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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.
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.