Channel Master Stream Plus is a cord cutter DVR that's not yet ready for prime time
Forget counting on one hand -- I can count on a single finger the over-the-air DVRs I would truly recommend to a potential cord cutter. Though there are plenty of options to record shows from an antenna, TiVo still stands out as the best. The rock-solid Roamio OTA has an intuitive operating system and streaming for those who need it, but it's expensive.
One of TiVo's biggest competitors is Channel Master, and its DVR Plus was a hit among those with a tighter budget. It's now discontinued, however, and replaced by the new Channel Master Stream Plus. The new version looks slick, has integrated tuners and gives you streaming thanks to Android TV, plus it's even cheaper at $150. What's not to love?
Well, a lot. After playing with the Stream Plus over the last week or so, I can report that it's simply not done yet. This smart TV box still needs more work (read: software updates) before it can challenge the likes of TiVo. I encountered plenty of operational headaches and an only semifunctional electronic program guide (EPG), plus it's currently missing apps for both Netflix and Amazon Prime video.
On paper, it's great
Unlike the company's DVR Plus, which is the size of a large picture book, the Stream Plus is the size and shape of a upturned paper cup. There are no controls on the unit -- not even a power button. Instead you can use the included microphone remote control or the Google remote app. The remote control works via IR but in order to use the mic you need to Bluetooth pair it at setup.
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Ethernet
- 4K and High Dynamic Range with HDR10
- HDMI connectivity
- Quad-core ARM CPU for gaming and presumably faster loading times
- Dual ATSC tuner -- record one channel while watching another
- microSD slot for recording storage
- USB 3.0 port for personal media use and "future options" (read: "expandable storage")
- Built-in Chromecast with Google Home control
- Android TV 7.0 Nougat with Google Play Store
Not quite baked
The Stream Plus is designed to be a DVR first and foremost, but at this it's not yet functional. This is not entirely Channel Master's doing, as the company is largely reliant on Google to provide the Live Channels app. Here's where things fall down.
For example, while Channel Master advertises a "subscription-free channel guide," there's no 14-day guide data. You'll only get a couple of hours programming in advance by visiting each channel. That's a real issue if you want to schedule recordings more than a few hours in advance. Channel Master says that voice search is enabled as an alternative, but a search for Brooklyn Nine-Nine or The Bachelorette, for example, brings up a streaming media synopsis page -- but no record option.
I found it's also a little convoluted to record a show while watching it, and while there is what appears to be a record button on the remote, it doesn't work. You need to press pause, then choose record from a drop-down menu. Recording in this way, or choosing from a day's worth of EPG data, will only record a single episode -- there's no season pass capability.
I also missed the ability, also common to many DVRs, to watch a scheduled recording that's currently in-progress. Instead, you'll have to wait until the recording completes before you can start watching -- a real bummer if you want to watch something (a ballgame or new show the same night, for example) semi-live, but still skip commercials. The Stream Plus does begin buffering as soon as you tune to a channel, so you can pause, rewind back to the time you tuned in, and fast-forward through commercials up until live time, but that's a lot less useful.
In addition, two of the most popular streaming apps are MIA: Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Both apps are stuck in a certification process with the respective companies, though it is possible to side-load each one. Side-loading is not something most people would want to attempt though, but as a first step you'll need the APK files for each app and to install ES File Explorer. If that sounds too difficult, then it is.
What works, works well
While it's not there as a DVR yet, as a smart TV device it's actually very good. The Stream Plus stacks up well against the Apple TV 4K and the Nvidia Shield in performing most functions without slowdowns.
I was able to stream Steam games from a PC over Wi-Fi -- try doing that with the Steam Link -- and found it was responsive enough to make Tomb Raider lag-free. The device also offers the Google Play Store and even without a PC you should find plenty of games to play.
With a side-loaded copy of Netflix on board I found I was able to navigate menus and watch programs without any lag or picture quality hiccups. The APK available on the web isn't HDR enabled, but I've have reached out to Channel Master to find out whether the Stream Plus version will be.
Should you buy it?
Yes, you can buy the Stream Plus right now. But the two main reasons you would -- as a DVR and as a streamer -- simply don't work properly yet. If you're happy to accept this as an early adopter willing to put up with some kinks, go right ahead. For everyone else, however, I'd suggest waiting until the significant hurdles are overcome.
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