As someone who recently (and temporarily) ditched pay TV for a combination over-the-air/Internet TV-based system, I can tell you the Channel Master CM-7000PAL DVR ($350) works great as long as you're not expecting the polish of a TiVo--or even of a good cable company DVR. Its main attribute, and it's a doozy in an era of devices designed to sucker you into paying every month, is a complete lack of subscription fees. Just pay once and the CM-7000PAL will record your over-the-air antenna-based television programming, in excellent-quality high definition where available, for as long as your local DTV stations keep broadcasting and its hardware holds out. And unlike its nearly identical predecessor, the Dish Network DTVPal, Channel Master actually backs the CM-7000PAL up with a standard, one-year warranty. If you don't want to pay $20 per month for an actual TiVo or set up a dedicated home-theater PC, the Channel Master CM-7000PAL is your only antenna DVR option for now. Good thing it's not a bad one.
The CM-7000PAL is clearly a utilitarian device. It makes no effort to dress itself up, sticking with a plain black case that's slightly sloped along the top. Up front there's a single green status light for power and a red one that illuminates when the device is recording. That's about it.
The included remote is nearly identical to the clickers found with standard Dish Network DVRs, and it's superb. There are a lot of buttons, but the layout, colors, and sizing of the buttons make it easy to navigate. We especially appreciated the 30-second skip button, allowing us to easily blast by commercials with just a few button presses. Some users may prefer TiVo's simpler remote, but we prefer this one hands down.
The menu system is bland, too. The electronic programming guide (EPG) has a boxy grid layout, and the blue-and-gray color scheme is in stark contrast to the colorful interface found on a TiVo. There are three text size options for viewing guide data; we preferred small text so as to see the most of channels at once.
The usefulness of the EPG is dependent on the quality of the over-the-air program guide data in your area. The CM-7000PAL can pull guide information from two sources, the standard, broadcaster-supplied information included with new digital TV broadcasts and TV Guide On Screen data, where it's available. If your area has TV Guide data (as ours does), you'll get a full week of program information; if you don't get TV Guide, expect just a few days of program information.
Even with solid TV Guide data for most stations, there were exceptions. While our local CBS, ABC, Fox, and NBC stations had full data, including descriptions of shows, many lesser-known stations displayed a "no information available" message for most or all of the shows. Worse, even on major networks, some shows lacked information.
Speaking of lesser-known stations, there's no easy way to weed them out of the guide. That's an issue since in many areas the antenna spectrum is crowded with local, foreign-language, audio-only, and other minor broadcasters you might want to delete from the guide. If nothing else, the CM-7000PAL could really use a "favorites" channel list to separate the wheat from the chaff.
If you know the show you want to watch but don't want to hunt for it in the EPG, you also have the option to search for it. If you have good guide data in your area and know the name of the program you want to record, this works pretty well. We didn't find this as useful as TiVo's searching capabilities, which enable you to set up "wish lists" for your favorite actors and directors so the TiVo will automatically record any program they're involved in.
Recorded content shows up under My Recordings, which is easily accessible by hitting the DVR button. The layout for browsing recordings feels cramped, showing only six programs at a time. The lack of consistent program information is problematic here, too; you won't always know who the guests are on late-night shows or if the sitcom you're watching is a repeat or new.
The Spartan design does have advantages, though. We appreciated that the interface wasn't cluttered with ads, promotions for video-on-demand, or other "messages" commonly found on subscription DVRs. Response time was also excellent.
The standout feature of the Channel Master CM-7000PAL is its lack of a monthly fee. While TiVo charges a monthly fee for service and cable companies charge a monthly fee to rent the box, the CM-7000PAL costs nothing beyond the initial purchase price. This is definitely a trade-off--as we've mentioned, the quality of the listings clearly isn't as good--but for those who just want basic recording capability, it will do the job.
The Channel Master has a 250GB hard drive, which is capable of recording 30 hours of HD programs and 250 hours of standard-definition programs. Despite the presence of a USB port, there are no plans for the company to support expansion via external hard drives, like TiVo and other subscription DVRs offer.