On the outside, the Dish Network ViP622 is a fairly staid silver box, measuring 16 by 3.5 by 13 inches and weighing 11 pounds. Its most prominent feature is a row of six LEDs on the middle of the face, which light up to indicate recordings in progress, dual- or single-mode operation (see Features below), and power on or off. The front of the ViP622 comprises three similarly sized sections of subtle clear-on-silver plastic; pressing against the rightmost section elicits a soft click and lets it swing open to reveal a USB port and a set of front-panel controls. These include the major menu commands found on the remote, as well as the only button that can switch between dual and single modes.
And yes, unlike many cable company DVRs and TiVos that aren't hacked, that skip key actually jumps ahead in 30-second increments, letting you quickly and easily avoid watching the typical 4-minute commercial break in exactly 8 presses (which takes all of 2.5 seconds). If you've grown up fast-forwarding through commercials, you don't know what you're missing in a true 30-second skip. We also loved the four scan-speed multipliers, from the 4X, which seems just right for brief bursts forward; to 16X for scanning commercial breaks; to 60X and even 300X for blowing through longer programs, such as movies, sporting events, award shows, and what have you. Responses to skip, fast-forward, and rewind commands were exceedingly quick.
Menu system, EPG and recording features
The internal menu system is the single most important design element in a DVR you use every day, and the Dish Network ViP622's interface is superb. It starts with an EPG containing program listings and information on individual shows. We appreciated the choice between three text sizes with or without an inset window that shows what's currently playing. Our favorite was "Extended with Video", which showed seven channels at a time along with the window.
You can create up to four custom favorite-channel listings to complement the three default lists: all channels, all subscribed-to channels, and all HDTV channels. That's a hearty selection when compared to most cable DVRs, which shackle you to one list that often includes innumerable channels you don't even subscribe to. The EPG goes out 10 days and is completely searchable. The search function includes any combination of genres (for example, Sports), subgenres (Baseball), and keywords (up to 17 characters; Roger Clemens juice) entered on a virtual keypad or by using the number keys like a cell phone sending a text message. You can even refer to a search history--unique in our DVR experience--to quickly repeat previous searches.
The Dish Network ViP622 also does a great job of organizing recorded programs and timers for upcoming recordings, although it has one major inconvenience. The main list of recorded programs is accessed by pressing the DVR key twice. The first press calls up an annoying interstitial screen that provides access to other content too, such as pay-per-view and attached USB devices. The list itself can be organized by date, genre, title, and other criteria. It can group similar shows together to save space, and it constantly displays how many hours of standard- and high-def recording time is available. Unlike with most DVRs, you can select more than one program to delete at once, so a massive DVR spring-cleaning is completely painless.
We appreciated the Timers page, which lets you immediately see all upcoming scheduled recordings for the length of the EPG and makes managing conflicts a cinch. The timers list can be set to display skipped events--those that won't record for whatever reason, whether because they conflict with higher-priority timers, because they're reruns or because you skipped the recording intentionally. In one of our favorite features, if a show gets skipped because of a conflict, the DVR will automatically search out and set up a recording of the next available airing of that same show.
Like other DVRs, the ViP622 can record all episodes of a program; only new episodes; just once on a particular night and time; Monday through Friday; or nightly. You also get options for manual channel/time recording, for extending start and end times and for setting a maximum number of shows to keep. Dish Pass records programs that match a keyword--actors or directors, for example--and like search, it's limited to 17 characters. One more nitpick: we wish the default for timer recordings initiated from the EPG wasn't "all episodes" because that often leads to inadvertently recording numerous shows when all you wanted was one. We like the automatic extension of sporting events timers for an extra hour, though, which is designed to catch overtimes and compensate for rain delays.
Unlike any other non-Dish DVR we know of, the ViP622 has what Dish calls a dual mode to feed two televisions. There's a second, entirely separate set of AV outputs on its back panel, which send video and audio to a secondary standard-def television (TV2) in addition to the main HDTV set (TV1). Aside from saving multi-TV households from having to buy or rent another box, the TV2 option allows a viewer on the secondary television to watch any of the recorded shows on the ViP622's hard disk (HD programs are downconverted to SD for display on TV2). In dual mode, the ViP622's three tuners are split among the two TVs: TV1 gets the OTA and one satellite tuner, while TV2 gets the second satellite tuner. In other words, you can't watch live OTA programs on TV2. The secondary television even has separate favorite-channel lists, search histories, and aspect-ratio controls from TV1, and a user on TV2 can access most of the menu settings, with the exception of closed captions, without disturbing TV1. Dish installers can hook up both TVs when the box is installed, although TV2 also works with wireless solutions; we had it running with an RF Link AVS-511 transmitter/receiver, for example, and it worked great. As we mentioned, the ViP622 comes with a second, RF remote that can control the box at a range of up to 200 feet. The main disadvantage of dual mode, besides the fact that each TV monopolizes a tuner, is that a user on one TV doesn't get full control of in-progress recordings on the other.
At the heart of the Dish Network ViP622 beats a 320GB hard disk that can store any combination of 30 hours of HD programming or 200 hours of standard-def. That's identical to the capacity of the DirecTV HR20, and bests the 20 high-def-hours total of both the TiVo HD and than the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD, a typical cable company DVR. The addition of external USB archive drives (see below) can increase the 622's capacity even further, and if the main drive doesn't seem like enough, the step-up ViP-722 can store as much as 55 hours of MPEG-2 high-def.
The ViP622 is the only current DVR with the capability to record three live TV programs--standard- and/or high-def--simultaneously. Only two can originate from satellite; the third is reserved for over-the-air (OTA) antenna sources. Call us TV addicts, but we found ourselves using all three tuners on numerous occasions, especially during busy prime-time evenings.
Like all DVRs, the ViP622 records everything you watch all the time, so you can always rewind to catch something you missed. When you press pause, it stays frozen for up to one hour, buffering the show in progress for later viewing or fast-forwarding. You can also watch any recorded program while the DVR records live shows. In the Sunday night example above, we could've started watching any of the three programs being recorded from the beginning or a fourth HD or SD program that was already on the hard drive, without disturbing the three in-progress recordings.
Other highlights include complete aspect-ratio control for both standard and HD shows; a versatile PIP that can display either live TV or recordings in the secondary window (a smaller inset window and two same-sized side-by-side windows are available, but PIP won't work in dual mode); a screensaver and automatic turn-off option; on-screen caller ID with a history function; numerous parental locks; and pay-per-view and video-on-demand services. The DVR can offload non-high-def programs to PocketDish-branded portable video players via USB. There's also a Dish Home interactive TV component that lets you pay your bill, view past statements, shop, read news bulletins, and check out special packages such as the multi-window viewer that Dish and NBC created for the Winter Olympics.
External storage option
In August 2007, Dish enabled the ViP series of HD DVRs to connect to external hard drives using the back-panel USB 2.0 jack. When a drive is connected--and you pay the additional one-time upgrade fee of $40, which covers all receivers connected to the account--you can dramatically increase the storage capacity of the DVR. The feature should be compatible with most third-party drives between 40GB and 700GB, and while the capacity varies with program type, in our tests most MPEG4 HD shows took up about 3.5GB per hour--adding as much as 200 hours of HD capacity for a 700GB drive. While some cable DVRs and DirecTV's rival HR20 offer similar functionality, it's usually unofficial and unsupported by the manufacturer or the cable company. TiVo HD, with its SATA expansion option, is the exception.
There is a catch with the ViP, however. The programs must be archived to the external drive, a process that takes hours for multiple high-def shows, although you can use the DVR normally during the archiving process. We'd much prefer the addition of a drive to simply increase the overall storage capacity seamlessly, bumping up that little "hours remaining" indicator at the top of the recorded programs list. On the other hand, once the drive was connected, we were able to play back any programs stored on it immediately, exactly as if they were stored on the DVR's main drive. The transfer with our test 400GB Iomega drive was flawless, even when we selected 10 HD programs at once, although we've seen reports that multiple-show transfers caused failure in some cases. We were also able to use more than one drive after cycling the 622's power; we ended up using one as a movie server and another for the odd programs we couldn't bring ourselves to erase. For more info on the external HDD option, check out Dish's PDF brochure.
Even with all these capabilities we have a wish list of stuff we'd like to see. It would be nice if we could control TV2 via IR blasters in addition to RF so that we could use TV2 with a Slingbox, for example. We'd like to see the Ethernet jack turned on, which at the very least could enable people who don't have a landline to order pay-per-view and other services. Speaking of networking, some sort of TiVo To Go-like functionality (something that doesn't necessitate buying a PocketDish player), remote DVR scheduling (offered by both TiVo HD and the HR20), or even network streaming of photos, video or music would be great. The HD purist in us would also appreciate an "all native" output format selection; at the moment, you have to choose between converting everything to either 720p or 1080i resolution.
Overall, the Dish Network ViP622 receives high marks for its image quality and speed. During our initial tests in early 2006 we did encounter frequent operational bugs and quirks, but after a series of firmware updates it has operated very smoothly for nearly two years of intense use.
First things first: we had no major problems with the image quality of the HD channels delivered via the ViP622. From the NCAA championship on CBS HD to the stunning Sunrise Earth on Discovery HD to the wacky selection of Voom channels, the ViP622's HD picture looked great via HDMI, which appeared slightly sharper on our reference Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK monitor than did component video. Yes, we noticed lots of variation from program to program and channel to channel, but it's hard to blame the box for that. Standard-def varied even more from one channel to the next, although compared to our experience with digital cable and DirecTV, the Dish ViP622 more than held its own with SD video quality. Update: After comparing the ViP622 to the DirecTV HR20 for image quality, we could detect no major differences in HD channel reproduction. Some of the standard-def channels on Dish did look slightly better than some of their DirecTV counterparts, however, but the difference wasn't drastic by any means. Note that we have not compared any of the new MPEG-4 channels between the two boxes directly.
We were also keen to compare HDTV from the over-the-air antenna vs. HD local satellite channels, and honestly, we were surprised by how good the HD satellite locals looked; it was quite difficult to tell the difference between the two. An episode of 24, for example, displayed the same detail in Audrey's hair, the same fine lines on the tie of Miles Papazian, the same tiny bursts of pixelation, and the same video noise in darker areas on both versions. The other three local HD channels in our New York City area looked similar to their over-the-air counterparts--but it's worth noting that locals in other areas might behave differently.
We also came away impressed by the Dish Network ViP622's downconversion capability, which is important for TV2 watchers and DVD archiving. We recorded a few episodes of The Sopranos from HBO HD to DVD, and the downconverted standard-def picture didn't have the issues we've noticed on some DVRs; in fact, it looked pretty good, significantly better than the same episode on the standard-def HBO2 channel. In our experience, the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD, a common high-def cable box, does an inferior job downconverting HD shows to standard-def.
Response time was also excellent. The ViP622 reacted to all commands quickly, programsfrom near-instantaneous 30-second skips to super-fast blasts through the EPG. Creating a new timer recording takes only a second or two on the ViP622. By comparison, the TiVoHD is a bit more sluggish on some screens (although it's certainly tolerable) and the HR20 moves as quickly on most screens, but slower when browsing the EPG and especially when you enable its 30-second skip function, which takes an extra split-second to jump each time.
Otherwise, we had few complaints about the 622's performance. Yes, the Dish Network ViP622 can get very warm--make sure your cabinet has adequate ventilation--and we often heard its hard drive spinning up over quiet passages while watching TV, but these issues, along with a few bugs, are common to all DVRs in our experience.
Update, September 10, 2006: The following sections were written before a series of firmware updates, near the time of the box's initial launch, but we've kept them for reference. After that period we've experienced no crashes or other issues, and grade the box as a very consistent operational performer.
The Dish Network ViP622 is still relatively balky and buggy, which makes it frustrating to use as an everyday TV source and prevents it from earning our Editors' Choice award. As chronicled previously, the first review sample CNET received froze up so often that we had to have it replaced. The second sample performed much better over a month of intense use, but it still evinced more issues than we noticed on the DVR 942, the DirecTV HD TiVo, or the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD (although we did go through two 8300HDs before a third worked well).
The most persistent issue was stutter during standard- and high-def shows, where it looked like the image was skipping a few frames or slowing down, then speeding up again. During the quick zooms into the money boxes on NBC's Deal or No Deal, for example, the zoom seemed to jump in the middle. This happened often and was mildly annoying, but it could often be fixed by switching channels or simply rewinding briefly, then restarting playback. The same solutions usually fixed the relatively common lip-sync issue too; we'd notice actors mouths moving out of step with the audio relatively often and independent of the channel.
Major crashes were less frequent, but they happened often enough to annoy us. For a total of seven times during the month, the ViP622 seized up and stopped responding to remote commands, eventually restarting on its own or needing to be manually restarted--an arduous five-minute process that would leave a gap in in-progress recordings. We also experienced an issue seemingly unique to the MSG network, a local standard-def sports outlet; the program would inexplicably jump all the way back to beginning whenever we tried to fast-forward (a frequent occurrence during tedious Knicks games this year). In one recent instance, the ViP622 seemed to forget all of the timers dedicated to "new" shows for a short period, which nearly cost us a Sopranos episode. Notably, this occurred on the weekend switch to daylight saving time, and the timers behaved properly the next day. We also experienced a warning message that said we'd reached the limit of active timers at 39, but when we later went to add more timers, we were able to do so easily.
We checked around to online forums such as the excellent DBSTalk.Com and discovered numerous people who've experienced similar operational issues. Dish seemed to respond quickly to people who reported major problems, often by replacing the box itself.