Is That a Hopper In Your Pocket, or Are You Just Happy to Watch TV?
At CES 2013, DISH’s CEO, Joe Clayton, used the occasion to once again display his insatiable infatuation with Australian marsupials…as well as promote some key features included in the soon-to-be-released “Hopper with Sling” whole-home DVR. Surprisingly, after less than 12 months, DISH felt it was time to futz with what was arguably (and I’m not the only one to have made the argument) the world’s best whole-home satellite DVR available until now—the original “Hopper”.
What, has DISH run out of things for the guys in Boston to talk about in the TV commercials for the “Hoppah”? Do the pending legal battles with the major broadcast networks over DISH’s AutoHop (an absolutely addictive feature that automatically skips commercials on PrimeTime Anytime DVR recordings) not provide enough things for DISH management to worry about?
Behind all the hopping and hooplahing, what DISH has done to make the “Hopper” the “Hopper with Sling” is to take the original DVR, beef up the onboard RAM, and slip in a faster CPU and processor. In order to eliminate the need for an optional USB Wi-Fi dongle (if the customer didn’t want to or couldn’t use the Hopper’s wired Ethernet connection), DISH found a bit of space for a Wi-Fi card inside the new Hopper with Sling’s chassis. But the most notable update—the reason why the new model is called the “Hopper with Sling”—is the integration of Sling technology into the DVR itself. From a cosmetic standpoint, you could easily mistake the Hopper with Sling for a plain old Hopper unless you happen to notice the small “with Sling” nomenclature tucked below the Hopper logo on the front panel.
I did one of the early reviews of DISH’s first generation Hopper and Joey whole-home satellite DVR system, and DISH included one of the company’s red aluminum heat sink-like Slingbox gizmos that plugged into a USB port on the back of the Hopper with the original review system. (A Slingbox, if you’re not familiar with it, is a device that allows you to stream live or stored digital content from your TV/home theater system to laptops or other portable media devices anywhere you have an Internet connection. Although DISH owns Sling Media, standalone Slingboxes are manufacturer- and broadcaster-agnostic. Likewise for the SlingPlayer mobile apps, which are available in iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Kindle versions.)
So, built-in Wi-Fi and Sling integration in this 2nd-generation Hopper is nice; but, really, that’s what has everyone at DISH hopping up and down? I don’t think so. By itself, that collection of upgrades wouldn’t merit much more than a cursory glance at the press release before moving on to more exciting news from some other company. It’s what DISH has virtually done to the Hopper with Sling that makes it exceptionally compelling.
To begin with, there’s DISH’s new free mobile-device app (for iOS and Android) called “DISH Anywhere”. In essence, the newfangled app is the remotest of remote controls for the Hopper with Sling (and the original Hopper combined with an external Slingbox). DISH Anywhere lets you access your Hopper and stream recordings—or even live TV—to your mobile device wherever you are (as long as your device and the Hopper have an active internet connection). You can delete recordings, schedule new timers, and modify existing timers. You can also bypass the DVR and stream on-demand movies directly from DISH’s servers to your smartphone or tablet. Think of it as having a tiny Hopper in your pocket that you can play with whenever you’re lonely or bored. If your smartphone’s screen leaves you craving a bigger picture, you can access your Sling-enabled DVRs from a laptop or desktop via dishanywhere.com.
Since I already had a Sling adapter with my original Hopper, I’ve been able to use the DISH Anywhere app on both my iPhone and my iPad since the app first came out. On the whole, I think it’s a terrific concept and an excellent app (and web portal). I’m not sure which function I like more: the ability to program timers from my phone or watch recorded shows on my iPad because both features are extremely nice to have. Beware, though, because—not surprisingly—the quality of your internet connection(s) will greatly affect picture quality, the responsiveness of the transport controls, and overall access time. Remember, whether you’re watching live TV or a recorded TV show, it’s being streamed directly from the Hopper in your home. So your home’s internet uplink connection performance will enter into the equation just as your mobile devices’ connections (4G, 3G, public Wi-Fi, etc.) will.
In my case, I live on the ragged technological edge of civilization, so my only option for high-speed internet access is via satellite. (In fact, DISH installed one of the company’s dishNET satellite internet systems for evaluation and—more importantly— to provide me the capability of putting the Hopper’s internet-related services to the test.) Thanks in large part to the extra-long distances data must travel, satellite internet connections suffer from inherently high latency issues. My round-trip latency times range between 700ms and 900ms. In comparison, the average time for a normal person’s connection in the US is close to 50ms.
I bring this up because I attribute the bulk of the glitches I’ve had when using DISH Anywhere (variable picture quality, dropped connections, slow transport control reaction times, and inability to access the Hopper) to the vagaries of satellite internet. I’ve spoken with other Hopper owners who tell me they rarely experience these types of problems. So, as they say, your results may vary.
Of course, DISH Anywhere works the same with the Hopper as it does with the new model. But here’s where things get really exciting with the Hopper with Sling model. If you have an iPad, DISH’s “Hopper Transfers” app (also free) turns the Hopper with Sling into a giant refueling tanker full of movies and TV shows that can be used to top-off your iPad’s internal storage for entertainment on the go. Since the content is stored locally on the iPad, it can be viewed anywhere—even if you don’t have an internet connection, such as when you’re on a road trip with the kids in the back seat, or you’re staying at a hotel and don’t want to pay the exorbitant internet access fees just to watch an episode of “Dance Moms”.
The Hopper Transfers app is absolutely fantastic and is reason enough alone to buy an iPad if you don’t already have one. Here’s how it works. First of all, the iPad and Hopper with Sling have to be on the same home network. Although the iPad will obviously connect wirelessly, the Hopper with Sling can use the built-in Wi-Fi or a standard Ethernet connection to your router. The app will allow you to access the recordings on any of the Hopper with Slings in your system and choose which ones you want to transfer. (Some recordings, such as pay-per-view movies, can’t be transferred. That’s a buzz kill…) Once you’ve made your selections, the Hopper with Sling “prepares” them for transfer, a process that definitely takes a while. You can save some time by checking the “prepare for transfer” option when you initially set up a timer to record.
The actual transfer itself takes some time, too. I don’t know if DISH has an official spec, by in my system (in which both iPad and Hopper with Sling connect to the network wirelessly) it takes around 18 minutes to transfer a GB of video. Once transferred, it’s there on your iPad forever, ready to be watched anytime you feel the urge… Well, not exactly. You’re only allowed to watch a transferred selection once before it disappears in a puff of smoke. (Or however things disappear inside an iPad.)
Unlike my latency-plagued experience with DISH Anywhere, I found the Hopper Transfers app to work flawlessly. It was as if I were holding my home theater in my hands—except for the sound, of course. And the size of the screen. And the lighting… Oh, you know what I mean.
I didn’t really think they could do it, but it turns out that DISH has found a way to make the Hopper even better. However, until DISH brings out an Android OS version of the Hopper Transfers app (and there’s been no announcement when, or if, it will happen), there’s not much of a reason for someone who already has the original Hopper with an external Sling adapter but doesn’t own an iPad to make the switch to the new Hopper with Sling. For iPad owners, on the other hand, if anything truly deserves the term “killer app”, Hopper Transfers is it.
Now I understand what all the hopla—I mean, hoopla—was all about.