Kevin Hunt: Cable Buster? Channel Master's DVR+


More than 1.7 million subscribers dropped cable television last year, but conscientious objectors who turned to over-the-air TV expecting to eliminate all monthly TV-viewing fees didn't have much choice if they wanted a functional DVR.

TiVo's base-model Roamio records over-the-air programming yet requires a $14.99 monthly service fee. Channel Master's DVR+, however, records local programming and charges nothing for an electronic program guide data updated over an Internet connection. Is this the new set-me-free DVR?

For people willing to pay the upfront costs, yes. The DVR+, though not as slick as the latest TiVos, is the first from Channel Master, an antenna manufacturer in Gilbert, Ariz. It looks more like the company's super-flat SMARTenna antenna than the usual stocky, blocky DVR.

It achieves such svelteness by jettisoning the standard DVR's bulky, and often noisy, hard drive. It has only 16 gigabytes of flash memory, enough for maybe two hours of high-definition recording. That makes an external hard drive mandatory. Though it offers a program guide supplied by Rovie with an Internet connection, it comes with only a hard-wire Ethernet connection. A Wi-Fi adapter costs extra.

So let's add the costs. DVR+: $249.99. External hard drive: About $80 for 1 terabyte. Wi-Fi adapter: $39.99. That's close to $370 for a no-fees DVR+. The more sophisticated TiVo Roamio, with four tuners to the DVR+'s two, costs $199.99. But after only a year of monthly fees, the TiVo's expense will surpass the DVR+.

The DVR+'s origins might surprise: It was developed by EchoStar, the owner-operator of the Dish Network satellite-services fleet. (There's no escape, disenfranchised Dish subscribers.)

The connection pays off in two major areas. The DVR+ is compatible with the Slingbox 500, from EchoStar subsidiary Sling Media, which streams video from a TV or DVR to tablet, smartphone or computer. So you could watch last night's "NCIS" on an iPad the next morning with coffee.

The ad-skipping feature on the Dish Hopper DVR, under attack by major broadcasters since it arrived two years ago, alone almost justifies the DVR+'s cost. The settings allow a choice of skipping forward or back through recorded material in blocks of 10, 30, 45 or 60 seconds. I settled on 30, primarily to fast-forward through ads. Such precision, and such freedom.

The Internet connection might someday turn the DVR+ into a Roku-type streamer too. The DVR+ comes with only one premium service, Vudu, but Channel Master says more are on the way. Channel Master is also working on a whole-home DVR adapter that streams video to other televisions in the home.

The DVR+ will feel like a warm blanket to tech phobics. It has only one video connection, an all-purpose HDMI that will deliver both high-definition video and 5.1-channel Dolby Digital audio (when available) to an HDTV and a surround system. (An optical connection is also available for sending sound-only to an audio-video receiver.)

The DVR+'s setup wizard takes care of everything else. Depending on where you live, a simple rabbit-ears antenna might be enough to pull in every local station. A decade-old RCA amplified bar antenna pulled in close to 30 in my area, including subchannels, after a DVR+ channel scan.

The DVR+'s program guide and recording options work much like a cable or satellite DVR. I set a single recording to watch Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show," though I could have programmed the DVR+ to record the show every night. The DVR+ has two tuners, which permits recording two programs simultaneously or watching one while recording another.

The only thing I didn't like about the program guide was having to press buttons twice to watch a program, first to select it and then to watch (or record) it.

Really, the only hesitance for conscientious objectors will be the DVR+'s initial cost. For long-term use, though, it is now the best possible no-fees DVR for anyone prepared to abandon cable or satellite service.

Channel Master DVR+ for over-the-air television.

Cost: $249.99

The good: A competent DVR for over-the-air TV with no monthly fees. Isn't that enough?

The not so good: Expensive, needs optional adapter for Wi-Fi.

Information: channelmaster.com

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