The Hopper is a glimpse into TV's future, but it has more work to do.
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The Hopper is a peek into the future of TV viewing. Why? Because what cable companies refer to as "primetime" simply isn't "prime" for everyone. Watching TV these days has become a real chore:
Imagine my surprise when we received the Dish Hopper, which solves all of these problems. No longer do I have to stay up past my bedtime in order to watch the latest episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, nor do I need to sit in front of my TV to view it. I didn't even know I wanted to watch this show until I saw it on the Hopper's automatic primetime recording app.
So what exactly does the Hopper do that's so darn incredible? It's a set-top box for Dish subscribers which acts as a DVR. Further, your recorded shows are viewable on paired smartphones, tablets, or computers, thanks to the same technology used by Slingbox. Even live TV can be viewed remotely. Hate commercials? The Hopper skips them (sometimes).
Sound crazy? It is, but the technology isn't as complex as you might think.
The Hopper is first and foremost a DVR (digital video recorder)—a monster of a DVR, actually. The device packs a whopping 2TB of storage, which equates to about 2,000 hours of recorded content. Not bad, right?
The unit itself looks like your typical cable box, only it harnesses the power of a satellite dish. The backside contains a number of ports, including your standard HDMI and composite outputs, two ethernet jacks, two USB ports, a digital audio output, and an eSATA port—useful for connecting an external hard drive in case you want more storage space for shows.
But wait, there's more. It wouldn't be fair to only talk about the Hopper unit. If you want the same services for a second TV in your house, you need a Joey, which is like a mini Hopper. The Joey needs a coax cable running from the satellite dish itself to function, so you'll need a professional to install it for you. Once installed, though, this baby Hopper functions like the actual unit. You can view the same recordings and watch live TV with the same interface as the Hopper.
And how is that interface? Like any smart TV platform—or operating system—there are ups and downs. Dish's TV guide is standard fare: TV channel on the left, listed programs on the right. If you're familiar with how a TV guide looks on a cable box, you know what to expect here.
The Hopper's DVR menu is a real treat, though. Recorded shows have their own unique icon, while selecting the show will give you even more details: episode name, episode number, and a brief description. This is how on-demand TV is done.
I wish navigation were easier, though. Dish's interface is fine, but the bulky remote that comes with the Hopper is a pain to use. It looks like any other unimaginative remote on first glance, but its button placement quickly becomes an annoyance. Confusing colored buttons are used for selecting submenus, not to mention the TV guide button—one of the most useful—has barely any real estate. Worse, the On Demand button is located at the bottom, as if Dish doesn't want you to press it. Come on!
There are multiple ways to record content on the Hopper. Using Dish's TV guide, you can simply select a program and press the record button on the remote. And once you have an online profile with Dish, you can setup recordings via your computer as well. Just click on a program you want to record, click the "record" option, and voila—all done. The process is similar and just as easy on your phone or tablet.
After impressive storage capacity, the Hopper's other major selling points are its PrimeTime Anytime recording app and its AutoHop commercial-skipping feature.
The PrimeTime Anytime feature automatically records shows on the four major networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—from 8PM to 11PM. Since the Hopper allows for six channels to be recorded simultaneously, that leaves you with two extras of your choice. If you want, this option can be tweaked or completely disabled. You can set up PrimeTime Anytime to record just Fox and NBC, or nothing at all. It's a pleasant surprise to open your DVR menu the next day and see tons of primetime shows ready to view on your time. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that this is the future of televised content. Just ask Netflix.
AutoHop only works when primetime shows are recorded, which isn't great if you're a fan of day-time television. But for recorded primetime shows, this incredibly convenient feature eliminates most commercials. Selecting a recorded primetime show will give you the option to skip commercials, and if you're a sane person, you'll select it. I typically saw a few seconds of commercials once the AutoHop feature kicked in, which is way better than the alternative of two minutes.
The Hopper's other standout feature—streaming—is a simple affair. After installing the necessary software on your computer—Dish's site will download it for you—relax and enjoy your favorite show. But how does all this work?
When the Hopper records a program, it digitizes the signal into a file that can be streamed to another device. The website that streams your recordings, or else the Hopper's smartphone app, sends a request to the actual device. In other words, your laptop or phone asks for permission to view your recorded content. Once this request is received, your stream will start.
The smartphone and tablet experience is quite enjoyable. Kudos to Dish for offering a free streaming app; Slingbox, which licenses this tech to Dish, charges $14.99.
Whether using a laptop or smart device, the whole streaming process isn't instant. This is apparent when watching live TV via the Hopper. Changing channels causes a noticeable delay as the Hopper receives information and then sends the digitized TV signal to your device. This isn't exactly a deal-breaker, since watching live TV on a device that isn't a television is pretty awesome—just don't expect seamless streaming.
Another caveat: The AutoHop commercial-skipping feature isn't possible when streaming. Yes, even if you're watching a fully-recorded primetime show, you have to either fast-forward through commercials or just endure them. Total first world problem.
Is the Hopper worth your time? That depends on what kind of TV viewer you are. The actual picture quality on satellite is inferior to cable. I noticed blotchy and grainy images sometimes, which is a rarity on cable. In other words, videophiles will probably detest this.
If you're into function over form, though, the Hopper is incredible. With the ability to record six channels simultaneously, skip commercials, and stream to your favorite device, this DVR offers brilliant performance.
If you still aren't sure whether the Hopper is for you, consider pricing. Basic Dish service costs about $30 per month (for the first 12 months), with a $12 per month DVR fee. If you have another TV, that's another $7 per month for a Joey. The total is about $49 per month for the first year, which hops to $69 per month after that.
The Hopper isn't cheap, but for live-TV lovers with tricky primetime schedules, Dish's kangaroo-themed DVR is a surefire success.