Dish Network Hopper
By Will Greenwald, Analyst, Consumer Electronics
Editor Rating - 4 1/2 out of 5 stars
Pros - Inexpensive. Well-designed interface. Three tuners. Tons of storage.
Cons - Lacks Netflix, Hulu Plus, or YouTube streaming.
Bottom Line - Dish Network's Hopper (along with the accompanying Joey) is the best whole-home DVR and cable/satellite tuner experience we've seen yet.
Whole-home DVR is a great idea. Instead of having a full-blown digital video recorder installed with every HDTV in the house, use a single storage device that can hold all the recordings, and use terminal devices to access them on different TVs. The Dish Network Hopper is the best implementation of this idea we've seen yet. It's a three-tuner HD satellite receiver that can support up to three Joeys (4.5 stars), which are smaller devices that can access the Hopper's tuners and DVR storage from other rooms via a coaxial connection. Reasonable pricing, copious features including 2TB of storage space, and a well-designed interface put the Hopper head and shoulders above the TiVo Premiere Elite ($399.99, 2.5 stars), and make it our Editors' Choice for DVRs.
About pricing: The Hopper is available at no cost as part of Dish Network's mid-tier programming packages, and subscribers who want a lower-end programming package can get the Hopper installed for $99. Each installation can include up to three free Joeys for a multi-room setup. Dish charges $10 per month for whole-home DVR with the Hopper, and an additional $7 per month for each Joey connected to a TV.
Design and Interface
Considering it packs three tuners and 2TB of storage space, the Hopper looks downright tiny. At 2.3 by 15.9 by 11.4 inches (HWD), it's barely larger than your average Blu-ray player and half the size of the Dish Network ViP722 (4.5 stars) while offering twice the storage and a much lower price. The front is a glossy black, with a flip-down door on the left side that houses controls including a navigation pad and a very handy Locate Remote button that makes the remote beep so you can find it easily. There's a USB port and the Blockbuster logo, denoting the availability of Blockbuster's video on demand service, on the right side of the front panel. The back of the Hopper holds the cable input, an HDMI output, two additional USB ports for storage, and an eSATA port for external hard drives.
The remote is large, slightly round, and heavy on the buttons. While most navigation can be achieved with the direction pad up top, individual buttons for searching for shows, loading the guide, accessing the DVR, recording shows, and navigating up and down pages can be found on the remote. You'll have to endure a learning curve to remember which of the same-feeling buttons do what.
The menu system is well-designed and clearly labeled. The main menu offers access to Blockbuster Video on Demand, Dish Network video on demand, PrimeTime Anytime (a service that makes three hours of prime time ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC programming available on demand for eight days), and other features like Facebook, CNBC, MSNBC, Pandora, Twitter, the Weather Channel. Since it's primarily a satellite receiver, you'll spend most of your time in the familiar channel guide and DVR menus, but the many options are useful. Unfortunately, those options don't include services like Netflix or Hulu Plus, or even YouTube. Blockbuster's video on demand service, PrimeTime Anytime, and the various apps on the Hopper require a separate network hookup via Ethernet, but Dish's own library and channel guide work through the satellite connection.
Testing and Conclusions
Admittedly, with three tuners and 2TB of storage, you can record about 500 hours of high-definition programming or 1,000 hours of standard definition programming on the 1TB user partition (the other half of the drive is used to store PrimeTime Anytime recordings, video-on-demand content, and Dish Unplugged content), so you probably won't miss Netflix and Hulu Plus that much. After a week of recording, you'd have nearly a month of shows and movies to catch up on. In testing, setting up multiple series recordings was easy, and I set the Hopper to capture every episode of Fringe, Adventure Time, and several other shows in minutes. The dedicated Search and Record buttons made finding my favorite programs a snap, since I didn't have to navigate the hundreds of channels and days of time slots in the channel guide to find what I wanted to record.
I have to note that only two tuners were functional in our test Hopper because of the location of our lab in New York City. A building blocked the dish's line to a third satellite, preventing the tuner from working. The two tuners functioned as described, and this is a problem that will only likely pop up in heavily developed and dense urban areas.
Juggling three tuners (or, in this case, two) can be tricky when you're recording multiple shows. The red button on the remote brings up a list of tuners and the devices using them, so you can quickly switch between active tuners without interrupting DVR recordings. The interface is still a little awkward when you want to see exactly what's using each tuner (especially since, if you have three Joeys, at least one Joey must be tuned to an active tuner used by another device to watch live TV), but the pop-up list is helpful.
The Hopper can work with the Dish Network Sling Adapter to place-shift live TV and DVR recordings to any networked computer or tablet. The adapter is just $30, so it's an affordable add-on to watch your TV anywhere. This technology is different from the connection between the Hopper and Joeys, because it uses an Internet connection instead of the cable hookup to the satellite dish to stream content.
TiVo's DVRs like the Premiere ($299.99, 3.5 stars) and Premiere Elite, offer some advantages the Dish Network Hopper lacks, but also have their share of flaws. The TiVo Premiere and Premiere Elite support Netflix and Hulu Plus, offers up suggestions based on your TV-watching habits, and can be remotely controlled by the TiVo app for Android and iOS. On the other hand, you need to pay for each TiVo box along with a monthly TiVo subscription, and you need an active digital cable account with a CableCARD for each box. Also, with TiVo, multi-room DVR requires a wired network connection or a $90 Wi-Fi dongle for each additional box. All things considered, the Dish Network Hopper offers a much less expensive and much more convenient experience. Dish's own ViP722 doesn't fare much better, because it offers a quarter of the storage of the Hopper or Premiere Elite, and it only supports two rooms (and only standard-definition video for the second room).
Overall, the Hopper is one of the best DVRs we've ever seen. It only has three tuners to the TiVo Elite's four and it doesn't suggest and automatically populate your DVR schedule based on your watching habits, but its price, clean design, and easy support for multi-room DVR make it a must-have for Dish Network subscribers.