September 2012

They call them what?

DISCThe DISH installation team arrived at my house for what should have been a quick setup. I already had 75-ohm cable throughout the house, left over from the days of antenna TV. I don’t ever have old wires pulled out -- you never know when you might need them again. I also had good-quality HDMI cables reaching from the current DISH 722 to all our TVs. The DISH dish was already installed, bolted down, and aimed. All they had to do was swap out a set-top box and be on their way, right?

Wrong. The Hopper-Joey is a completely new system -- a rethink in every way -- and mine was one of the first installed. It was also the first for this installation team, and they were scratching their heads trying to figure out how it worked. "So you get a Hopper and three Joeys," the very professional lead installer explained.

"Why do they call them Hopper and Joey?" I asked. "It’s silly. It sounds like someone was infatuated with kangaroos and wallabies. Can’t imagine what it’s got to do with DISH."

The install guys shook their heads and stared at the floor. Did they already know? Were they playing dumb? Or were they, like me, still in the dark?

It was strange to use these things for six weeks, wondering all the time who the hell had named them, and why. And then DISH announced it: The Hopper would hop right through your commercials, leaving you free from having to push the 30-second-forward button four to eight times to get to the next segment of the show. The name made sense. Shout hallelujah! We couldn’t wait to try it.


It works perfectly. When you enter a show you want to watch, the Hopper or Joey politely asks if you’d like to watch the advertisements. Hmm. I think the answer just might be "No." Push Start, and every time a commercial shows up, you get about a half second of it, then you’re back to the show. It’s an amazing feat that borders on magic. But autohopping has two limitations. Most important, it doesn’t work on the same day the program comes on -- you have to wait till 1 a.m. the next morning. Sadly, that means that those of us who like to watch sports are still doomed to ads. Second, it works only with network television, which DISH defines as ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. No PBS, ESPN, HGTV, etc.

The mystery of the name now solved, and lest I get ahead of myself . . .


It turned out that DISH needed the 75-ohm cable and I needed the HDMI cables, so I was lucky to have both. We didn’t figure out the value of the HDMI cables until two months later, by which time we’d almost had the installers remove them. For us, at least, they turned out to be quite important. I should tell you that I’m a refugee from both cable and DirecTV. I even had OnTV. But for the last four years I’ve been a stalwart for DISH. My DISH receivers haven’t broken down as often, most problems require only a reboot, and I’ve had very good luck with DISH’s customer service. I was spring-loaded to give the Hopper-Joey a try.

Unlike the old 722, the new system comprises multiple boxes. Each Hopper can control up to three Joeys, so if you have more than four TVs, you need a second Hopper. If you have more than eight TVs, you should sell your home, buy a nice stereo, and move to the country. The Joey is small -- a little bigger than a paperback book. The Hopper is the bigger box, yet it’s still smaller and more attractive than the 722. One of the most important changes is the Hopper’s internal 2TB hard drive -- the 722 had only a 500GB drive. The 2TB drive is so capacious, I’d guess most households won’t ever need an external drive. But those of you who catalog enormous numbers of films now have the option of using an eSATA drive, which will speed up transfers considerably, or a slower but easier-to-find USB drive. There are also luddite RCA plugs on the back, along with one HDMI (c’mon, we should get two or three), two USB, two Ethernet, and an optical digital audio-output. Thankfully, there’s no friggin’ POS wall wart, but why can’t we have a detachable power cord? It would allow for much more relaxed installation, and especially ease compliance with the DISH customer-support line’s seemingly automatic request that you unplug the system for ten seconds.

The Joey -- which does have a friggin’ POS wall wart -- is either attached to the back of a TV or placed on a shelf. It needs a coaxial feed from the Hopper, so be aware of the fact that your installers will be running coax wires. Of course, the beauty of this design (thank yous to the engineers) is that if you’ve been using cable TV, you’re already wired.

Each Hopper and Joey has its own remote control. They don’t work on each other. The only way you can tell which is which is with a paper label stuck to the bottom of the remote. Ours are already peeling off. You’ll have to do something more permanent to keep track of which Joey is which, because if you have a complex system, especially one with multiple Hoppers, you could drive yourself crazy sorting them out. It’s awfully easy to carry a remote from one room to another.

The remotes will look very familiar to current DISH customers. The little color bars across the middle finally have a purpose, and in the new system they’re vital. In fact, the entire remote, which in the past was infuriatingly obtuse, suddenly blooms like a flower. Virtually every button now has a specific use linked to the graphic user interface (GUI). In fact, this new remote control probably has more capability than most people will ever use. The designers have increased its capabilities by a remarkable extent without really changing its looks.

Screen image

Other than the channel menu, virtually everything about the Hopper looks new and refreshed. One nice change affects the music stations. Before, it was an interminable trawl to scroll through the hundreds of music stations available on the DISH Network. Now, a touch of an icon lets you roll up all of the music stations into one, or to drop them down and see them individually. Very nice.

Searching is easy. There are several presets you can use to establish your own selection of channels, or you can search by themes, even using various media sources. What you can’t search are all those nice channels on your Roku -- the Hopper will not search your Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu accounts. I’m still searching for the app or the website that will do that.

The new Hopper makes it much easier to search for high-definition programming. Push the red button, scroll through the options, and you’ll arrive at one for viewing only HD stations -- and now that TCM and AMC are finally HD, you won’t miss much if you make that choice.

Pesky engineers and their ever-changing moods

The folks at DISH were excited to get the Hopper and Joey to market, but in doing so they created two interesting conundrums. First was the aforementioned naming issue. No one had a clue what "Hopper" meant, and when we saw the little kangaroo or wallaby on the screen, we wondered if we could get hold of what the marketing people were drinking. Of course, at that time, DISH had yet to implement the commercial-hopping power for which it is now so famous, and the corporate office was keeping mum.

The second problem was in setting the Hopper to record future programming. I have over 50 items on my to-record list. When I got the Hopper, I had to go about programming all of those titles into the new machine. This was no mean task. First, I had to decide which method to use to set up the recording parameters. Just as in earlier DISH machines, the easiest way to do this is to go to the guide, point the cursor to the title of the show or series you want to record, and press Select. The recording parameters pop up, you make your choices, and that’s it. If, for some reason, the program or programs you want to record aren’t listed, you set up a Seek & Record item that will continuously search for whatever you’ve stipulated, and, when it finds it, use the parameters you’ve set up for recording it. In the early iterations of the Hopper’s software, I had to completely redo all of those programming steps several times because something kept erasing everything I’d done. It happened so often I stopped counting. It was utterly frustrating, but ultimately those pesky engineers created a solution; if you get a new machine now, you should have no problems.

In fact, for a couple of months now I haven’t had any problems at all with the Hopper. I’ve had the chance to observe their problem-solving methodology from the consumer’s side, and what I’ve seen has given me confidence in DISH. There were problems, but they kept working on them until they were fixed. Contrast that with two large computer companies I could mention that seem to ignore pleas for help. DISH dove in and got the job done.

With the Hopper’s impressive power and recording capacity, it’s not uncommon to have programming conflicts. Luckily, the Hopper engineers have provided some very powerful tools to help solve them. As always, you can establish a priority number. But when a conflict arises, the Hopper’s GUI shows a screen with all of the conflicts -- you don’t have to guess where the time crossovers are. Given that so many programs are preprogrammed to run one or two minutes early and three minutes late, it’s very easy for a number of different programs to interfere with the recording of a new program. DISH’s conflict screen is an enormous help.

Prime Time Anytime

Another thing that was confusing in the beginning, but incredibly powerful once I understood it, is DISH’s Prime Time Anytime: for whatever prime time is in your area (e.g., 7-10 p.m. or 8-11 p.m.), everything broadcast on your local ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliates will then be automatically recorded and stored in memory for eight days. 60 Minutes fans will appreciate the fact that, on Sundays, the prime-time time frame is extended to an hour earlier. If you’re hanging out at the water cooler and a coworker says, "Oh my God, you should’ve seen that new show Dancing with the Olympians!," well, it’ll be there on your Hopper, waiting for you. This is how DISH can claim the Hopper can record six channels at once. It’s true only if you use Prime Time Anytime, which records four channels and offers you two more. Otherwise, your limit of how many channels you can simultaneously record is actually three channels.

What I gained

With the Hopper-Joey system, up to four TVs can simultaneously display four different programs, as long as one of them is a recording. Before, the limit was one or two, depending on your machine. If your family likes to scatter to commune with the cathode rays (oops, sorry, liquid crystals), there are now more options than before. Add more Hoppers and the number of options can run pretty high. Also, as with competitors’ systems, you can pause a program in one room, go to another, and resume watching the same program on that room’s TV. The process is seamless.

For anyone who likes evening network shows, the combination of Prime Time Anytime and the ability to autohop past commercials is a godsend. You can automatically record your favorite shows without having to set up any timers, and the episodes will be there for you for eight days. Push a button and that show goes into permanent memory. You can rest assured that the Hopper is recording everything in prime time. If someone at the office says, "Hey, have you started watching the new season of Revenge?," you don’t have to kick yourself for forgetting about the premiere. DISH has your back. And if you can wait until after 1 a.m. the next morning, you’ll never have to watch another commercial.

Auto Hop

The Hopper-Joey’s GUI is light-years ahead of the old system’s, and of anything I’ve seen from DirecTV or Time Warner. It’s elegant, self-explanatory, and rewards exploration with an endless array of goodies. Your recordings all arrive with well-chosen, full-color icons -- usually a photo of the main character. Recording options show up on a single page that’s easy to navigate. And the search engines now have loads of categories to help narrow your searches. Shout hallelujah again.

I’m a student of classic films, and my favorite find is hidden under the On Demand button of the Main Menu. There you’ll find a series, too long to count (I’m guessing 100), of hour-long profile-interviews of/with famous and not-so-famous film directors and their favorite actors. Created by the American Film Institute, it’s a treasure trove for anyone seriously interested in film.

Finally, for folks who dig small-screen TV, DISH is available on your smart phone, tablet, and computer. I’m not just talking about being able to stream live channels, which is no longer a big deal. Add a Sling adapter to the Hopper and you can watch all your live TV channels, your DVR recordings, and much of the On Demand content. You can also schedule and manage your DVR recordings and remotely search the program guide. You can also play with someone’s head by using your smart phone to control your Hopper from anywhere in the world. Just take a second and imagine the fun you could have with that. This is a family show, so I won’t go into too much detail, but there are so many fun ways to surprise a person.

What I lost

The DISH 722 had an optional over-the-air (OTA) tuner that allowed you to record an additional channel, albeit limited to over-the-air channels. More important, it gave you access to all local non-network stations. I live in the 49th largest TV market in the US; it’s nothing like living in NYC or L.A., but I still have way more than just ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Just to start, there’s PBS and its three subsidiaries: CW, Univision, and TR3S. I still have access to all of them through DISH, and I get a better picture from the last three through DISH than with my antenna -- but they also take up a recording slot if I want to record something. With the 722’s OTA tuner, they didn’t. (Sabado Gigante looks incredible in HD through the Hopper’s crystal-clear signal. Where on earth do they shoot that? Where do they find those women?)

There’s one other loss, and it’s a serious one, but I haven’t seen anyone else bring it up, so I assume it’s a problem only for the Marshall household. We have more than one TV, and we have an open living plan. With the 722, we had an HDMI splitter feeding the signal from our processor du jour to all of our TVs and the projector. That way, if a hoops or football game was on, we and our friends could wander the house, and every TV would be displaying the same program. Then, if we wanted to see Tyson Chandler swat some pathetically wimpy shot from Dwight Howard, we could rewind it and delight in watching it over and over. Because every TV was connected to the same DISH, they all responded in sync.

Now that every TV has its own Joey or Hopper, that’s impossible. You can get pretty close to syncing sporting events if they’re live, as long as you don’t mind a bit of slap-back echo. But as soon as you deviate from live TV, you’re sunk. You can spend hours trying to get all the TVs in sync again and never get it to work. Since we usually had the kitchen TV and the projector on while we prepared dinner, we immediately ran into the problem, and it was a distraction. Not only was no solution forthcoming from DISH, they didn’t seem to want to unleash their crack engineering team on the problem.

Solution: Never remove wires. It finally dawned on us that all but one of our TVs has two HDMI inputs. We just reconnected the processor du jour’s second HDMI output to the splitter and reconnected the TVs. Now we can make all of our TVs feed off of just the Hopper. Problem solved. We have the best of both worlds.

Has DISH done the right thing?

As Dr. Watson’s friend, that fine consulting detective from London, might say, "Indubitably!" DISH’s picture is so dependable that I haven’t said much about it. The Hopper-Joey works perfectly, other than during the occasional frog-strangling gully-washer. Then, like all satellite systems, the dish is overwhelmed by noise from the rain. That doesn’t often happen in central Texas, but for some, it may be an issue.

The increase in recording time is a huge boon. Most people I know used to run out of time so often they had to buy an external hard drive. So far, after months of use, I haven’t yet filled up the Hopper’s internal drive. But it’s comforting to know that the eSATA and USB hookups are both there. With good-quality 2TB drives easily available for $100, I can’t imagine anyone ever running out of space.

Whoever made the decision to invest a chunk of change in developing a pleasing GUI needs a pat on the back from DISH management. It was obviously expensive, but a boon for us beleaguered consumers. It’s pleasing on the eyes, easy on the brain, and never evokes the sense of dread I get whenever I have to use a Time Warner system.

Sports fans will love the DISH online service called Game Finder. Enter your zip code or account number (the latter works better), tick the box of the sport you want, and it spits out a spreadsheet listing every game on every channel carried by DISH for the following week, including the day, date, time, station, channel, whether it’s in HD, and if it’s been blacked out. Folks who constantly have to hunt for some obscure channel will love this feature.

But here’s the best news of all. From the moment I took delivery of the Hopper-Joey system, I’ve seen almost weekly improvements in what some other publications have already called the biggest advance in home media in decades. On early-adopter websites you’ll find the usual snarky comments here and there, but that’s because, in the beginning, DISH was trying to reconcile how best to make all the parts of this very complex system sync up to give everyone what they wanted. The current software is a testament to how hard DISH has worked to respond to those requests and concerns.

In my other job, of reviewing wine and restaurants, we have a rule: Don’t review an establishment until they’ve had the chance to get things squared away. That takes three to six months for a restaurant, and one to two vintages for a winery. The goal is not to play "Gotcha!," but to find out what a place is capable of. That’s why I waited a bit to write this review of DISH’s Hopper-Joey. At this point, I have no substantial complaints. I’d like my OTA tuner back, and I’d like a button that would let me sync all the TVs in my house. That’s it.

Here’s the bottom line. DISH’s Hopper-Joey system is bulletproof, easy to use, and powerful enough to meet most folks’ future needs before we even know what they are. A good friend was getting a new system and had the options of ATT U-verse, DirecTV, Time Warner, and DISH. I enthusiastically and unconditionally told him what I’m telling you: DISH is the deal.

. . . Wes Marshall