One of the recent bits of news out of CES was DISH Networks introduction of their whole-home DVR. Rather than model number like DirecTV’s oh-so-catchy HR34, they’ve reached down under to give their units cute names. The main DVR is the Hopper and the client units for other rooms are Joeys, and the logo/mascot is a kangaroo, of course. I have to admit, it has a lot more consumer appeal than a cold model number.
The Hopper is only a three tuner DVR, which seems kind of meager given AT&T U-Verse, Verizon FiOS, and TiVo all have four tuner units, the DirecTV HR34 has five tuners, and Arris has a six tuner Moxi DVR available for cable MSOs. Especially as the Joey boxes rely on the tuners in the Hopper for live TV. However, the Hopper does have one unique trick up its sleeve – PrimeTime Anytime:
The Hopper’s exclusive feature, PrimeTime Anytime, gives you instant On Demand access to your favorite shows on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC in HD. Over three hours per night of HD primetime programming are available to you On Demand anytime for up to eight days from the initial air date.
How does it manage this trick? Well, you may notice the product page states:
The Hopper is a three–tuner Whole–Home HD DVR that lets you record up to six HD channels at once* and play them back from any room in your home.
Three tuners, but it can record up to six HD channels at once? What kind of dark voodoo is this? Well, note the asterisk:“*DURING PRIMETIME HOURS”. And now note this from the quote above“ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC”. How it manages this trick is actually pretty simple, but requires a little explanation.
I’ll oversimplify a bit, but for analog broadcast TV you have one channel per frequency. A tuner did just that – it tuned a given frequency and therefore a program. But with digital content frequencies and channels have a more nebulous relationship. A single frequency block may contain several digital channels all multiplexed, or MUXed, together. And this is precisely how satellite works. They can’t use a dedicated transponder and frequency for each channel, rather channels are MUXed together. So ‘tuning’ a single channel is actually a multi-step process.
First the tuner tunes the desired frequency and this allows the unit to receive the data stream that is the MUX. Normally the next step is that the signal is de-MUXed and the desired channel is extracted, with the other data being discarded. This one channel is then saved to the drive as a recording. Can you see where I’m going?
Since DISH controls everything end to end, what they’ve done is place ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC in one MUX. And instead of de-MUXing the data as it is received they’re saving the entire MUX to the drive, all four channels. Then it is de-MUXed at playback time, not record time. That’s how it can record up to six channels with three tuners. You have one tuner recording the MUX, for four channels, and two tuners each recording a single channel.
But this is limited. As the page states, they do this during prime time hours only. And recording four channels takes up four times the space, even if you’re never going to watch all four channels. The Hopper has a 2TB drive, but only half is available for user recordings – up to 250 hours. The other half is used to store these PrimeTime Anytime MUX recordings, as well as pre-cached OnDemand content pushed the the box. And you can’t record up to six programs you select, you can only record up to three individual programs. Or two programs while the third tuner is occupied recording this MUX. It isn’t clear what happens if you want to record three programs not on these four networks during prime time. Does it only allow you to schedule two recordings? Or does it not record the mux and thus not offer the PrimeTime Anytime content for that night? I suspect the former.
It is a clever trick, but it clearly has some limitations. I’d rather have more tuners at my disposal.
The Hopper does offer Blockbuster OnDemand via broadband, not surprising since DISH purchased Blockbuster. It also has SiriusXM Radio, which is a nice feature for those who subscribe. And while the Hopper is not SlingLoaded, like the ViP922, it is compatible with the USB Sling Adapter, like the ViP722. So you can add the Sling Adapter to enable place shifting. That is a nice feature.
What about MoCA? Well, that’s how the Hopper and Joey units work together to provide the whole-home DVR. MoCA is the new industry standard for whole-home DVRs. It is being widely adopted by cable MSOs, CE vendors such as TiVo, and satellite. DirecTV is also using MoCA for their whole-home streaming. (And before you leave a comment and ‘correct’ me by saying they use DECA, read this post.) I suspect DISH is using Mid-RF MoCA, just like DirecTV.
Overall the Hopper & Joey look like the best DISH Network has to offer, and worthy of being flagship products. However, I think they would’ve been better off bringing a DVR with more tuners to market rather than playing games with the MUX recording for prime time content. There’s no reason they couldn’t do both.