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Friday
Apr202012

Podcast #527: The Hopper by Dish

 Sometimes it’s OK to arrive fashionably late. It doesn’t always matter when you arrive to the party, what matters is what you bring with you when you get there. Dish Network has proven that waiting can pay off. Their recent entry into whole home DVR, the Hopper, brings some pretty cool features to the party.

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The Hopper by Dish

Sometimes it’s OK to arrive fashionably late. It doesn’t always matter when you arrive to the party, what matters is what you bring with you when you get there. Dish Network has proven that waiting can pay off. Their recent entry into whole home DVR, the Hopper, brings some pretty cool features to the party.

The System

The new whole home DVR system from Dish Network is comprised of a main DVR unit, called the Hopper, and additional playback units for other rooms called Joeys.  You can connect up to three Joeys to one Hopper, providing High Def viewing in 4 rooms.  If you need more, you can add another Hopper and three more Joeys with it.

Physically, the Hopper is a bit smaller than Dish’s other DVR units, like the ViP 722, but what’s inside is actually much, much bigger.  It has three high def tuners and is capable of recording up to six high definition programs simultaneously. Yes, all six are recorded in high definition. More on how that works later. To accommodate that capability, Dish has included a 2 TB drive that can store 2000 hours of programming, or 500 hours of HD programming (as of today’s update, it was 250 hours yesterday). It also has one eSATA and two USB ports to allow for more storage.

The Hopper isn’t just a Dish receiver, though. It supports DLNA, so it can stream your local music or movie collection without the need for another player in your home theater. Now that Dish owns Blockbuster, it also has a built in connection to Blockbuster@Home movies, so you can watch just about anything you want. New releases are available for rental like Vudu and many catalog titles are free, like Netflix. It even has a few Internet apps built right in.

The Joey is even smaller than the Hopper, a little smaller than a VHS cassette (remember those?), but it boasts all the same features, except for the tuners and hard drive of course. But using the Joey is no different than using the Hopper itself, you get direct access to the tuners and all recorded content. You can create recordings, delete recordings, see what others are watching on the other tuners, anything you want.

Installation and Setup

The Hopper and Joeys use MoCA to communicate and playback video over the existing coax lines in your house. To get the system installed, you need to connect a MoCA box where the satellite feed enters the house and use it to connect the Hopper and its Joeys. It takes each box about 15-20 minutes  and a reboot or two to get initialized and connected. If you ignore the time it takes for the guide to fully populate, it took about two hours for us to get a full system, Hopper and three Joeys, up and running. You’ll probably be working with an installer, so installations times can vary quite a bit.

In addition to the MoCA connection, if you want to access local content from your network, stream movies using Blockbuster @Home or take advantage of the built-in Internet apps, you need to connect the Hopper to your network and the Internet using one of the Ethernet ports in the back. It has two, but evidently the second one is for future functionality. Once connected, the Joeys can get to almost everything over the existing MoCA connection - everything except DLNA. To get that you have to connect the Ethernet port on the Joeys as well.

If you don’t have Ethernet available at all your Hopper and Joey locations Dish has a device called the Hopper Internet Connector (HIC) that can act as a bridge between your home network and the Hopper/Joey MoCA system. We don’t have one, but we’re trying to track one down. We’ll update the review when we’ve been able to play around with it.

Supposedly you can also use the HIC to bypass the MoCA connection entirely and stream live and recorded content to the Joey using just an Ethernet connection. This would add tremendously to the versatility of installation. If you want to run the Joey to a location that has Ethernet but no coax, you should be just fine. According to dish, this is an unsupported and untested feature. We’ll try to make it work when we get our hands on an HIC.

One of the early setup steps is pairing a remote with each box. The remotes use IR and ZigBee to communicate, so they have to be paired up. The front of each box has a Remote Locator button that you can use to find the remote should it fall behind the couch cushions or something. You can also use the remote as a Universal, using the actual onscreen UI to program it. The system has remote codes for just about any device you can imagine.

Using the System

The user interface on the Hopper is excellent. It is very easy to use and very snappy. Lag times we’re used to seeing with other DVRs for loading or scrolling through a guide, doing a search, or sometimes even just changing a channel, and greatly reduced on the Hopper. The interface is very intuitive. Anyone familiar with a DVR will have no problem navigating the Hopper. The Joey interface is exactly the same as the Hopper. Anything you can do on the Hopper, you can do on the Joey.

The search feature is pretty cool. It performs a live search as you type, narrowing down the results with each letter.  You don’t have to type in the whole title or description, hit enter and let it work for a few minutes to hopefully come back with something.  You’ll usually be able to see what you’re looking for within the first few characters. The search even includes content from Blockbuster@Home, so it’s easy to find movies from a wide variety of sources.

Recordings can be organized into folders so you can provide your own filtering to easily get to the shows you want, without wading through everyone else’s recorded content. The shows themselves are displayed in a layout similar to a movie server with cover art instead of a simple text based list of recordings. It makes the interface a little better to look at and you don’t really lose anything. 15 shows at a time are visible on screen at once, which is the same or more than you’d get from a list style display.

By far the best feature of the Hopper, the one that really sets it apart, is PrimeTime Anytime. Once enabled, the Hopper will use one of its three tuners to record all prime time programming from the big four networks, ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX in high definition. That leaves two tuners for live content or to record other shows on other networks - that’s how you can get the six shows at once. If you have two shows you record at the same time on two different networks, like Hawaii Five-0 on CBS and Castle on ABC, it still uses just one tuner.

How many times have you missed a pilot or premiere of a new show because you forget to set the DVR in time? With PrimeTime Anytime, you get it automatically. If you like it, you can add it to your list of shows to save on the DVR. If not, it will automatically be deleted in a few days along with the rest of the PrimeTime Anytime recordings you don’t care about. The recording themselves are segregated into their own DVR area so you don’t have to worry about them cluttering up what you actually want to record and save.

Blockbuster@Home is pretty cool as well. You get a whole library of movies available for rent, just like Vudu, built right into the DVR. The rentals cost a little more, up to $6.99 for 1080p. We didn’t pay for any rentals, but the selection of free titles was pretty good, so we sampled Thor and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, both in HD. We were impressed with the video quality, as good as anything we’ve seen other than Vudu HDX. Unfortunately the sound was only in stereo.

DLNA playback was a little more hit and miss. The Hopper and Joey didn’t always see all our DLNA servers, in fact sometimes they didn’t even see the same servers. When they did connect to a server, file playback wasn’t 100%. If a file format was supported, playback looked great, but there were a lot of files that we couldn’t play. Dish only claims support for MP4 and MKV containers, we didn’t have enough time to figure out exactly what codecs work within those containers. Based on what we were able to playback, though, once you determine what DLNA servers they like and what file formats they support, we’re confident you could build a pretty decent video server system using just the Hopper and Joeys as players.

Other bits and pieces

Because of the ZigBee support, programming the remotes is actually pretty cool. You pull up the correct option in the menu directly on your TV, then you tell the system what kind of TV, DVD player or third device, typically a receiver, you have and it programs the correct IR codes for you automatically. It’s even easier than programming a Harmony remote. Although it doesn’t have macro support, it will punch buttons like volume through to whatever device you tell it to control volume on (TV or Aux) regardless of which device you’re controlling on the remote. If you don’t have a universal in a secondary room, the included remote does pretty much everything you need.

Along the lines of Universal remotes, the IR codes are mostly the same between the Hopper and the older Dish DVRs, so your universal remote will be pretty close to fully functional without any modifications. They did add a few buttons on the new remote, so it makes sense to update your universal, but right out of the box you’ll probably be able to do most of what you need without having to reprogram.

Each Joey comes with a bracket and screws for mounting it to the wall.  Because of the ZigBee support, you can mount it behind a flat panel and not worry at all about line of sight for the IR commands.   In secondary rooms that may not have surround sound or a Blu-ray player, you can get access to just about any content you're interested in with just a simple Joey mounted behind your plasma or LCD TV.

You can also connect a Sling Adapter to the Hopper to add built-in Slingbox technology. It allows you to control the DVR and stream content natively, without having to hijack video outputs or proxy IR commands. What’s more, the Dish app for remote playback on a smartphone or tablet is free, unlike the somewhat high cost you pay for the standard Slingbox app.

When we first wrote up the review on the system, we were going to tell you that the Internet apps were as pointless as any other Internet apps.  Of course they don’t have the ones you really want, like Netflix and Vudu because of Blockbuster@Home.  And beyond that, there really wasn’t anything in there that mattered...until today. Dish sent out a press release about the availability of Pandora playback. We got the update on our Hopper and it works really well. The update won’t be available for the Joey until June-ish.

The update also expanded the storage space reserved for user recorded content from 500 GB to 1 TB

Conclusion

The whole home DVR space is getting a bit crowded, but Dish has found a way to crash the party and not look like an also-ran. The addition of PrimeTime Anytime really sets it apart. That’s an idea we’re sure others will try to copy, if Dish doesn’t have it protected in some way. The inclusion of Blockbuster@Home, especially the integration into the search functionality, also eliminates the need for more apps like Netflix, Vudu, Amazon or iTunes. Dish has found a way to breathe new life into the party, and we’re diggin’ it.


 

 

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Reader Comments (6)

Great overview. Thanks a lot!

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

Love the podcast guys! I was actually chosen as a beta-tester from a pool of Dish employees and got to have a Hopper set up at home for a number of weeks before it was released, and I have to say, bedsides the MASSIVE amount of recording time this thing has, the availability of Pandora now has got to be my favorite feature. I’ve been a Pandora user for years, and I’ve never really had a viable way of wiring my whole house for sound like this. Once the patch for the Joeys comes through, I’ll be set. Can’t wait, and again, great podcast!

April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElias

Quick question about saving shows from the PrimeTime Anytime pool. Can I select a bunch of shows at once to move over to the saved pool, or do I have to select one wait for the file to move to another partition and then repeat?

It sure would be nice if you could flag specific shows to always get automatically moved over to the saved pool.

Great show this week!
-Scott Baker

April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott Baker

Is it just me or the itunes version is nothing but silence!!!

April 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

You guys were talking about finding interesting blu-rays to review... Take a look at Monty Python & the Holy Grail, which came out last month. They did a really nice job on it - according to Sony, it was re-mastered for this release. I've seen the movie at least 30 times on old VHS and DVDs which were muddled, fuzzy with brown skies. For this blu-ray, they clearly spent a lot of time working on it: it was as if I was seeing it for the first time, with bright colors, with textures and details I'd never seen before. It also comes with a lot of extras, some new for the first time. And the price is right to boot.

Ni!

April 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Why don’t CBS, FOX, and NBC exec want consumers to enjoy commercial-free TV? It’s what we want! I’m a customer and employee of Dish, and I think AutoHop is great because you can easily watch commercial-free TV. A well known consumer advocacy group, Public Knowledge, agrees that people should have the right to control how they watch TV. They’re taking a stand for consumers by creating a petition that tells CBS, FOX, and NBC media to keep their hands out of your living room and DVR. Sign their petition to keep control of how you watch TV http://bit.ly/KFdn1Q

June 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercici

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