Between DISH, DirecTV, TiVo, and the major cable companies, DVR technology is in a near-constant arms race of “Ours is bigger!” “Ours is better!” With its new Hopper 3, DISH looks to obliterate the competition in terms of specs and wants to take the whole “How many tuners does it have?” conversation completely off the table.
Along with the faster processing and 4K output, Hopper 3 offers a new potentially revolutionary DVR feature called “Sports Bar” mode.
It’s been nearly a year since I reviewed the Hopper 2 and accompanying Joey clients (review available online at residentialsystems.com), and while the products are visually similar externally, the Hopper 3 has actually trimmed a few inches and been supercharged under the hood. By the numbers, Hopper 3 is the Ferrari of DVRs, incorporating the fastest set-top box processor available, the Broadcom 7445 with a quad-core ARM processor at 1.5GHz. This means that it is seven times zippier than the Hopper 2, seven times quicker than DirecTV’s Genie, and twice as fast as the TiVo Bolt. In practical terms, it navigates, searches, and browses as quick as your fingers–or voice–can command it.
Beyond the processor, the Hopper 3’s biggest upgrade is its HDMI output, which now meets HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2 standards allowing it to support 4K video. Hopper 3 can decode and output 4K at 60Hz with 10-bit color. It supports H.264 and H.265 and is compatible with HDR10/BDA 2.0 streams. It also the first DVR to include a USB 3.0 connection, for faster transfers to external storage.
Along with the faster processing and 4K output, Hopper 3 offers a new potentially revolutionary DVR feature called “Sports Bar” mode. Beyond simple picture-in-picture, Sports Bar allows users to watch four full-sized, correct-aspect channels in full motion with 1080p resolution simultaneously. Follow your basketball bracket, keep up with your college football division, or monitor your favorite news or financial channels. Images looked terrific on my Sony XBR 4K display, and never seemed to drop frames or chop; it just looked like I was watching four 32-inch HD images. Audio is provided for one feed, and switches by simply navigating to a different quadrant of the screen. (One suggestion: it would be awesome if the Hopper 3’s Bluetooth connection to headphones could allow someone to listen to a different audio stream.) Considering that several manufacturers were demonstrating four-screen multiplexers at CEDIA last year in the $2,000 range, this is a phenomenally awesome feature of Hopper 3 and one that sports and news junkies will praise.
With Hopper 3’s 16 tuners–yes, SIXTEEN tuners!–you’ll never need to worry about tuner lock-out again. Will you ever need to record 16 programs at once? Can you even name 16 channels you watch? Who knows… But when that day comes, rest assured, Hopper 3 has your back!
One thing that didn’t receive an upgrade is the internal 2-terabyte drive. While this stores a whopping 500 hours of HD material, 16 tuners can chew this up pretty quickly. Fortunately, adding external storage is a simple proposition.
A Hopper 3 supports up to six Joeys, for a total of seven TVs. For larger homes, an additional Hopper 3 can be added to an account for a total of 14 connected TVs. The 4K Joey received a nice makeover and comes in a super-svelte form factor measuring just 0.6 by 7.5 by 6.2 inches (HxWxD), letting it fit behind virtually any wall-mounted flat screen. As the name implies, it handles 4K video and gets some speed boosts for zippier guide performance as well.
Hopper 3 requires a different node at the dish location, which was installed by DISH’s professional install team. Once completed, swapping out my old Hopper 2 for the new 3 (and old Joeys for new) was a simple wire-for-wire process.
Powering on the system reveals a major update to the onscreen display: the new “Carbon” GUI. The menu is quite intuitive, letting you easily browse the various features and options and doing so in a manner that allows power users to dig deep while still keeping casual browsers from getting lost.
Pressing “Info” on a program lets you view a thorough summary along with tabs for cast, episodes, reviews, and parental guide. Many movies now feature trailers as well. A handy “You might also like” bar along the bottom of the screen suggests similar shows, convenient for finding other shows to watch.
Finding what to watch can be daunting across hundreds of channels, but the processor’s horsepower truly becomes evident when using the new search feature. Start typing something into the search bar and the most likely results immediately display, divided into TV shows, movies, sports, and person.
With DISH’s new Netflix support (including 4K streaming) search is also done across Netflix, incorporating Netflix titles. Pressing “G,” for example, gives Games of Thrones, America’s Got Talent, American Gothic, and General Hospital in the TV list. Searching a sports team, like “SF Giants,” shows the team’s schedule and lets you click a tab to record all upcoming games.
The amount of 4K content is currently pretty sparse, limited to just a smattering of on-demand titles and two PPV movies. I did watch some 4K TV content and image quality hovered a middle ground between traditional HD content and true 4K content (as served up by a Kaleidescape Strato and Samsung UHD-BD player). I watched several episodes of Playing House and the 4K streams definitely had more fine detail than the HD version, but it wasn’t that “Wow!” of UHD Blu-ray.
While not limited to the Hopper 3, DISH launched another bit of awesomeness in the form of the $99 HopperGO. At half the size of an iPhone, this micro device easily slips into a pocket and includes 64 gigs of flash storage that holds up to 100 hours of programming. The GO runs up to four hours on its rechargeable internal battery and creates a portable, private wireless network that can stream five simultaneous feeds to iOS, Android, and Kindle devices. This is a revolutionary feature for car/air travel with the kids, or even when staying at hotels with questionable Wi-Fi speeds.
If I had a complaint with Hopper 3 it would be the new 52.0 remote that ships with it. It’s a completely different layout, is small, has many identically shaped buttons and–unforgivable!–isn’t backlit. As great as Hopper 3 is, the remote does the system few favors. Fortunately, Hopper 3 is compatible with the old remote (40.0) and DISH has an awesome Control4 integration driver that even lets you browse your recorded programs on your remote, which is how I control the system. Also, DISH just released the optional ($30) Hopper Remote with Voice that lets you search (“Show all Keira Knightley movies”) and navigate (“Tune to ESPN”) with voice commands, has a trackpad for rapid guide browsing, and is fully backlit.
I’ve lived with Hopper since DISH introduced the first model, and I’m a huge fan. The Hopper 3 has taken everything great about the Hopper 2 and turbocharged it. Between an insane number of tuners, 4K support, Sports Bar mode, and lightning fast navigation, Hopper 3 leaves all other DVRs in the dust. Highly recommended.
Simply the finest DVR available on the market with continually updated features
(Current) lack of 4K programming; 2 TB drive fills quickly with 16 tuners
► 2 Terabyte hard drive stores 2000 hours of video
► Records 16 live HD channels at one
► S upports up to six Joeys (7 simultaneous viewing streams)
► 4K output including “Sports Bar” mode
► I ntegrated Wi-Fi and Sling adapter with transfer for mobile viewing
► Connections: Hopper: Outputs: Analog audio, optical digital, HDMI, component and composite video; Inputs: F-connector (1 for satellite input, 1 for RF remote antenna); USB (1 front, 2 rear, 1 USB 3.0); Other: LANx2 (10/100/1000), RJ11 telephone connection, eSATA; Detachable power cord