Channel Master DVR+

The thing my family missed the most when we cut the cable was our DVR.  We did not record a lot of shows, but we did pause, rewind, fast forward, and slow down programming.  After toying with a Home Theater Personal Computer (HTPC), we decided to go with a dedicated DVR.  Once we decided on a DVR, there were only really two choices — TiVo or DTVPal.  While the TiVo has some compelling features, the monthly fee was not consistent with my cord cutting goals, so we took a chance on the EchoStar DTVPal.  Flash forward four years and very little has changed.  HTPCs are still more hassle than they are worth, TiVo is still too expensive, and EchoStar still makes the best standalone DVR that isn’t a TiVo.  This time the EchoStar DVR is called DVR+ and it’s being sold by Channel Master for $250 — $300 with 80 hours of HD storage.

The DVR+ is small.  It’s about 8″ deep x 10.5″ wide x 1/2″ tall.  Except for the blue LED on the front, you might confuse it with a mouse pad.  The back is a neatly organized array of connectors — antenna, digital (optical) audio, HDMI out, ethernet, two usb ports, power, and a jack for an IR extender.  With the IR extender, you can store the DVR out of sight.  The remote is comfortable with most common controls organized around a D-pad type controller.  I wish the remote used more common batteries, but CR2032 batteries are readily available on ebay for $0.30.

Setup was intuitive: select language and country, plug in coax and TV plus optional network and disk, scan for channels, and set zip code/time zone/time mode (automatic vs manual).  If an external disk is detected, you are prompted to use it and, if necessary, the disk is initialized.

The DVR+ stores programs on an internal 16g flash or an external USB disk.  You can use the DVR+ with no usb disk, but storage is limited to two hours.  With no usb disk, the DVR+ includes a channel guide, allows you to pause and rewind programming, and provides access to internet services like Vudu.  You must add a usb disk to store recorded programs.  At this time, maximum supported disk size is 3t.   Storage is about 160 hours of HD video per one terabyte of disk.  The first drive I plugged in was an ancient Maxtor 500g OneTouch 4 usb disk.  It was immediately recognized and I was guided through the initialization process.

The DVR+ includes a network adapter.  Wired ethernet is built in and wireless is available via an optional usb network adapter.  Network access is not required.  The DVR+ is completely autonomous.  It includes a PSIP guide and can accept updates via a usb device.  Connecting  to the internet facilitates updates, provides access to an enhanced Rovi powered guide, and allows use of internet apps.

The thing you do most with a DVR is watch television so a good DVR has to have a good tuner and a good program guide.  The DVR+ has two excellent tuners and a terrific guide.  My DVR+ picked up 47 channels — more than either my television or simple.tv DVR.  The guide is a grid of two hours of five channels that covers the bottom half of the television screen.  The Rovi guide is good for about two weeks of programming and the PSIP guide is good for as much as 24 hours of programming.  I find the PSIP guide more reliable and complete than the PSIP guide on my DTVPal DVRs.  Navigation is quick.  Pressing the OK button in the grid pops up a record dialog.  You can choose to Watch this program, Record program, or Create manual recording.  If you select to Record program, you then choose between Record just this program and Record all programs with this name.  If you select Create manual recording, you choose channel, start time, end time, and whether you want to record that time block one time (none), Weekly, Mon-Fri, or Daily.  I love this as  I record a block of sitcoms on WSBK Mon-Fri from 3:00pm to 8:00pm.  You can record programs via the guide, by name, or by time and channel.  The only recording option I don’t see if start/stop Manual (press record to start recording and press stop to stop recording) which I like this for sporting events.  Fortunately, you can accomplish this by setting a manual recording for a very long time then manually stopping it.

Watching the DVR+ is very intuitive.  The DVR button takes you to a list of recordings, the Record button starts recording a program, and the Guide button calls up the guide.  Pressing the Info button in the Guide calls up a program description on the tuned channel.  Programming is automatically cached, so if there is a great play, or you missed the weather report, or you want a closer look at a costume failure, the DVR+ is ready.  The remote has jog buttons so you can skip forward or back ten seconds at a time.  Hit the rewind button to rewind at 2x.  Hit it again and again for 8x, 32x, and 64x.  Hit pause then forward for 1/8x slow motion.  Hit forward again and again for 1/4x, 1/2x, then full speed.  When you rewind and fast forward, the video is visible so you can see when you get to what you are looking for.

Saved programs are sorted by date recorded with the newest recordings at the top of the list.  If multiple programs have the same name, they are stored in a folder.  When you click on a folder, you are prompted to browse to the folder contents or delete the folder.  Within the folder, all the programs have the same name, but can be renamed.  Once you rename a recorded program, it pops out of the folder since it no longer shares a name with another program.  You can protect recordings and can toggle the New Status which indicates whether the show has been recorded.

I like the fact that the DVR+ has a 0/4/5/6 hour sleep timer.  My plasma tv notices when the DVR shuts down and shuts itself down.  Parental controls provide pin protection to channels and content with user selectable ratings.  You can also block unrated events.

The DVR+ is an excellent DVR and I highly recommend it.

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Simply Awesome!

I had hoped to post a follow-up to my initial review of the Simple DVR within a few weeks, but, frankly, after two weeks my enthusiasm for the device was on the wane.  This morning, I awoke to a Roku channel update, a device update, and, finally, support for multiple DVRs on the same account.  The Simple V1 is far from perfect, but, once again, I am wildly enthusiastic about this whole house DVR.  And once again, you can Woot! this DVR plus a lifetime subscription to their Premier service for less than $100.  I recommend you get three!

The Simple.TV DVR is a whole house Tuner/DVR for broadcast television.  According to the manufacturer, “Simple.TV is the first personal DVR that streams live and recorded TV to your favorite devices, wherever you are. Get all your broadcast TV favorites on your iPad, PC, Mac or Roku box.”  It plugs in to your antenna, ethernet, and usb drive, but not your television.  To watch the Simple DVR on your television, you need a Roku.  Up to five devices can access live or recorded programming concurrently, but there is only one tuner, so all people watching live programming must watch the same channel.

wholehouse_wide

What Does This Do?  In the most common configuration, you attach the DVR to your antenna and LAN and use a Roku to access the DVR from your television.  You can use the tuner to watch live television from your antenna or play files already stored on the DVR.  You can pause, rewind, or fast forward the programming, delete files from the DVR, and schedule recordings (one episode or all episodes) with the Roku.  If you have more than one DVR (I have four), you can switch from one DVR to another.

Remote access is excellent.  Image quality and buffer management are good enough to enjoy live and recorded programming via public wireless networks.  My mother can use my antenna to watch broadcast television via a Roku at her home which has poor reception.  There are iOS and Android apps for the Simple DVR.  I cannot speak for the iOS app, but the Android app is amazing.  I was able to side load it to a Fire HD and a Fire HDX and enjoy television on those tablets.

What Doesn’t This Do?  With the current software, you cannot watch the video as you rewind and fast forward and there is no slow motion or frame by frame review.  You cannot do time based recordings (record channel 38 from 3pm to 8pm weeknights).  I’d really like to see a ‘Play All’ and/or Play List option for recordings and it would be great if the Premier software managed all DVRs as one — choosing the next available tuner, showing all programs in a single browse window, etc.  Finally, and this is a big deal for me, it doesn’t work at all when you have no internet connection.  It will record scheduled shows, but you cannot watch live tv or your recordings.

This is NOT for cable TV.  While it tunes clear QAM, the cable companies are in the process of encrypting all channels.  Unless you have or plan to cut the cable, this is not the DVR for you.

A Poor Man’s TiVo  This isn’t a TiVo.  The TiVo provides more sophisticated search capability, a better rewind/fast forward experience, plus internet apps.  A lot of people are going to be very happy to buy a TiVo Premier, pay for the lifetime service, and watch television.  A two tuner Premier with 75 hours of storage will set you back $550.  If you want to share the two tuners with another room, you can buy a Tivo Mini ($250 with lifetime) and if you want to watch your Tivo away from home, you can add a Tivo Stream for $130.  So, living room, bedroom, remote use, with 75 hours of storage for $930.

Alternatively, one could purchase a pair of Simple DVRs ($185), a pair of usb disks ($200), and two Roku 1’s ($100) for $485.  This would give you two tuners, 800 hours of storage, remote access, plus thousands of streaming media channels for 1/2 the cost of a basic TiVo installation.

For the $930 you did not spend on a TiVo, you could purchase four Simple DVRs, four Rokus, a Channel Master DVR+ for the living room, and two years subscription to Netflix.

Support I have been very disappointed with Simple support.  The documentation is sparse, the support site is inaccurate, and email support is sporadic.  Worse, they don’t seem to know any more about the product than I do.  The best help has come from the user community.  I hope this changes.  It’s easy to see how nontechnical users could become frustrated.

Installation The setup process is very frustrating and almost counter intuitive.  You have to use specific browsers to configure the device.  I have used Chrome and Firefox.  Internet Explorer does not work.  It seems that security software can interfere with the process as well.  A lot of USB disks do not work with this DVR.    The documentation states that ‘virtually any’ USB disk will work, but that is not true.  Firmware only supports disks to 2t at this time.  Larger disks may format, but only to just over 2t.  Some disks will stop working after a couple days.  Attache these to a computer and they work fine.  Some disks won’t format at all.  Don’t count on the installation disk to let you know your disk is not compatible.  If the installation process detects an incompatible disk, it simply says there is no disk present.  Also, when you attach a compatible disk, it may not format unless you run the installation process from scratch.  Here is a list of disks I know to work with this DVR…

  • Iomega 1t (ldhd-up): formatted and performed perfectly. No issues to date.
  • Seagate 1t (9zc2ag-501): formatted and performed perfectly. No issues to date.
  • Western Digital 500g (WD5000H1U-00): formatted and performed perfectly. No issues to date.
  • Western Digital 2t (WDBFJK0020HBK-04): formatted and performed perfectly. No issues to date.

That 2t WD drive is routinely available at Staples for less than $100 and I recommend you go with that.  Mine has been working for more than a month and has recorded more than 200 programs.

You Will Love the Simple DVR If…

  • Your home is situated such that television signals come from multiple directions.  Instead of using a rotor or combiner, you can install one or more DVRs for each market and access the antennas via a Roku.
  • Your home is not pre-wired with coax.  Run coax from the antenna to your router and install the Simple DVR(s) next to the router.
  • You have to have a television where no one thought to install coax.  A Roku brings live tv to your remote television.
  • You want to watch tv by the pool or on the deck.  Simple can stream to a laptop, a tablet, or a wireless Roku by the pool.
  • Your remote vacation home does not have television but does have internet access.
  • You travel a lot and hate infomercials.
  • All your favorite shows air when you are at work.