Announced and shown to the public two years ago at CES 2009, a major overhaul of the DISH DVR platform has been a long time coming but it finally arrived this past Summer in the DISH Network ViP922 SlingLoaded DVR. Thie HD DVR and satellite/over the air receiver represents a radically different user interface from its predecessors (ViP622 and ViP722) as well as being the first Sling-loaded model in the DISH DVR line. What does "Sling Loaded" mean, you may ask? Well this is perhaps the most unique feature in the unit: the ability to not only program your DVR remotely (i.e., from any web-connected PC or smart phone), but actually watch your own local live and recorded TV content from anywhere in the world with a network connection.
TV... It's Everywhere!
For those familiar with the Sling technology in the form of the standalone Slingbox units, the concept is probably familiar, though the implementation may be a bit different than what you're used to. For those who have never experienced Sling, it can seem like a miracle of modern technology. Sling used to call it "place-shifting" and DISH calls it "TV Everywhere" but by any name, it's cool technology. The Slingbox built into the ViP922 allows you to view all "your" TV shows from your PC while on a road trip, or even from your compatible 3G or 4G-connected smart phone. It also allows you to view your local TV guide listings and schedule and manage your recordings without being in your living room.
The basic requirement to using the ViP922 is DISH HD service (obviously). But if you want to do anything fancy like watch 1080p or 3D Video on Demand, or take advantage of the Sling technology you will also need a broadband internet connection available to the unit. DISH recommends a minimum of 3 MBPS download speed to do HD VOD, but keep in mind that your upload speed also matters. When you're out and about watching your local recordings from elsewhere, your DVR is streaming your live TV and recordings onto the net for you to receive. The Sling technology is pretty good at adjusting the quality to maximize available bandwidth, but if your internet connection at home suffers from a slow upload speed, you can't fix that on the other end of the pipe.
As for what you can watch (and record), you'll be happy to hear that the ViP922 has two high definition satellite tuners and can be configured with an optional OTA (over the air) dual-tuner module. The ViP922 sports an integrated 1 TB (One Terabyte) hard drive for recordings and on-demand content. According to DISH, that drive should be good for up to 1,000 hours of recording, however this varies significantly depending on what channels and content you record. If you're an HD junkie, then you can expect to record up to around 130 to 140 hours of satellite-based HD content.
With the ATSC tuner module installed, you get access to local programming that may not be available via satellite spot beam (PBS in HD anyone?). This also gives you a third (and fourth!) tuner so you can actually record up to four different shows at once (two from satellite, two from over the air), and still watch a recorded program or record three different shows and still watch live TV. Be careful though, if you record a lot of over the air HD content, as this will take up more hard drive space, due to much lower data compression rates. Over the air will also usually give you a significantly better picture for that same reason.
In case all this capacity is still not enough to satisfy your lust for content, the ViP922 supports connection of an external hard drive via USB, just as its predecessors did (requires an additional one-time fee per account). Don't be thinking this will allow you to rip your TV shows to your PC though, as the external hard drive is formatted and encrypted for use only with DISH DVRs within the same account.
Early on in the review period, I went on vacation and decided it might be cool to try out the remote viewing capability of the ViP922. Since I already had a Slingbox at home, configured for the older ViP722 DISH DVR, I thought I could just switch over to the ViP922 as a source and be up and running. But this was not the case. I was able to see the output of my ViP922 from a remote connection, but I was unable to send any commands to control it. Checking with the DISH folks, they said the ViP922 cannot be used in this way, that you must use the built-in Sling function, which means configuring the device through My Account at DishNetwork.com. But it turns out that this was not entirely true.
Actually, all I needed to do, in order to enable the ViP922 to work with my existing Slingbox was go into a set-up menu on the ViP922 and enable IR control. It turns out that the ViP922's remote operates on RF (Radio Frequency) not IR (Infrared). Once I enabled the IR control on the ViP922, I was up and running the old Slingbox way. And by the way, enabling IR control is also required if you want to use a universal remote to operate the DVR. The IR codes to operate the ViP922 are the same as those for the ViP622 and ViP722. I was able to view content and view my guide and set recordings remotely using the standard Sling Player software on my PC. But this only became evident after I got back from vacation and did some digging.
In the meantime, I followed the DISH support person's advice to add my ViP922 to my DishNetwork.com account. This is the way that most people will use the ViP922's Sling technology, and it's remarkably easy to get up and running. To do this, you will need to know your DISH account ID and the receiver ID. And, if you don't already have one, you'll need to set up an account on www.DishNetwork.com. Once the account is set-up, and the Receiver ID added, you access your DVR via the "My Account... Remote Access" option on the DISH web site. From here, you'll see your guide to your available channels, and you'll have the ability to watch live TV or access recordings.
For those used to the old way of doing Slingbox -- where you basically just have a "window" onto your DVR, and everything is controlled as if you were in your living room using a virtual version of your DVR remote -- the new way of accessing your content can take some getting used to, but the learning curve is worth the effort. The guide, as well as your list of available recordings, is now programmed right into the Web site, which makes everything easier to read, easier to search, easier to... well... do just about anything. There's even a newly added ability to stream additional content -- shows and movies you have not previously recorded -- right from this same user interface. Forget Hulu, Netflix, VUDU and Blockbuster VOD, with DISH, you can get remote access to all of your own recordings and live TV, plus a repository of additional content, at no additional charge over your monthly DISH subscription.
And unlike the old Slingbox days where anything you watched remotely would change the channel for local viewers as well, the new way of place-shifting allows you to watch one channel or show, while the local viewer is undisturbed. Neat! It does come at a cost, however, as the dual independent TV output option that was available on the ViP622 and ViP722 is no longer available on the ViP922.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
In terms of local viewing, the ViP922's enhanced interface is such a departure from earlier DISH DVRs it may also take some getting used to, for existing DISH customers used to the older DVRs. The old menu interface has been completely redone with icons and graphics, instead of text-based menus, and a much slicker widescreen guide with room for more channels and more programs to be displayed at one time. The way you access and view your recordings is also very different. Viewing recordings in the old interface, everything was based on title and sorted by most recent date recorded, with no visuals. The new recordings menu is graphical, with little thumbnail images for each show. And if you record multiple episodes of a series, you'll see a single graphic thumbnail image of the series which, when clicked, reveals all of the episodes sorted by date. The main screen is also sorted by date (by default), but it gives you the ability to re-sort by title or to store different types of recordings in different folders for better organization.
The ViP922 also has an improved search function which allows you to search listings for specific keywords. Both recorded shows and upcoming programs show up in search results. A single click on an upcoming listing reveals a detailed but logically organized recording confirmation screen which allows you to specify whether you want to record just once, every episode or just new episodes, and how many you want to keep between you start deleting old episodes.
Overall, the new interface is a vast improvement over the old. One strange thing that left me puzzled is that if you select a specific show, with the cursor, the title of the show and graphic icon disappears, replaced by a note, "Press |> to Watch." Eventually I realized that the top portion of the screen reveals the title and description of the selected recording -- the information is there, it just might not be where you expect it to be. Overall, even this behavior is an improvement over the previous DVR interface, but it may take some getting used to. If DISH were looking for feedback, I'd recommend leaving the title of the program visible on the thumbnail image when selected so it's clear which recording you selected.
As Reliable as the Day is Long
In terms of its operation and reliability, the ViP922 held up well over the review period. Although I did have an initial glitch with the OTA tuner module where it "forgot" my local channel line-up, re-scanning the local channels a second time worked fine and the channels stuck around. All of my recordings fired off at their appropriate times, and were later accessible from the menu as expected.
And for those who do choose to use an external USB hard drive to store more permanent copies of favorite programs or movies (or simply because they don't want their library of shows to be deleted), selecting from the 922's internal drive and an external drive is as simple as a drop-down box in the DVR menu. This is a welcome change to the fairly unintuitive way of interacting with archived recordings on the older DVRs.
High definition on-demand movies have become more plentiful of late, as DISH incorporates broadband internet as the delivery method of choice. Over 50 recent release high definition movies were available for instant rental as I was finishing up the review. To take advantage of the highest quality on-demand options, you do need a solid and fairly fast internet connection (3 MBPS minimum). DISH has also expanded its library of on-demand titles available in full HD 1080p resolution to three, as opposed to the one title that used to be available when the 1080p feature first launched. More recently DISH started delivering 3D movies on demand as well, without any hardware update required. Only a few titles are available now, but more are promised in the first quarter.
We tested "The Last Airbender" in 3D on a Panasonic VT25 series 3D TV and found that the 3D feature worked as expected, putting the TV into 3D mode automatically without any user intervention. It's not Blu-ray 3D, but the quality was perfectly acceptable and the 3D effect worked as expected. 1080p and 3D titles are identified as such in the guide. And though it may seem obvious, viewing a 1080p VOD title requires that your TV support 1080p input and viewing a 3D title requires that you have a 3D-enabled TV and glasses.
DISH Network, long known for their value-conscious price points for Pay TV services, continues to offer cutting edge features and technology to their customers in the form of the ViP922 SlingLoaded DVR. Built-in place-shifting, 1080p and 3D Video On Demand, DLNA home network media streaming and external hard drive support are but a few of the individual features that you'd be hard-pressed to find on any DVR. And as for one DVR that includes all of the above, the ViP922 currently stands alone. If only DISH (or its technology arm Echostar) would offer it for sale to other providers it would give the format agnostic DVRs (like TiVo) a run for their money.
Manufacturer's Specifications (DISH Network ViP922 SlingLoaded DVR):
Manufacturer's Contact Information:
Dish Network LLC
9601 S. Meridian Blvd.
Englewood, CO 80112
On the web: www.dishnetwork.com