Note: this post was edited on June 4, to correct the Hopper’s capacity from 250 to 500 HD recording hours, and to clarify that 1 TB of its capacity is reserved for Prime Time Anytime. Revised June 13 to clarify how Prime Time Anytime recordings are presented to the user and add a screen-shot.

Earlier this spring, DISH Network introduced its Hopper whole-home DVR. In this article, I provide both the perspectives of a user and of an industry analyst.

First, a quick summary. The Hopper is a three-tuner satellite TV receiver that receives and distributes DISH Network’s pay TV and Blockbuster Video content to as many as four HD TV sets (one connected to the Hopper itself plus up to three Joey client set-top boxes). A 2 terabyte hard drive stores up to 500 hours of HD or 1,000 hours of standard definition content. Two Hoppers can be installed in a single home, to support up to four Joeys – and therefore, a total of six TVs. The setup distributes video over MoCA over coax and supports the DLNA framework, so users can set up a networked computer as a DLNA server to view home media content on TV. The Hopper also supports 3D programming, a range of TV apps, plays Sirius XM radio programming, has a nifty ‘remote finder’ feature, and can pre-cache selected Blockbuster on-demand titles.

Prime Time Anytime (the good and the controversial)

Arguably, the Hopper’s most valuable feature is Prime Time Anytime. When enabled by the user, the feature automatically records the programming of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox so it is available to the user for up to 8 days (FIFO). These four ‘channels’ are delivered as a single MPEG-4 HD stream, to one tuner – so even though the Hopper has three tuners, it can record 6 HD program streams simultaneously. These recordings are stored in a partition of the Hopper’s 2TB hard drive that’s reserved for Prime Time Anytime, so there is no impact on the amount of space available for subscriber-initiated DVR recordings.

DISH Prime Time Anytime recordings UI
DISH Network Prime Time Anytime user interface

The user selects Primetime Anytime from the Hopper main menu, and the ‘DVR recordings’ user interface appears. Users can then select the ‘icon’ or ’tile’ for that TV show to see past programming within the eight day window.

But Prime Time Anytime has gotten DISH in a lot of hot water with TV programmers and advertisers. It’s “Auto Hop” feature can be enabled by the user to automatically skip the commercials within recorded “Big Four” network programming that’s more than one day old; resurrecting the entire decade-old discussion of ad-skipping.

I’m of two minds about this. Let’s put it into perspective. On one hand, the outcry from the TV programmers is understandable: ad-skipping disrupts their business model. TV programmers lived on advertising revenue alone until relatively recently, when some began to charge for the programming itself. But on the other hand, this horse has long been out of the barn. Shame that they didn’t use the legal system to to quash the DVR fast-forward feature back in the days of the dinosaurs, when DVR (“PVR”!) was new and they had the opportunity.

Also, at a macro level, the TV industry already has some well-established work-arounds. Although Web-delivered TV has been seen as a threat by just about everyone in the TV industry at one time or another, it’s also an opportunity. Ask Hulu, which, after all, is a JV of three of the four networks, and carries the programming of the fourth one. Hulu Plus has proven that consumers are willing to pay for a service without (well, with fewer) ads. Also, the interactive TV features, enabled by today’s IP delivery and modern TV middleware, enable a ‘clickable’ user experience, which – because it’s ‘opt-in’ (the user clicks the link because he/she wants to) – is less of an annoyance than having to sit through linear advertising. But I digress.

The analyst perspective

I look at the Hopper/Joey as a solution of transition, for three reasons:

    • First, the Hopper uses Broadcom’s BCM7420 processor and not the BCM7425, which has Sling capability built in. This means that the Slingbox capability has to be added via an external Sling Adapter (a DISH-branded Slingbox). Unlike the DISH ViP922, DISH chose not to build the Sling electronics into the Hopper.

 

    • Second, the Hopper is not a true video gateway. It doesn’t transcode video into formats that can be delivered over IP to a tablet, game console, PC or smartphone in the home; as is the case for gateway solutions coming this year from several DISH competitors. DISH will counter-argue that the Hopper doesn’t need to be a full-blown video gateway because it enables distribution to non-set-top devices – inside or outside my home – through Sling, and that’s a valid point. In my opinion, Sling is better than competing “TV Everywhere” solutions because users can access all of their subscribed programming and DVR’ed content, and not just what the content providers give access to.

 

  • Third, DISH chose to leave Google TV technology out. Say what you will about Google TV, but all future set-tops will be Internet-enabled. DISH did a pretty good (95% there) job of integrating Google TV with its ViP722 receiver, and the combo remains available. I still have a Logitech Revue, so I can toggle my TV to the Internet, but it isn’t the same as being able to search for something, and get the EPG, DVR recordings, and the Web in one search result. I miss the convenience.

Although Sling’s client device coverage, is impressive, Sling falls slightly short by not supporting game consoles (thereby missing a sizeable demographic that Pay TV providers can’t afford to ignore). There also are no Sling clients for Internet-connected “smart” TVs.

The Hopper’s lack of Google TV is justifiable for technical and cost reasons. Google TV runs on Intel and ARM processor architectures, but the Hopper’s Broadcom BCM7420 is MIPS-based. Therefore, adding Google TV would have involved a co-processor, which would have made the Hopper far more expensive.

The user perspective

This article started out as a user perspective on the Hopper and Joey, so I’d better say something about that. We’ve had it in our home for a month now. We really like it. The combo uses less power than old DISH CPE, and it doesn’t have a phalanx of blinky status lights or noisy fans that can keep you up at night. Also, the user experience is well thought out, convenient to use, and the non-techies in our household took to it fairly quickly.

In my case, the installation was expensive to DISH because the Hopper replaced my existing ViP722 and ViP922 set-top boxes. Also, although wiring was already in place for these old set-tops, DISH’s installation procedures apparently required the installer to run new coax cabling between the Hopper and the Joey. Even though the new wiring is the same 75 ohm RG6 conductor as the old, the new set-tops use MoCA, so wiring has to be rated for 3ghz.

The other reason for new wiring was to connect the Hopper to our home broadband router, because the Hopper/Joey do not use powerline networking as the 722 and 922 did. The broadband connection is used by DISH to download TV metadata, Blockbuster content and the TV apps that are part of the overall DISH experience.

Bottom line

For the mainstream new user that DISH has targeted, the Hopper and Joey are a great solution. It works well, uses proven technology, and is convenient as all heck. Because it lacks Sling, transcoding, and Google TV, it’s not for the TV geek set – and the DISH officials I spoke with were the first to admit this. We TV geeks will have to be satisfied with next-generation solutions which do have such users in mind, and DISH has an enticing technology portfolio at its disposal.