Channel Master DVR+
Cutting the cord doesn’t have to mean cutting yourself off from broadcast TV. Depending on where you live, an HD antenna will let you pull in dozens of local channels over the air, including sports, news, big events like the Oscars, and a lot of the same network shows you’d find on, say, Hulu Plus.
Channel Master’s DVR+ lets you record those shows, and unlike other DVRs such as the TiVo or the Tablo, it doesn’t have a monthly fee for the channel guide. That makes it one of the cheapest ways around to record over-the-air TV—just don’t expect a slick presentation or a lot of bells and whistles. Optional accessories can expand the box’s capabilities significantly, but it’s nice to not have to pay for features you don’t need.
Setup: BYO hard drive, Internet optional
The super-slim DVR+ is easy to fit into your entertainment center, measuring 8 by 10 inches and just half-an-inch thick. It has 16GB of internal storage to get you started; to expand that, you’ll want to plug in your own hard drive. I used a small, bus-powered 1TB Seagate USB 3.0 drive, which Channel Master estimates can record about 160 hours of HD programming.
Connections on the back include a coaxial port to attach an over-the-air TV antenna. HDMI connects the DVR+ to your computer (you need to supply your own HDMI cable), and there’s an optical audio-out port in case you want to route the sound to your home theater system. The box itself is powered by an included AC adapter.
The DVR+ doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi. You can connect it to your network with an Ethernet cable, or attach Channel Master’s own $40 USB Wi-Fi adapter to add your DVR+ to your Wi-Fi network—the box has two USB ports, so there’s one for the adapter and one for your hard drive. But you don’t actually need Internet at all.
The guide is a little better with an Internet connection—you’ll get a full 14 days of programming info that way, as well as access to Vudu, which at press time is the only over-the-top service supported on the box. Vudu doesn’t require a subscription; instead you rent or buy movies and TV shows à la carte and through Season Passes, like you would in Apple’s iTunes Store. Without Internet, you still get some guide information, but it’s whatever was provided by the networks, usually just a few days worth.
When first setting up the DVR+, you’ll follow the easy onscreen prompts to scan for channels and add them to your guide. Even using an indoor tabletop antenna, I got a few dozen over-the-air broadcast channels. You can delete any unwanted channels later in Settings > Tuning > Channels. (I ditched a few that were in languages I don’t speak, for example.)
Remote control: Simple but capable
The DVR+’s included remote is also on the basic side, but unlike TiVo’s, it doesn’t make any annoying sounds. It’s IR so you do need a line of sight to the DVR+. But the optional $15 IR Remote Control Extender has a 72-inch cable, allowing you to tuck the DVR+ in your media cabinet or otherwise out of the way, and still use the remote.
You can skip the commercials with the jump-forward button, which skips ahead 9 seconds, and there’s a jump-back button too. The buttons are pleasant to use, but when you find a currently playing program in the guide and press the OK button, you don’t go right to that channel. Instead, a pop-up asks you if you want to start watching that channel, or set a recording. I’d prefer just going to the channel without an extra click, and maybe another button—like, I dunno, the Record button—could be used when you actually want to record.
The remote has four color-coded buttons that help you quickly navigate the program guide: a red one goes back 2.5 hours, the green launches the Search window, yellow goes back one day, and blue goes forward one day. They aren’t labeled—I had to look up their functions in the user guide, and even after “learning” them, I still never used them.
To put more of the remote’s buttons in use, you can program it to control your TV’s volume, power, mute, and input functions. You can either use a four-digit code for your TV manufacturer, found in the DVR+’s user guide, or just use the handy Easy Scan feature to find the remote code by pressing a few buttons. Easy Scan was a snap, and I was glad it worked so well, because the user guide lists no fewer than 23 codes for Toshiba TVs. Easy Scan saved me from having to enter each of those codes until one of them worked.
Everything works, with just a few quirks
Navigating the menus and flipping through channels was as fast and responsive as you’d expect when watching over-the-air TV or using a cable box. The delay when telling the DVR+ to record was acceptably brief, but when setting up recording, the software wasn’t amazing at knowing which episodes to record. Your options are “record just this program” or “record all programs with this name.” So when recording Sesame Street on PBS, I selected “all programs with this name” hoping to get several Sesame Street episodes, like a Season Pass on TiVo. Instead, I got multiple copies of the same episode, which PBS plays a few times during the course of a day. If you’re coming from something like TiVo, you might find DVR+ a little on the primitive side.
There’s also no way to make the guide go full-screen. It’s nice how it only covers half the currently playing program (and the guide is even a little transparent so you can kind of see what’s underneath it), but a full-screen guide would help me see more channels at once. I couldn’t get ABC and CBS to display on the same page without deleting several channels between them, which made it a little harder to evaluate my prime-time choices.
Since the DVR+ has two tuners, you can record two programs at once. You can also pause live TV for up to 2 hours, with an onscreen indicator that shows exactly how much pause time you have left. (I actually like it a little better than TiVo’s implementation.)
If you want to access your recordings from a computer or mobile device, the DVR+ works with a Slingbox—Channel Master recommends the $300 Slingbox 500, which sits between the DVR+ and your TV and makes live TV and all your recorded videos accessible from Web browsers and the SlingPlayer mobile apps.
The DVR+ is certainly unassuming in your entertainment center: it’s thin, quiet, and it puts itself to sleep when not in use. But best of all, with no subscription fees, it’s a one-time outlay and you’re done paying. Everything it doesn’t do out of the box, it can accomplish with add-ons, from a Slingbox if you want to go mobile, to the Wi-Fi adapter if you don’t want to bother with Ethernet. But if you don’t need those features, you aren’t stuck paying for them.
A TiVo Roamio, for example, starts at $200 with up to 75 hours of HD storage, but then you have to pay for service, which costs $15 a month (with a 1-year minimum, so you’ll spend at least $180), or $500 for the device’s lifetime. The DVR+ is $250; after you supply your own hard drive (Channel Master will sell you a 1TB Seagate drive for $100) and shell out $40 for the Wi-Fi, you’ll still come out ahead of the TiVo owner by the end of the first year. (Neither device includes an HDMI cable, so that’s a wash.)
TiVo’s more robust software and feature set makes sense if you’re using it with a cable subscription and a bunch of OTT apps. But if all you want to do is record over-the-air TV, Channel Master’s offering will get the job done.
Channel Master DVR+
Its interface will seem a little basic if you're used to a DVR with a lot of extra features. But the DVR+ works well, and it's an affordable way for cord-cutters to record over-the-air TV.
- No monthly fee for programming guide.
- Basic DVR with optional accessories means you only pay for the features you need.
- Interface is a little old school.
- Extra button-press required to change channels from the guide.