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.
The back panel of the Dish Network ViP622 naturally includes all of the you'll need for today's HDTV sets, and unlike with many cable box outputs, they're all active and ready to go. All outputs are also simultaneous; for example, you can hook up two HDTVs, one via component video and the other via HDMI, simultaneously. TV1 gets an HDMI output, a component-video output, an S-Video output, a composite-video output, an analog stereo output, and an optical digital output. There's an additional composite-video output with stereo audio, as well as a screw-type RF output, both of which send separate AV signals to TV2 when dual mode is engaged. The back panel also has the requisite satellite inputs, an ATSC antenna input, a jack to connect the RF antenna for TV2's remote, a telephone jack for ordering pay-per-view and enabling onscreen caller ID when the phone rings (it worked fine with our Vonage account), and USB and Ethernet ports reserved for future use. There's still no use for Ethernet on the ViP622 as of February 2008.
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 MPEG-4 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 content 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 versus 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, programs from near-instantaneous 30-second skips to superfast blasts through the EPG. Creating a new timer recording takes only a second or two on the ViP622. By comparison, the TiVo HD 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.