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.
As with any DVR, in addition to recording programs, you can also pause and rewind live TV. There's a 60-minute live buffer; you can rewind up to 60 minutes of live TV, although if you opt to record the program you're watching in progress, it won't include that buffer in the recording. Another missing feature is "dual live buffers," which on some other DVRs allow you to bounce back and forth between two semi-live channels and fast-forward/rewind them independently.
Our favorite DVR feature on the CM-7000PAL was the 30-second "skip forward" function, which makes it easy to blast through commercials. (TiVo doesn't technically have this feature, but it can be enabled with a simple remote hack.) Standard rewind and fast-forward aren't quite as fluid as TiVo's, but the ability to fast-forward at 300x is great for quickly scanning a program. There's also a 10-second "skip back" button to quickly replay what just happened.
The CM-7000PAL contains two ATSC tuners, like the TiVo. This enables it to record two programs at the same time from a single antenna. You can even record two programs and watch a third off the hard drive at the same time.
While the two-tuner functionality is great, the Channel Master doesn't do a good job of handling recording conflicts. For example, if you go to make a recording and both tuners are already scheduled to be in use, it will just tell you the new recording conflicts with an existing event. It doesn't tell you which events it conflicts with or offer you options about choosing which program you'd actually like to record; most DVRs, including TiVo, do.
To create a recording, the CM-7000PAL functions more like a high-def VCR than a modern DVR. Most DVRs offer name-based recordings, so you can tell the machine to record all the new episodes of "30 Rock," and the DVR will adjust its recording schedule accordingly. With the CM-P7000PAL, all you can tell it is to record every Thursday at 10 p.m. on NBC. It won't skip repeats, automatically extend for hour-long special episodes, or adjust if the show changes its time slot. If you're accustomed to the "pick your programs and forget about them" mentality of a standard DVR, don't expect that with the CM-7000PAL--you'll probably still want to scan the TV Guide once a week to see what's worth recording.
The Channel Master's connectivity is standard. There's an RF input for connecting your antenna; remember, you only need to connect a single antenna to use both tuners. There's an HDMI output, capable of outputting HD video in 1080i or 720p resolution (you must choose one or the other; there's no "native" setting to preserve the broadcaster's native resolution) and handling multichannel audio. There's also a component video output, which is also capable of HD output. Standard-definition output is limited to a composite video output and an RF output; there's no S-Video. For audio connections there's an optical digital audio output for surround sound, and a stereo analog audio output. Rounding out the connections are a USB port and an Ethernet port, both of which are used only for firmware updates.
Despite the Ethernet port on the back, there's no Internet TV on the CM-7000PAL. Though TiVo offers a plethora of online services (Netflix Instant Streaming, Rhapsody, YouTube, and Amazon On Demand, to name a few), and subscription DVRs offer access to video-on-demand, the CM-7000PAL is limited to what you can record over the air. We think a suite of online video services would be a nice addition to the CM-7000PAL, but it's worth noting that plenty of other devices, like the Roku, Apple TV, or even game consoles, can fill that need admirably.
If you're not used to watching over-the-air HDTV, you may be surprised by how good the image quality is. Over-the-air digital TV signals can broadcast in standard definition or HD, and most of the major networks broadcast prime-time content in HD (either 1080i or 720p). On the Channel Master CM-7000PAL, these broadcasts are apparently preserved in their highest quality, without the compression artifacts or softness we've seen on some cable and satellite services.
We directly compared the picture from the Channel Master with that of a Verizon Fios TV feed using an NBC Sunday Night Football broadcast, and it was basically impossible to tell the difference. Both looked excellent and as free of artifacts as we'd expect from high-quality HD. In our experience, the only sources that look better than over-the-air HD are Blu-ray and Vudu's HDX streams.
Subjected to a month of constant use during our review period, the CM-7000PAL was remarkably stable--more so than any DVR we've used. It never crashed or even hiccuped, maintaining excellent response time and glitch-free operation throughout.
Compared with a TiVo Premiere we also tested, the CM-7000PAL picked up a few more channels and was more stable on channels we couldn't reliably get with the TiVo. Our local CBS affiliate, for example, was relatively reliable on the Channel Master, whereas the TiVo never locked onto its signal. Note that reception issues vary greatly depending on local conditions, so your experience may differ.