You might start talking with a Boston accent when you use DISH Hopper with Sling. Echoes of the TV commercials, including the one where a guy turns a toilet into a recliner, will resound in your head like a gong. “The Hoppa, The Hoppa,” you’ll murmur to yourself as you sit back in your own easy chair. Maybe it’s just a brilliant marketing campaign, or maybe it’s just annoying.
Either way, after months of teasing, the Hopper with Sling is finally here. And, fortunately, it’s worth the wait.
On the Hopper, place-shifting works fine, but it’s not perfect. For one thing, transferring an hour-long show to an iPad over an 802.11n wireless network takes about five minutes. Transferring a show to the DISH web service is equally time-consuming, but still very easy, and the streaming quality in the browser for several episodes of a new SyFy show called Continuum looked silky smooth.
Using the “more is more” approach, DISH offers an additional app called Explorer for controlling Hopper with Sling from a mobile device. The apps show sports scores in real-time and a Twitter feed for any selected show. Using an iPad as a remote is bit superfluous, and I was hoping for more robust second-screen options like actor bios and trivia pop-ups related to the show.
Hopper with Sling is technically superior to the DirecTV Genie, though. First, in terms of specs, the drive holds 2TB of data compared to the 1TB you get with the Genie. Hopper has a built-in Wi-Fi radio, while Genie has an external Wi-Fi device. Hopper has a remote finder (it lights up and beeps) and a way to connect a Bluetooth headset. The Hopper is also much faster. In my tests, pushing a button earned an immediate response. Screens flipped quickly without any of the delays on the Genie. Searches popped up instant results, with pictures of actors. You can set a “seek and record” filter — say, to find and then record all matches for Minnesota sports games. The DVR curates shows quickly in a “What’s Hot” section and flags popular shows.
It depends on how you watch TV. The Genie has the more friendly interface, and it’s the better device for staying on top of all the newest shows — even the ones you haven’t heard of, thanks to its recommendation engine. Plus, it can record five things at once. But the Hopper with Sling earns our recommendation because of its superior place-shifting tablet experience, and its primetime auto-record feature, which is a technical marvel and a huge plus if you watch a lot of network shows. Even though it only has three tuners to the Genie’s five, the Hopper offers better access to recorded content for larger families, and better overall hardware performance.
But it’s not all smurfs and rainbows. While up to five devices can stream videos from the cloud using the Dish Anywhere service, you’re limited to one connected device at a time for live TV. So if you’re a three-iPad household, you’ll have to play nice. Also, during my weeks of testing, there were several times when someone in my house wanted to watch a show and found that the tuners were busy — exactly the limitation DirecTV calls out in its ads for Genie. And in one instance, a Joey client kept trying to find a satellite signal, even though the main DVR was showing live TV in the living room. (It was not a cloudy or rainy day.)
Hopper with Sling’s interface is fast, but has a PC-oriented look and feel. You can even see a mouse cursor (but you can’t hook up a USB mouse). It takes too many clicks to search for a genre. On Genie, you can quickly access a list of recent sci-fi shows. On Hopper, you have to search, select a theme filter, click movies, then sci-fi. It’s a bit more cumbersome.
For apps on the DVR itself, DISH has some work to do compared to DirecTV. There’s one for Pandora music streaming, and you can play BlackJack or poker. But there’s no Netflix or Hulu app, and Hopper with Sling is even missing a YouTube app. (You can use an iPad app like iMediaShare to save YouTube vids and stream them to the DVR.) The Genie from DirecTV, however, does have a YouTube app.
For sharing digital media across my home network, Hopper with Sling worked famously. In a few seconds, I found my network drive and could stream both my own digital movies and music in an archive. There’s also an app for playing Picasa and Flickr slideshows. I liked how DISH uses a parental codes so aggressively on the iPad, web player, and on the DVR.
In terms of price, DISH tends to arc a bit lower. The base package costs $25 for 120 basic channels and up, while DirecTV costs $30 for 140 channels. There is generally about a $5 difference between plans, with DirectTV being a bit higher. Pricing varies by contract, and the Hopper with Sling set-top box arrives free of charge when you sign up. You’ll end up paying about $17 per month for the server and two clients, plus package fees.
Both Genie and Hopper with Sling are remarkably good entertainment boxes, but in the end, the devices are serving two kinds of TV-watchers. The Genie has a more friendly interface, and a good recommendation engine. But Hopper with Sling gets the nod for its primetime auto-record feature, which is a technical marvel and a huge plus if you watch a lot of primetime shows. The Hopper also has the better tablet experience, better access for larger families, and better overall performance specs. It’s the bigger hit, even outside of Boston.