Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Channel Master DVR+

Channel Master gets it right for OTA TV viewers and cordcutters with its new DVR+

ChannelMaster is considered as one of the most reputable antenna and broadcast television hardware manufacturers in the world. Established in 1949, ChannelMaster recently moved from being solely an antenna hardware and accessory manufacturer to providing specialized set-top tuner boxes and personal recorders for over-the-air digital TV and the growing Pay TV cordcutting movement. Its newest product launched into that market is the DVR+
Now this is not ChannelMaster’s first attempt at an OTA DVR as the DVR+ is a follow-up to two predecessors: the popular but completely unsupported CM7000PAL (great device, but not even one SW update provided) and the largely unsuccessful CM7400 (short-lived and rumoured to overhear, plagued with software bugs and tuner issues to the point that some OTA retailers actually pulled it from shelves and sold old CM7000PALs again).

So what is one to make of ChannelMaster’s newest DVR? Is this something that people can finally put in their TV unit and enjoy... or is this another half-attempt at a true cordcutter OTA DVR that falls short of expectations like many others on the market? Let’s take a closer look…

Promotional photo courtesy of

Model: ChannelMaster DVR+   CM-7500GB16  
Size: 10" wide x 8 1/4" deep x 3/4" high

Package includes: DVR+, remote control, power supply, instructions and warnings

Input: RF connector (F-type coax), Ethernet, USB 2.0 x 2, Power, IR extension port

Output: HDMI, Optical audio

Pros: Uber-compact form factor, beautiful guide and user interface, easy and reliable dual tuner recording, excellent tuner sensitivity, expandable storage, great features, versatile and adaptable to your needs, plenty of accessories, able to have streaming apps, low power consumption, stable software, no monthly or yearly fees, compatible with SlingBox

Cons: Out-of-box recording capability somewhat limited, currently only one streaming app (Vudu) supported and is not available in Canada (see update below) , somewhat basic remote control

If we could describe the DVR+ in one word, it would be: sleek. Slightly larger than an iPad, the unit is compact, flat and modern in design. There is only one button (power) on the front and one discreet LED light that goes from dim blue in Standby mode to bright blue for ON or red for Recording. There is no visible hardware from its main vantage point.

All connection ports are in the back and you can see that the Ethernet port was the final limit on its thickness. With this compact form factor, some things had to go and that includes the older output ports such as component and composite, leaving only a HDMI port out.
The entire unit is a flat powdercoat black and the ChannelMaster logo is tastefully embossed on the top surface. The unit blends in easily to any high-end home theatre setup and is compact/lightweight enough to be placed anywhere your heart desires. This cool looking unit is definitely a far cry from the ostentatiously over-branded clock-boxes some Pay TV services are forcing on their customers.

The minimalist look is in: With its sleek appearance the DVR+ won’t distract the eye

The remote control is simple, well-labelled and non-cluttered with most buttons being well-placed for the functions having the most frequent use. What you see is what you get as there are no features such as a QWERTY keyboard or any fancy backlighting. The coloured buttons assume different functions depending on what menu is being accessed.
Keeping it simple: No fancy form or splashy features with the DVR+ remote

Build Quality
The unit comes professionally packaged and with a trilingual basic guide (English, Spanish, French). What’s great is the DVR+ is actually built with a metal casing. The finish on the box is of high quality and is fairly scratch resistant. The unit itself seems solid, safe and well-built.


Initial setup of the DVR+ is easy and user-friendly. There are very few connections to make and the unit launches very easily. Upon first startup, the unit prompts the user for their basic preferences and location for proper guide / time setup. Afterwards, a graphic guides you in setup of the inputs followed by a channel scan. The channel scan took an average of about 4 minutes to complete.


The above screenshots show the main setup sequence

The one drawback we found was there was no guidance or chance to aim the antenna during the setup before the channel scan. Other DVRs usually have a “point antenna” screen during the setup process where fine tuning can be done for channels of your choice to ensure the first scan will run with the antenna in its optimized position. This means if you missed some channels, you have to tune the antenna manually through the Setup menu and either add the channels or re-run a complete scan.
The initial guide population requires some patience. If you are not using the internet connection, you can speed up PSIP acquisition for the OTA TV signals by running through all the channels manually with the remote “channel up/down” buttons. If you are using an internet connection, the Rovi guide can take up to 24 hours for the guide to fully populate (2 weeks of info, channel logos). We found that in Canadian areas near the US border, it was faster to plug in a local US ZIP code at first, causing the US network info to load quickly and then change the location to the Canadian postal code which then loaded the Canadian stations.

Installing an external hard drive was also surprisingly easy. For our evaluation we used a Seagate 1TB USB 3.0 drive which was immediately recognized once connected to the USB port. In a few steps the drive was automatically formatted, initialized and the DVR+ rebooted itself with over 150 hours of storage added when all was said and done.

Features and Performance

While some maligned the DVR+ for its lack of features “out-of-the-box”, we found that the add-on capability is the actually quite advantageous. ChannelMaster has taken an interesting approach here in that they offer a base model that is still appealing to most OTA users and any customization can be done as add-ons by the customer; when they choose and for only the features they deem necessary. Want to go WiFi? Add it on. If you don’t, well you aren’t burdened with this option in the price of the base unit. The hard drive is the same option, the built-in storage is a paltry 2hours of HD recording, good enough for a show and pausing live TV. Adding a 1 TB external hard drive is fairly economical these days (available from ChannelMaster but can be found even cheaper on certain online sites or during sales) and instantly adds 150 HD recording hours. If you want more, well then the option is all yours. All to say the add-on versatility appears to save DVR+ owners quite a bit of cash in the end as it gives them ability to shop around to get the best price for their optional hardware.

As in the above advertisement for TiVo’s Roamio DVR, the difference between the Plus and the Pro model is 300 hours of HD recording (equivalent to about 2TB) at a price difference of $200 charged by TiVo. By going with a “bring your own harddrive approach”, DVR+ owners get a much better bang for their buck as 2TB of storage can be found on sale from retailers for around $100 (or less) nowadays.

The remote control is basic and easy-to-use. There are no fancy features or backlighting (except for the TV or DVR power button when a command is pressed). Unfortunately it seems the ergonomics of the remote actually took a step backwards from the curvy remotes of the CM7400 and CM7000PAL devices. Despite this boxy simplicity, the layout is quite user-friendly though; it’s also lightweight and is fairly good on battery consumption.

The super-thin remote is powered by two CR2032 batteries (coin-cell type, included), which were chosen as they are probably the only ones that fit in there. Battery life is fair, but we recommend stocking a few extra as the size is somewhat uncommon in household applications when compared to AA or AAA.  As there are no buttons on the DVR+, once the batteries do go, you're working blind.

Menus and Navigation
The main menu is easily accessible and fairly with only four main options that pop up discretely on the side of the screen and are easy to scroll through. There is a dedicated page that relays signal strength information of the current channel to help with tuning. There are also options to re-perform channel scans to add new channels and a manual channel addition options. We also it found it noteworthy that in Preferences the “transparency” customization option for the menu screens was a nice touch. Highlights of the menu screens are shown below.

A factory reset option is also available in the menu as well if you ever need to take a mulligan and start over fresh.


The DVR+ guide and GUI is easily one of the best we’ve seen for an OTA set-top box. The guide comes in two versions, a base setup that does not require an internet connection and an upgraded version powered by online guide data company Rovi. What’s awesome about the DVR+ is that both versions are absolutely free, something that the DVR+‘s competitors seemed to miss the boat on as they charge monthly or yearly fees for their premium guides (something that appears odd considering most of the data is free online anyways, i.e. hellloooo there
The DVR+ guide overlays nicely over the bottom half of the screen; transparency can be adjusted.
The guide does not interrupt your TV viewing experience as it is overlaid over the main image, with options on transparency level. Text is of a decent size and channels are clearly marked, the guide is easy to navigate using the page up/down buttons and the coloured buttons. Channels can be edited (removed from the list, handy for getting rid of SD subchannels of HD feeds) but not renamed. The guide flows well and there is almost no lag in the navigation. Browsing can also be done one a channel-by-channel basis by using the Info button and scrolling the up-down channel buttons one at a time.


You can also scroll through the channels one-by-one using the information bar.

The basic antenna-only/no internet guide version gets the job done. The only drawback is that the guide populates only based on PSIP information broadcasted by the TV station which in some cases may be a week’s worth of data, two days, a few hours or none at all. Results vary and this may limit the ability to record programs occurring in the somewhat distant future (will have to revert to a manual recording).

An internet connection fixes this issue as the Rovi guide provides a beautiful guide with channel logos and a full two weeks of programming data, refreshed on a daily basis. The guide is one of the best that we’ve seen to date, and even some people with pay TV service were envious (for example, Videotron’s guide does not have the overlay feature and Bell TV satellite subscribers don’t even have channel logos).

 The basic guide (above) is a standard grill populated by PSIP info only and does not require an internet connection. The guide however is only as good as the data sent out by the local stations, hence the reason some channels have no data at all the info stops after about 8-10 hours for others. The bottom photo is the same guide screen but with an internet connection. The grill is full of data and full-colour channel logos are present to ease navigation.

The only odd issue we found (although very minor) is that clicking Select on a program in the guide doesn’t actually change the channel but instead triggers a pop-up that asks you if you want to view the program or set a recording. Not a big deal but just requires more clicks when channel surfing.

Tuner Sensitivity
We were very pleased with the overall tuner sensitivity of the DVR+. The tuner was able to scan all the channels it was supposed to pick up in the given locations, both local and distant. Even in bad weather or low signal situations the tuner held on with a good lock on and decent picture quality.

Given the flakiness of the CM7400 tuner, we decided to really put the DVR+ tuner to the test so we split the incoming signal to another TV with two identical coax cables. We then slowly de-tuned our antenna on our weakest station see who would be first to give out. As the signal got worse, the TV (2009 purchase date) tuner gave out completely while the DVR+ was still able to resolve the sound and bring in a picture despite some macro-blocking. Further tests showed that the tuner was very robust in bringing in and holding weak stations even in bad weather. ChannelMaster also pointed out that the tuner is future-proofed as its firmware is upgradable via software update if need be.


Sniff-Sniff … why do you have to be so sensitive? The DVR+ (bottom) held on to even the weakest signals with visegrip-like tenacity, showing limited macroblocking while the TV tuner (above) threw in the towel at that point.
The only drawback we found was that as with all tuners of high sensitivity, the DVR+ tuner was more susceptible to multipath and co-channel interference than usual. We recommend not going too crazy on the antenna signal amplification as you are better off providing the DVR+ a clean, but weak signal (don't worry it'll pick it up) rather than a stronger, boosted signal with more noise.

Recording Capabilities

Recording capabilities are fairly limited out-of-the-box with the unit only able to pause live TV for 15 minutes and record about 2 hours of HD programming. Once you add external storage, the DVR+ really comes to life with its full dual tuner recording capabilities (save two shows at the same time). You can also not only pause live TV but you can now go back in time to an earlier point in the program even if you haven’t hit Record (and provided you haven’t changed the channel).

The DVR recordings can be scheduled multiple ways. The easiest way is selecting a future program via the guide, and then either choosing to make it a one-time event or to record all occurrences of that name. Other ways include through the Search menu, setting up a manual recording (channel + start/stop time) or through the extended DVR menu selections from the main screen. General options to start the recording earlier or end later are only available through the extended DVR menu, while more basic options are available in the first two. Manual recording is the only way to go if guide info is not available for whatever reason.


We found the recording features were well organized and easy to use. The status of the recordings is clearly identified as well without the need to navigate to other screens (below). Programs that we set recorded consistently and the dual tuner recording is a great feature since we weren’t forced to choose between two shows.

In the event of conflict, there is a useful pop-up screen (below) that lets you resolve it on the spot, which is better than some DVRs that simply tell you the program cannot be recorded and then you have to fumble around to figure out what the conflict was.


 The only drawback we found was that smart recording is still not fully enabled. For example, the DVR+ even when connected to the Rovi internet guide does not have the option to record new instances of a given show. Channel Master did comment that they are looking at potentially enhancing smart recording capabilities in a future software release. (see update below)

 Playback and Timeshifting (Pausing Live TV)

For playback, DVR recordings can be accessed directly from the DVR button on the remote or through the extended DVR menu selections. The recordings list is well laid out with recordings of the same name automatically nested in folders for easy grouping and browsing (example: “The Simpsons” in the photo below). Manual recordings however do not display the name of the program playing.
Playback of the recording can be paused, fast forwarded or rewound at different speeds up to 64X and there is the convenient skip fwd / skip back buttons as well. A great feature of the DVR+ is these buttons are customizable and you can vary how far they skip ahead or back (below). Not all DVRs have this capability and it’s pretty convenient as someone who watches a lot of sports will most likely want different settings to make on-the-fly replays that someone who is primarily interested in skipping commercial breaks.

We also like that the Back button is a shortcut key to go back to live TV when watching a paused/timeshifted live program.


As mentioned above, the DVR+ has only minimal storage and recording capacity out-of-the-box, this provides about 2 hours of HD recording (6 SD) and the ability to pause live TV for a max of 15 minutes. Storage is accomplished via a USB 2.0 or 3.0 external hard drive; the drive however must be more than 80 Gigs in size or else the unit will assume it’s a USB key that is attached and look for SW updates rather than format the drive for use as DVR storage. Space is essentially unlimited as the DVR+ can handle drives in its two USB ports and works with even the largest 4TB drives (although the DVR screen GUI slows down considerably once you cross the 1000 title threshold).

The storage device is transportable between DVR+ units as the DVR+ will recognize the drive as a storage device and access the recordings, meaning it is possible to record shows on a DVR+ unit at your house, then bring the drive with you to your friend’s house to watch your recordings together on their DVR+.  Recognizing the recordings on a laptop or PC is not intended and unsupported by ChannelMaster, but possible if your computer can find a way to read the Linux EXT2 file system.

Internet Connectivity and Apps

The DVR+ connects to the internet via its Ethernet port or an optional WiFi add-on USB dongle on sale at ChannelMaster. A wired connection is recommended for streaming.

Currently, the only streaming app supported by the DVR+ is Vudu, which unfortunately is not available in Canada. Trying to change the location setting in the Setup menu will not work as Vudu bases itself on the location of your IP address. Having the streaming apps showing directly in the program guide starting at channel 200 is a cool feature, it makes browsing easier and keeps it simple rather than having to exit and go to another menu.
The Vudu app occupies the 200 channel position in the program guide for easy access but does not work in Canada.

There has been a lot of talk but no confirmation on when or if more apps will follow. Many people are most probably awaiting a Netflix app with the hops that it is also supported in Canada. It would appear the future success of the DVR+ will be directly linked to how many and which apps will become available on its platform.


Due to the overheating issues rumoured and reported with Channel Master’s previous DVR devices, we decided to do a stress test on the DVR+ under full operation in an enclosed environment. The CM7000PAL was reported to run hot due to its internal hard disk drive always spinning (even in standby mode) which generated unnecessary power consumption and heat, leading many to blame premature failure of the internal components on this. The short-lived successor CM7400 was apparently even worse, although not unsafe it was rumoured to run hot enough to cause software glitches and premature failures.
The experiment was done by enclosing the DVR+ and the attached external hard drive “under the dome” and running it for about 7 hours while recording two programs and displaying another program already recorded. At intervals, we took the temperature of the top of the DVR+ unit using a laser thermometer and as a reference also took the temperature of the hard disk drive (HDD) as well. This scenario is definitely a worst-case type of application: poor ventilation of the unit and pretty much the most taxing functionality on the CPU and motherboard. Using the DVR+ in a TV unit or stand would most likely be a better environment than this.

Feeling the Heat: We stress-tested the DVR+ to see if ChannelMaster had finally addressed the overheating issues that were rumoured to have plagued its predecessors.

We let the unit warm up to its steady-state operating temperature (about 30oC) and then put on the cover and started the test. After a few hours the unit stabilized around 34oC and maintained the same temperature. After not seeing a change over the next hours, we stopped the recordings after a little over 6 hours and the unit began cooling back down. Overall, a very satisfactory performance.

A cool customer that works well under pressure: The graph above shows that the DVR+ handles its workload very well in our test scenario


Prices and Where to Buy

Currently the DVR+ is only available for sale from ChannelMaster USA via the online store. There is no talk of any Canadian retailers picking it up for distribution north of the border at this time. The unit as tested currently retails for $250 US with shipping to Canada putting it slightly over $300 US. The pricetag is comparable to other DVRs but the one positive is that there are no monthly, yearly or lifetime fees to pay which in the long run will make the DVR+ quite economical. ChannelMaster seems to have hit the right chord with people in the market for free TV by not charging any fees after the initial purchase; other competitors can charge up to $50 a year for so-called “premium” guide info. Subscriptions to any streaming apps on the DVR+ would be extra of course.

For external hard drives compatible with the DVR+, ChannelMaster recommends certain models of the Seagate brand. We used a similar Seagate model hard drive bought from a local 3rd party retailer in Canada and it worked fine while being less expensive than the ChannelMaster model, so for the HDD accessory we recommend that you shop around.


The DVR+ is the most advanced and fun to use OTA DVR set-top box currently on the market. We were thoroughly impressed with the overall quality of the unit from its fabrication, performance and versatility in optional consumer add-ons. This is a great DVR that can become excellent if ChannelMaster continues to invest in providing updates, support and more streaming apps.

Overall rating: 9/10

For more information or to purchase the DVR+ please visit the ChannelMaster website.

Update - November 2014

Channel Master has finally shown Canada some love - after adding the Pandora app (again, geo-blocked for us Canucks) earlier this year, the DVR+ got a new YouTube channel on November 21st that works great in Canada. The streaming quality is fantastic and the user interface is easy to use as well with the DVR+ remote.


On top of that, smart recording has also been enabled as the guide will now identify new shows (new episodes are clearly identified; see screenshot below).

Big points for Channel Master that these features were added for current owners of the device free-of-charge. If they keep this up and the DVR+ were to add a Netflix and/or Plex app, we may need to revise our score to a 9.5 ...