecting via Wi-Fi or 4G.
Perhaps that’s why Dish waited until the introduction of the Hopper with Sling to introduce its Dish Anywhere and Dish Explorer apps, the former of which allows you to remote access to your Hopper ecosystem, and the latter of which provides a rich second-screen experience for controlling your Hopper and finding new shows to watch. Both of those apps work with older models, though not quite as well. The new iPad app that is exclusive to the Hopper with Sling is Hopper Transfers, which allows you to move DVR’d recording to your tablet for offline viewing. This does require you to go into your Hopper with Sling’s DVR and prepare a recording for transfer, and since Dish respects Copy Once flags, it occasionally means that the transferred recording will disappear from your Hopper with Sling once transferred. But if you have a long flight or road trip ahead of you and you just can’t wait to watch the new episode of Breaking Bad, it’s an incredibly handy feature.
In addition to Hopper Transfers and integrated Sling technology, the biggest exclusive benefit of the Hopper with Sling is its faster processor and doubled RAM, which results in quicker interaction and a snappier interface overall. Having come from the world of cable DVRs, I never thought of the original Hopper as particularly sluggish, but the new UI interaction of the Hopper with Sling is indeed less laggy, with nigh-instantaneous response times. Press a button on the remote and its actions are pretty much instantly reflected onscreen. Granted, that applies to UI navigation of things like the program guide, setup menus, and DVR. The Hopper with Sling’s integrated apps, like Social and—my favorite—the Weather Channel app do at times take a few seconds to load, and if you’re using an app that appears alongside what you’re watching, it can take a few beats for the Hopper to resize your screen and populate the app. But that’s a minor annoyance.
All of that, though, sort of takes a backseat to the Dish service itself, in my opinion. Yes, the faster interface is a huge plus. Yes, I actually use the Sling service much more nowadays than I did when I had the USB adapter. Yes, the new apps and new functionality that Dish has added continue to impress me. But if the Dish service itself sucked, the benefits of these features would be moot. Having had Dish for nearly a year and a half now, though, I continue to be a little in awe of the service. Before getting Dish, I’d heard horror stories about dropped signals at the slightest hint of rain. In the past eighteen months or so, though, I’ve lost my service a grand total of four times, with the longest outage lasting about fifteen minutes. And three of those four times, tornadoes were on the ground nearby and I really should have been in the hallway anyway, not watching TV.
I’ve also had exactly one hardware problem during that time. The original Hopper with Sling to which I upgraded had some overheating issues that caused it to lock up and reboot every half-hour or so. After calling customer service I had a replacement in two days, and since transferring recordings between Hoppers is a snap with an external hard drive, I didn’t lose any of my recorded shows. A few of my hour-long shows recorded during that week did have some gaps about halfway through, but other than that, it was a pretty seamless transfer process.
Heck, in the move from Hopper to Hopper with Sling, I brought about ten hours of recordings with me via external hard drive. So, if not for the one faulty box, the upgrade would have been nearly hassle-free. (It should be noted that when upgrading from the Hopper to the Hopper with Sling, your Joeys aren’t replaced. Since these little auxiliary boxes lean on the Hopper for their processing, and mostly only stream directly from the main Hopper (or Hopper with Sling) via MoCA, they also benefit from the additional processing power and memory of the new box.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about the Hopper experience without talking about the controversy surrounding it. As popular as the Prime Time Anytime service and Dish’s Auto Hop—which allows you to fast-skip through the commercials in PTA recordings without having to hammer on the skip button—have been with consumers, they haven’t been as popular with content providers, and I have a feeling that consumers have only begun to be affected by that brouhaha. I recently lost my local NBC affiliate due to carrier fee disputes, which resulted from Raycom Media trying its best to charge Dish much, much more than other carriers for the same service. And there are two possible causes for that. It could be that Dish was merely first in line for carrier fee re-negotiation, and that when it comes time for DirecTV, Charter, BrightHouse, and other carriers to re-sign, they’ll all find themselves facing the same battle. Then again—and I’m just speculating here—Raycom could have very well been fighting a proxy battle for its broadcast networks.
The downside of this is that I lost NBC for a few weeks. The upside is that Dish stuck by its guns, and in the end got WSFA and other Raycom stations back without jacking customers’ fees. But due to its Auto Hop commercial-skipping technology, the Hopper with Sling is going to continue to be unpopular with broadcasters, and if they continue to lose in court against Dish, I think we Dish customers are going to be caught in more and more battles of this nature.
Is it worth it? I’d say so. Definitely so. Before I got Dish, I was on the verge of cutting cable completely. Despite the fact that it would have probably been more expensive for me to access all of my favorite shows online (or wait for the Blu-ray in the case of my favorite HBO offerings), I was sick of the constant cable outages, the constant rate hikes, the craptacular customer service.
Now that I have Dish, I can’t imagine living without it. And the old “hundreds of channels and nothing on” canard just doesn’t hold true anymore. At least not for me. Dish Explorer especially—but really the entire Hopper ecosystem—makes it easier than ever for me to find shows I want to watch. And as a result of that and the massive DVR storage space, I find myself watching more linear TV than ever before.
There have been a few hiccups along the way, but very few, and very minor. When I first moved from the Hopper to the Hopper with Sling, I was annoyed a bit that the new box didn’t seem to remember that I really only care about HD programming, the way my old Hopper did. That affected not only my channel guide (which kept defaulting to all channels instead of HD only), as well as the Weather Channel App (which would tune to the SD channel when I pressed the red button on my remote from within the app). That was fixed in a patch a few months later. And patches continue to roll out that refine and upgrade the user experience.
So, is the Hopper with Sling worth the upgrade if you’re already a Hopper customer? If you’re interested in transferring recordings to your iPad for offline viewing, I’d say it’s a no-brainer. If not, I’d still say that, yes, the faster navigation and superior Sling integration make it worth it. Granted, the Hopper with Sling isn’t quite as revolutionary as the original Hopper was. It’s more an evolution of an already excellent platform. But if Dish continues to evolve in this direction, I can’t wait to see what the future brings.