Dish Network is taking its own approach to solving the riddle of how to keep up demand for subscription TV services in the face of over-the-top streaming options like Netflix. While other TV operators have been working to expand authenticated TV Everywhere services, Dish is looking to bring content to customers while altogether avoiding content deals by building a Slingbox into all of its future Hopper DVRs. The new set-top box is called the Hopper with Sling, and it allows subscribers the holy grail of content access: live streaming of every channel from anywhere.
The new service is Dish's attempt to improve the Hopper DVR it announced at last year's CES. The new set-top box offers upgrades like built-in Wi-Fi and a processor that runs at twice the clock speed (1305MHz) of its predecessor. It retains the 2TB hard drive for last year's model, as well as AutoHop, Primetime Anytime, and the whole-home DVR functionality provided by placing smaller Joey units throughout your residence. What's most important, however, is that the set-top box has a Slingbox inside of it. With it, you can extend any content you view on your Hopper to Dish's updated website, iPhone, iPad, and new Android phone and tablet apps, which have all been rebranded from the "Remote Access" to "Dish Anywhere." This means that you can watch live programming, DVR recordings, or On Demand content whenever and wherever you'd like.
If you're not familiar, Sling Media's Slingboxes have offered this sort of functionality for years. The company's devices sit between your cable box and your TV, capturing the content that passes through it and streaming it wherever you like. They've always been clunky, however, as they rely on IR blasters to control your cable box. That all changed when Dish began to offer a $99.99 Sling Adapter in 2008 that connected directly with its DVRs and worked as you'd expect. The move was a natural one for Dish, which was owned and operated by Echostar — a company that acquired Sling Media back in 2007. Echostar and Dish Network remain close sister companies to this day. But it's significant that Dish is now bundling in a Slingbox into its heavily-advertised Hopper DVR.
With today's move, Dish is betting that consumers have enough interest in accessing TV programming when away from their living rooms that they'll opt for the company's most expensive DVR (its MSRP is $100 more than the original Hopper, though it will be available for free to new customers signing a two-year contract). It's also Dish's play at competing with over-the-top services and its fellow TV operators. The satellite provider has been — at best — a reticent member of the TV Everywhere initiative, which was designed to offer secure and legal ways of offering cable content to subscribers beneath a paywall. Dish hasn't struck deals with partners to bring services like WatchESPN to its customers, and it has never even made an app allowing customers to stream content onto a second screen in their home. The only option for Dish customers looking to stream was to buy the Sling Adapter add-on, and now it's bundled that into the Hopper, it's clear why the company hasn't been quickly signing deals. Unlike a cable operator like Comcast, which has its own content and a part-ownership in Hulu, Dish has avoided working with others because it has its own way around working with any of the content creators: Sling. The work-around leaves Dish with the upper hand while many other operators are stuck limiting users to certain channels that are accessible on home Wi-Fi networks.
Sling in its proper form
While Dish's decision may leave content creators on the outside (something the company has shown it's not afraid to do with its introduction of AutoHop), it has provided the firm with a way to one-up its competitor's offerings. After using the new Hopper and the Dish Anywhere apps, it's hard not to be happy with what's offered. There's a significant speed boost between last year's Hopper and the new model thanks to the processor bump, and since there's no fiddling with IR blasters the Sling functionality works well. The Sling gets its own tuner out of the three total in the Hopper, so you can record a show and have a remote user watch as well all while viewing another separate show on the TV itself. Dish has also introduced a new feature called Hopper Transfers, which — like the TiVo Stream — allows you to move a DVR recording onto your iPad for later, offline viewing. The process requires the set-top box to transcode the show (it takes about as long as the content itself) and then beam it over your home Wi-Fi to your iPad. It's not in HD quality, but it's serviceable. That's not to say that they're aren't issues. The cable box interface remains untouched and outdated, and the TV Anywhere apps still leave room for improvement — not an uncommon complaint. Dish plans to have the Hopper with Sling available by the end of the month, though it hasn't offered many details on what it will cost you to upgrade if you're a current Hopper owner. We expect to hear more soon.