There are plenty of folks out there looking to cut the cord with their costly cable and satellite providers and benefit from free over-the-air programs to save on monthly expenses. However, many miss having their favorite TV shows recorded on a DVR with the convenience of automatic recording and instant playback. Channel Master has recently released a product called the DVR+, an over-the-air, subscription-free DVR that allows viewers to receive and record local broadcast programming in high quality HD (high definition). There are no subscription fees or contract to worry about. Channel Master offers two models; one without a hard drive (7500GB16) for $249.99 and the other with a built-in 1TB hard drive (7500TB1) for $399.99. Users simply connect the DVR+ to an OTA (over-the-air) antenna, wireless or wired internet connection, external hard drive (CM7500GB16 only), and their display and they are ready to enjoy all the benefits of a full featured DVR. Once connected, DVR+ provides users with all of the popular network programming available in their area, which for us includes ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, PBS and The CW.
Here is Los Angeles, we receive well over 100 digital channels, including the secondary channels on all of the major broadcasts. The DVR+ also includes the ability to stream content from VUDU, a premium rental service packed with your favorite TV shows, movies and new-release DVD titles.
The DVR+ is a sleek and slim design that sits just over 1/2-inch high and measures approximately 10-inches wide by 8.5-inches deep. The front panel has a status LED on the right side that displays blue (On), dim blue (Standby), and red (recording). The center of the unit has the IR receiver to accept commands from the IR remote. The power button is on the far right side and can also be used to reset the unit if needed.
The DVR+ provides interfaces to any modern display or A/V systems using the HDMI connection. No analog video interfaces are available on this unit, so older analog displays are not compatible. The two built-in ATSC tuners receive the OTA (over-the-air) signal through the single F-connector. The wired (RJ-45) or wireless (optional USB dongle) provide the internet connection which is used for the menu guide, software updates and VUDU streaming. We always recommend the wired connection whenever possible to minimize any video dropouts when streaming video content. If you do not plan to stream, then based on our testing a good WiFi connection seems to work well. The two USB 2.0 ports will be quickly utilized when connected the external hard drive and wireless WiFi dongle. An external IR input can be used with an IR sensor to accept commands from the remote. This allows the DVR+ to be hidden away in a cabinet. The AC power adapter provides 12V at 1.4 amps to the unit.
The DVR+ includes a full featured IR remote control, which is also capable of operating most televisions. Simply enter in the code for your make/model using the manual and you will have basic TV controls (power, channels, and volume). Unfortunately, we were not able to test this feature on our Mitsubishi LT52148 LCD TV since it was not supported.
The button layout is nice and the buttons are large enough and well spaced to make it easy to operate. There is no backlighting, so using it in the dark can be challenging. The remote is thin and not quite as heavy as some of the other remotes we have used in the past, but appears to be well designed. The top buttons are for TV power, Input select, and DVR power. A full set
of numeric keys are provided along with navigation, volume and channel
controls. The DVR buttons include scan forward/backwards (2x, 8x, 32x, 64x) and skip forward/backwards. There are dedicated buttons for Mute, DVR, Menu, Exit, and Back. Pressing the Guide button invokes the Extended Program
Guide (EPG). Pressing
the Info button displays channel information.
The remote uses two CR2032 button batteries for power. The rear cover takes a bit of effort as the user needs to press a tab in a hole to slide to cover off. I would have preferred to see this remote slightly thicker and utilizing the more commonly used "AAA" batteries.
Channel Master sent us the CM7500GB16 DVR+ (16GB version) along with the SMARTenna (CM-3000HD), Wireless USB Adapter (CM-7500XWF), and Seagate 1TB external hard drive (STBX1000101) for this review. The DVR+ includes a
Quick Start Guide,
IR Universal Remote and an External Power Supply.
The DVR+ is easy to configure using the on-screen setup wizard. The unit requires an external antenna connection to receive the OTA content. Channel Master provided their SMARTenna OTA antenna to reveiw with their DVR+. We will cover some test results a little bit later in this review. Since we have an OTA antenna already installed on the house with a strong signal reception, we opted to use this for most of our performance testing. We recommend testing the antenna for signal strength to avoid video dropouts. We connected the HDMI cable to our Denon AVR-5308CI A/V processor and ran the video to the Anthem LTX-500v D-ILA projector. We connected the USB dongle provided for the review for our internet connection. The on-screen menu allowed us to configure the WiFi with WPA2 encryption.
CM7500XWF WiFi Dongle
Seagate STBX1000101 External Hard Drive
The two USB ports on the DVR+ were occupied by the WiFi dongle and the Seagate external hard drive on this unit. The external hard drive is not required on the 1TB version of the DVR+. This gave us plenty of space to record content. The DVR+ can also support larger 3TB drives if desired.
Scanning for Channels
One of the first things you need to do once all the connections are made to the DVR+ is to scan for available channels in your area. Once the channels are scanned and stored, you will be able to select them for watching and recording programs. Here in Los Angeles we were able to receive 112 channels (including sub-channels) with our roof antenna.
While we already have an OTA antenna installed at our location, we decided to connect the Channel Master SMARTenna (CM-3000HD) provided to us for review to see how it performed with the DVR+. We installed this antenna outside on our DISH satellite mast as it offered a convenience mounting location. The SMARTenna is designed to provide high quality OTA reception at a distance of up to 35 miles indoor and 50 miles outdoor for the majority of households within metropolitan areas. It comes comes with hardware to mount to a vertical surface such as an eave or mast or can be placed on a table using the provided feet. A weatherproof boot is also provided to protect the F-connector (antenna connection) from the elements. This omni-directional (360 degree reception pattern) antenna is a passive design and does not include any active electronics for signal boosting to increase the gain. The mounting location is the most critical part of getting a good signal to your ATSC tuner. Don't expect great reception indoors especially if you have many obstructions between the antenna and the transmitting towers. Based on my experience, you will need to try various indoor locations and orientations to get an optimal signal and this still may not be good enough to get all the available channels in your area.
Running the channel scan with the SMARTenna installed on the roof, the DVR+ found 145 channels. However, a few of these channels had insufficient signal strength that caused dropouts and macro-blocking in the picture. The omni-directional design pulls stations from all directions, while my reference rooftop antenna is highly directional with better gain. Interestingly, our reference rooftop antenna had less channels detected by the DVR+, but had better overall signal strength.
The DVR+ has an extensive menu system allowing users to configure many options. Pressing the Menu button and selecting Settings provides access to the sub menus (Language, TV & Audio Setup, Parental Control, User Preferences, Network Setup, Power Options, Technical Info, Tuning, Time & Date, and Factory Reset) used for configuring the unit. Once connected to the network, the electronic program guide and software updates can be used. We downloaded the latest firmware version (108R (0.5)) using this interface. The dual tuners in the DVR+ allow you to record one program while watching another (a commonly used feature) or record two programs concurrently.
The HDMI connection on the DVR+ sends the audio and video to the connected display or processor/receiver. We relied on our Denon AVR-5308CI, which decoded the audio and sent the video to our projector to handle the interface. Performance was excellent and we were able to record programs and play them back without any issues. Live programs can be paused while you are watching them and the DVR+ will buffer the data until you resume playback. The remote was responsive with minimal delays and the hardware responded well to quick changes from the user.
Pressing the DVR button on the remote displays the list of DVR recordings currently on the DVR+ drive. The names of the program along with the channel, date, and time
are provided. The user can select the any of the listed recordings to Resume Playback, Play Recording, Delete, or Apply Options (Rename, Lock, or New Status).
VUDU is a premium movie service that offers both high definition (HD) and standard definition (SD) programming. To access VUDU simply change the channel to 200 and the unit will confirm that you want to run the VUDU application. Customers will need to sign up if they are not already VUDU customers and provide PayPal or credit card information to access the premium content. Movie trailers and other samples are available for free without signing up. Video quality is excellent when playing back HDX (1080p) and HD (720p) content using VUDU. SD content looked significantly softer as expected.
Network performance and internet access speeds varies widely among users, so it is best to check your internet speed before selecting the video playback quality. HDX (1080p) requires at least 4.5Mb/s and HD (720p) needs at least 2.2Mb/s for reliable playback. For this reason we recommend using a wired connection to the DVR+ unit for consistent speeds to eliminate dropouts. We currently have Verizon FiOS, which offers 25Mb/s download speeds enabling us to benefit from the best playback quality VUDU has to offer. We found that when using WiFi with a good, but not great signal, we timed out on many of the VUDU screens with lots of graphics. The bottom line is that VUDU requires a lot of bandwidth and a slow WiFi connection will impact performance.
Video performance is excellent when using the VUDU application (Channel 200) and the DVR+ has no problem streaming full 1080p HD (HDX) content with a good internet connection. It is a great addition to a unit and provides capabilities that are really useful. Currently, there is no Netflix being offered on this unit.
The Channel Master DVR+ performed well during our test period and provided us a convenient and reliable way to record free over-the-air content without paying monthly subscription fees. Users also have the option to buy premium movies through VUDU, which takes advantage of the hardware already connected to your entertainment system. If you choose to use the premium service from VUDU, you will need to verify your internet speed meets the required bandwidth. Like all ATSC tuner, a good over-the-air signal is required to prevent dropouts and macro-blocking while viewing content.
It is not surprising that the Channel Master DVR+ was an International CES Innovations 2014 Design and Engineering Award honoree chosen by a panel of designers, engineers and trade media to honor outstanding design and engineering in consumer electronics. According to Channel Master, the DVR+ is the only subscription-free over-the-air DVR that integrates online streaming services and lets you choose your recording capacity. This product has proven to be a "must have" for those looking to cut the cord with their cable or satellite providers and free themselves from monthly subscription fees.