Updated October 27, 2014 - clarified file transfer to PC
Anyone thinking of ditching an expensive cable, fiber, or satellite TV subscription and becoming a cordcutter faces a major hurdle: the lack of easy access to live television programming. If you are lucky enough to live in an area covered by the free-to-air transmissions of local broadcasters, then receiving at least some live programming is as easy as connecting a simple indoor antenna and performing a quick channel scan.
Every HDTV sold today has a built-in digital television (DTV) tuner for receiving this free content, but these same TVs lack necessary and useful features like the ability to record a show for later viewing or “pause” live TV like a TiVo digital video recorder (DVR).
The selection of set top over-the-air (OTA) TV tuners that provide even the most basic of recording capabilities is limited at best, and very few of these products feature two or more tuners for the most critical DVR function: recording one channel while watching another live. The DVR+ from Channel Master elevates future expectations by delivering a multi-tuner OTA DVR in a svelt, easy to use package.
Package and ports
Unboxing the DVR+ reveals a compact slab of dual-tuning goodness that measures approximately 10.5 inches (W) by 8 inches (D) by 0.5 inches (H). Audio/video connections on the rear of the unit include HDMI and an optical audio output. An Ethernet port provides a network connection, and dual USB ports are for connecting an optional wireless adapter and external storage. Channel Master offers the DVR+ with a remote control starting at $250, and a bundle package for $50 more adds a Wi-Fi adapter and 12 foot HDMI cable.
Setting up the DVR+ is simple: connect an antenna and HDMI cable, scan for available channels, and enjoy! Video output supports HD resolutions up to 1080p at 60Hz. The most affordable DVR+ packages lack internal storage, and Channel Master now offers a DVR+ with 1TB of built-in storage. When adding your own USB-connected drive, the DVR+ requires at least 80GB of storage space and the media is formatted prior to use.
Optimizing antenna placement with the DVR+ was a bit convoluted as the signal strength meter is buried in the setup menus, and it only displays info for the currently selected station – checking the signal strength of another station required completely exiting the setup menu, changing channels, and then making the trip back into the depths of the menu system.
The DVR+ remote is a thin baton-style stick that can be programmed for basic TV operation. Enlarged navigation controls, including the channel guide button, were an appreciated touch. The remote's aspect ratio control button enabled quick scaling of squarish standard definition channels into a wide screen HD format. Dedicated 10 second skip forwards and backwards buttons are sure to please DVR enthusiasts. A recent firmware update improved menu navigation performance, and interactions with the remote proved consistent and quick.
Fee-free channel guide
Accurate and updated channel guide data is critical for any DVR experience, and the DVR+ includes fee-free channel guide information provided by Rovi. The grid-style layout of the DVR+'s channel guide was nicely detailed on a 1080p screen and included station names, channel numbers, and colorful station logos when available.
Remember that when comparing competing OTA DVR products to be sure to always factor in the cost of channel guide information: often billed as a monthly fee or lump sum for updates over the life of the product.
Scheduling a recording was as simple as selecting a program in the channel guide and choosing a record-once or record-all option. I would have also preferred an option to record only new episodes of a particular program, and this is something that could be added in a future update. Conflicts related to needing a tuner when both were in use were addressed with easy to follow pop-up messages. One benefit of using an external hard drive with the DVR+ was that recorded programs could be accessed from my Windows PC with an ext2 file system driver making it easy to copy the transport stream files for backup or other use.
Update: Channel Master has announced an update for the DVR+ that will add a much requested Series Record (records only new episodes) that will be available November 2014.
When I previewed the DVR+ at CES, Channel Master promoted the unit's ability to run popular streaming apps. Vudu and Pandora are the only two apps currently available on the DVR+, and these apps are accessed as channels in the guide instead of a dedicated app menu. If comprehensive app support is must for your home theater needs, an Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, or Roku 3 will better provide that functionality.
Update: Channel Master announced the addition of YouTube streaming to the DVR+ with an update due November 2014.
The DVR+ from Channel Master will please anyone looking for a hassle-free, subscription-free, dual-tuner DVR for managing and enjoying over-the-air television programming. Channel Master has a track record of being proactive in dealing with the minor issues DVR+ owners have encountered so far, and my own experience using it over the last few weeks is the best I've had with such a device. Compared to building and managing a PC-based OTA DVR, the Channel Master DVR+ is a cost-effective and well-crafted alternative for cordcutters.