Don't write the obituary for pay-TV just yet.
Not ready to give up control of the living room to online video alternatives, Dish Network and Comcast are innovating, staging a battle of the set-top boxes unlike any in recent years.
Dish, based in Douglas County and the nation's No. 2 satellite-TV provider, released the Hopper Whole-Home HD DVR to generally positive reviews a year ago. After losing 166,000 net subscribers in 2011, the company gained 89,000 in 2012, and chief executive Joe Clayton attributed "a large portion" of that turnaround to the Hopper.
The company recently launched the Hopper with Sling, a more than worthwhile version 2.0.
Comcast's Xfinity cable-TV service, the nation's largest, is slowly rolling out the much-anticipated X1 Platform and set-top box. It's already available in Colorado Springs and should hit the Denver area later this year. The X1 is the most significant upgrade to the Comcast box under the Xfinity brand, which launched in 2010.
I spent the past few weeks testing review units provided by Dish and Comcast.
Which one comes out on top? Read on.
INTERFACE AND HARDWARE
Both offer redesigned menus that are far better than the stale cable-TV guides we've grown accustomed to. The Hopper has app-like icons that make it easier to navigate settings. Comcast, though, appears to have placed more focus on how viewers interact with the on-screen menu, adding several intuitive features. Hit the right arrow while watching a show and a scaled-down version of the guide will appear. Tapping the down arrow will provide details on the show you're watching, such as the time remaining. Taking a page from Netflix, the X1 displays the cover art for on-demand and pay-TV movies when a viewer scans for a flick to watch.
As for the hardware, the X1 and its remote control are smaller. But the boxes are not substantially different in size from older generations, and both include three tuners. The Hopper has a huge 2 terabyte hard drive for storage of DVR recordings, four times larger than the X1's 500 gigabyte drive. Both remotes can be programmed to control TV sets and other equipment. The "recall" or "last" buttons on both will pull up multiple channels from the surfing history, rather than just switching to the previously watched channel. Unfortunately, neither Dish nor Comcast incorporated a QWERTY keyboard with the remote to help with searching.
The Hopper's stand-out features are revolutionary, while the X1's are evolutionary. PrimeTime Anytime, the top addition to the original Hopper, automatically records primetime content from ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and stores it for eight days. The controversial AutoHop feature allows viewers to automatically skip commercials while watching recorded primetime shows (it doesn't work for cable programming and is available beginning after 11 p.m. on the night the show is recorded). With AutoHop, I found myself skipping primetime broadcasts of certain shows on purpose so I could watch them commercial- and hassle-free. With standard DVR recordings, I have to manually fast forward past commercials (and often, I would forget that I was watching a recorded show and end up sitting through the ads anyway).
As its name suggests, Hopper with Sling integrates Sling technology, allowing Dish customers to watch subscribed channels over the Internet via a computer, tablet or smartphone. No Internet? No problem. Hopper Transfers enables subscribers to download recorded content, including primetime shows, to an iPad and watch it offline via the Hopper Transfers app. While perfect for air travel or road trips, it does require some time to transfer the content because the Hopper has to "prepare" the file before zipping it over to the iPad. Though the transfer time varies, it took about a 20 minutes for a 20-minute cartoon. Sorry Android fans, Hopper Transfers is only compatible with the iPad.
Notable features from the X1 include its sports app, which can be opened while watching a game. The program shows scores of the day's sporting events and allows viewers to quickly switch to a game if it's available in their area. A "smart search" function pulls up programming based on the first few letters that are entered.
The X1 can be set up to switch to an HD channel automatically if the viewer happens to select the standard-def version. The box also includes an attractive screen-saver feature that can be programmed to activate after 5 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes or 5 hours of inactivity. News, weather, traffic and other information appear during screen-saver mode. Xfinity has an app that allows viewers to transfer TV shows and movies to a mobile device for offline viewing, but the content is limited to those from premium channels such as Showtime and Starz.
The Hopper is free for new Dish subscribers, while the X1 is free for new and existing Xfinity customers who subscribe to a qualifying triple play package of services, such as broadband, phone and video.
The Hopper requires a subscription to Dish's satellite-TV service and its $10-per-month DVR service. A companion Joey set-top box for each additional TV costs $7 a month. Dish wouldn't reveal how much existing subscribers have to pay for the latest Hopper. With the original, the company charged $100.
The Hopper with Sling is the superior set-top box. The features it includes, from AutoHop to Sling to Hopper Transfers, are unmatched. The X1 is a vast improvement for Comcast and offers a sleeker and more intuitive user interface than the Hopper, but it doesn't include ground-breaking upgrades.
Andy Vuong : 303-954-1209, firstname.lastname@example.org or fb.com/byandyvuong