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Channel Master DVR+ review: Subscription-free, no-frills DVR for over-the-air TV

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The information provided in the recorded programming list is also too sparse. For example, I recorded two episodes of PBS's "Independent Lens" series, which shows up in the interface as a folder titled "Independent Lens (2)" -- so far, so good. But opening the folder only shows two programs, both named "Independent Lens" -- there's no additional information as to which episode is which. You have to remember to press info to get any more details about the episode.

Recordings: Dual-tuner and reliable

The DVR+ has dual-tuner functionality, which means you can watch live TV while recording another program on another channel, or even record two live programs while watching something else off the DVR -- all from a single antenna.

Recording programs is simple: bring up the guide, select a program, and follow the prompts. You can also quickly record a program by selecting it and just pressing the red record button on the remote, which skips the onscreen prompts and records the program with your default preferences. There's also search functionality on main menu, which works well, although it's tedious to type in your search terms using the onscreen keyboard.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Like "Season Passes" on TiVo, the DVR+ has the ability to record every episode of a particular show. The big flaw is that you can't specify it to only record new episodes. It's an annoying limitation that leaves a lot of repeats on your DVR that you don't really want, requiring you to periodically go a delete spree to free up space.

On the plus side, the DVR+ does use "name-based" recordings -- rather than older VCR-style "time-based recordings" -- which means the DVR+ looks to record "Parks and Recreation" rather than also just recording NBC on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. It's nice feature that allows the DVR+ to keep recording programs even if they change their time slot. (You also have the option of setting manual time-based recordings if you'd like.)

In the settings menu, you have the ability to set default "early" and "late" recording options, so the DVR+ will tack on a specified amount of time to recordings. It's a nice feature, since many shows can run a little over their allotted time slots. Note that those recording buffers can cause conflicts if you're recording several other programs directly before or after.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's also the option of going into the DVR+'s scheduled recordings and adding up to an hour to specific programs, which is especially helpful for sports, since games tend to run longer than scheduled. It's not nearly as convenient as TiVo, which automatically prompts you about adding time to sports programs, but at least you have the option.

And lastly, it's worth mentioning that the DVR+ reliably made all its scheduled recordings in my tests. That might seem like a layup, but quite a few of the over-the-air DVRs I've reviewed in the past have missed recordings. I have seen scattered reports from DVR+ owners of some missed recordings -- particularly regarding the DVR+'s clock becoming inaccurate -- but it never happened during my testing period of two weeks of moderate use.

Image quality: Pure OTA, with some hiccups

One of the best parts of over-the-air HDTV is that image quality is excellent -- often better than what's offered by cable and satellite providers. And because the DVR+ is connected directly to your TV via HDMI -- instead of streaming video over your network or the Internet like Tablo or Aereo -- there's no additional compression taking place. It makes a huge difference on sports, which tend to suffer the most from compression artifacts. Quality on the DVR+ was as pristine as I expected.

Sarah Tew/CNET

While live TV always played back smoothly, recordings occasionally had some issues. Every once in a while, there would video playback glitches that looked like dropped frames or stuttering on recorded programs. Initially the glitches seemed like they might be reception issues, but I ruled that out by playing back the same sections again and seeing the glitches disappear. Perhaps it's an issue with the hard drive I was using (a Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex), but it seems like the DVR+ should be able to test whether a connected drive will perform reliably.

Overall, it's not a deal-breaking flaw, as I was able to watch many programs all the way through without issues, but it happened just enough to be annoying, especially if it's your main source of TV.

Living with it: The comfort of traditional TV

The best part about the DVR+ is it feels closer to the traditional TV experience than streaming-based alternatives like Tablo, Simple.TV, and Aereo.

Those DVRs can do a lot of neat tricks, like streaming your recordings to mobile devices outside your home, but none of them have nailed the living room experience. The Roku interface on all three is awkward to navigate, lacking a traditional channel grid or easy way to see all your recordings at once. Skipping commercials and fast-forwarding can also be a pain; those devices are not nearly as responsive as DVRs that don't have to stream video. Even little things, like being to able channel surf, aren't really available in the same way you're used to.

That's all the stuff the DVR+ gets right and it goes a long way, especially for cord-cutters who are more interested in reliability, emulating the cable box DVR experience and saving money, rather than in experimenting with fancy technology. The DVR+'s user experience still doesn't come close to TiVo, but neither does the price.

Costs: Still cheaper than the alternatives

The total cost for the Channel Master DVR+ depends a lot on what gear you already have.

If you're starting from scratch, you'll need the DVR+ ($250), an antenna (starts around $40), a USB hard drive (around $55), and a few cables (around $10), for a total of $355. And if you don't have Ethernet in the your living room, add on the USB Wi-Fi adapter ($40), bringing the total to $395. Nearly $400 is a big initial outlay, even if you'll eventually make that back by ditching a cable subscription.

Still, the cost of the DVR+ compares favorably to the other major over-the-air recording solutions. If you make the same assumptions about starting from scratch, needing dual-tuners, and requiring Wi-Fi, the three-year cost of ownership for the major competitors looks like this:

Channel Master DVR+ Tablo Aereo Simple.TV 2 TiVo Roamio
Hardware $250 $220 $50 $250 $200
Accessories $145 $105 $0 $136 $50
Subscription fees $0 $150 $432 $150 $500
3-year cost $395 $475 $482 $536 $750

So while the the DVR+ may seem expensive when you first add up all the accessories, over time it's actually the most affordable option of the major over-the-air DVRs available.

Conclusion: A solid budget over-the-air DVR

The DVR+ isn't the kind of living room technology that's going to delight you, like a Roku 3 or Sonos Play:1 might. In fact, its closest cousin may by the very cable box you're looking to ditch: a utilitarian gadget that gets the job done day-in and day-out, without any extra frills.

But the same thing that makes the DVR+ a little boring also makes it easier to transition from the traditional TV experience. Aereo and Tablo are cool, but their tablet-centric design isn't for everyone. The DVR+ has plenty of room to improve with firmware updates, but it's already a great option for cord-cutters looking to save money.

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