For many cord-cutters, the holy grail has long been a reliable over-the-air (OTA) DVR that isn't saddled with subscription fees. And as you'd expect from a holy grail, it hasn't been easy to find short of building one yourself.
The new Channel Master DVR+ ($250) hits most of the major points cord-cutters have been looking for. There are absolutely no subscription fees and the DVR+ comes with free premium program guide data from Rovi, which is a big step-up from the guide data that's embedded in OTA signals. It has dual-tuner functionality and support for Vudu, plus its image quality is excellent, unlike some of the other OTA solutions that use compression. Best of all, I found it to be reliable over my testing period -- something I couldn't say about Channel Master's last attempt at an over-the-air DVR.
Still, it's not perfect. The DVR+'s upfront cost is reasonable, but you need to add a lot of your own accessories (antenna, hard drive, Wi-Fi adapter), which can drive up the price. Its software and user interface is decent, but rough around the edges, lacking basic options like the ability to only record new episodes of your favorite shows. And while the DVR+'s image quality is typically great, I experienced a few glitches during playback.
None of that is enough to sully what the DVR+ has accomplished: it's the "good enough" DVR without subscription fees that many have been looking for. Yes, TiVo is still better and other options offer cool features, but if your primary goal is to save money, and you don't mind its imperfections, it's hard to beat the Channel Master DVR+
Design: Flat, wide, and discreet
The DVR+ doesn't look like any other living room box. It has the large footprint (13.38 inches wide by 11.25 inches deep) of a traditional device like a cable box, but it's remarkably thin, coming in at just 1.5 inches tall.
That's just thick enough to accommodate its ports on the back, namely an antenna input, HDMI output, Ethernet port, two USB ports, and an IR-extender port. That IR-extender port means you can hide the box itself, by placing an IR extender cable (not included) in a place that can receive remote codes. But even if you need to stash the DVR+ in plain sight, its matte-gray finish lets the box blend in with your other living room electronics.
The included remote is decent, although it could be a lot better. On the upside, it's a full-size clicker with all the buttons you're used to seeing on a DVR remote, like a directional pad, Guide, DVR, and playback controls, including commercial skip and jump back buttons. And it's nice that a remote is included at all; many new over-the-air DVR solutions like Tablo and Simple.TV rely on your tablet or phone to act as the remote, which isn't ideal in a living room environment.
On the other hand, the DVR+ remote's button layout doesn't make a whole lot of sense. As a frequent commercial-skipper, I found myself using the playback controls the most, but they're awkwardly scrunched at the bottom of the remote and the buttons themselves are tiny. All of the buttons also tend to feel flat and similarly-sized, which makes it difficult to navigate by feel. You may want to consider investing in a universal remote if you end up going with the DVR+.
Setup: Bring your own (required) accessories
Like any over-the-air TV product, the Channel Master DVR+ requires more setup than a typical gadget. To start, you'll need to connect an antenna (not included) and find a place for it where it gets good reception. The initial channel scan takes about 4 minutes.
The DVR+ also requires a USB hard drive (not included) for DVR functionality. There's 16GB of flash storage built-in, but that's mainly used for buffering and pausing live TV. I had a spare 320GB hard drive lying around that I used, but if you need to buy one, it's about $55 for a 500GB drive, which should be plenty for most people.
Finally, you'll need to get the DVR+ online. While Internet connectivity isn't absolutely necessary to use the DVR+, I'd highly recommended it. The DVR+ can use the program guide data that's included with over-the-air broadcasts, but getting it online means you get access to up to two weeks of data from Rovi -- all without a monthly fee. Rovi's guide data is significantly more extensive and accurate than what you'll get otherwise, so it's worth the hassle of getting the DVR+ online.
It's a hassle mainly because there's no built-in Wi-Fi, so you'll need to either connect it via Ethernet, use a USB Wi-Fi adapter ($40 from Channel Master), or use another workaround. It's certainly frustrating that the $250 device charges extra for wireless connectivity, when even the $35 Chromecast includes built-in Wi-Fi.
After you've rounded up all the accessories, setup itself is straightforward and takes less than 10 minutes.
What can you watch? Major networks and Vudu
The DVR+ is primarily designed around recording free, over-the-air TV signals that it can receive using an antenna. In a perfect world, you should be able to get all of the major networks (CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC) as well as PBS and a handful of other stations. In the real world, your reception might vary considerably, depending on your location, antenna and a host of other factors, such as the weather.
In addition to over-the-air TV, the DVR+ also has support for one streaming video service: Vudu. It's a good choice, as Vudu offers a large library of movies and TV shows that you typically can't get with over-the-air TV. And Vudu has been in the streaming video game longer than most, offering up top tier image quality on its streaming content, and serving as one of the few Ultraviolet lockers. The main downside is that it's entirely pay-per-view, with no Netflix-style all-you-can-stream subscription model.
Channel Master says it's working on adding more services, but the reality is in the meantime you'll probably need a second box dedicated to streaming video if you want to use services like Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Instant. (Roku's boxes start at $50.)
User interface: Familiar guide, rough around the edges
The DVR+'s channel grid won't win any design awards, but it does have a familiar layout that should be easy to navigate for anyone coming from a traditional cable box. That may not seem like a big deal, but one of the biggest drawbacks to many over-the-air DVR solutions (including Tablo and Aereo) is the lack of a good onscreen interface. The DVR+ feels like the TV experience you're already comfortable with.
There are some quirks, however. If you select a program from that grid that's currently on, you don't go right to the live feed; instead, there's a prompt asking whether you want to watch it now, record it, or set a manual recording. It's a minor nuisance, but it's a recurring feeling on the Channel Master, where everything takes a few more clicks and searches than you'd expect.