It's a familiar story. Cord-cutters give up their cable subscription to shed the ever-increasing monthly fee, only to find that the best alternatives to record free, over-the-air TV, such as the TiVo Roamio and Aereo, require -- you guessed it -- another monthly fee.
The new Channel Master DVR+ ($250) is looking to become the over-the-air recording solution for subscription-phobic cord-cutters. Most DVRs charge a monthly fee for electronic program guide (EPG) data, but the DVR+ provides that info, supplied by Rovi, for free.
The design is unlike any other DVR I've seen. It looks like a thicker, more rigid version of the Mohu Leaf flat antenna, but it's just a DVR -- you'll need to connect a separate (not supplied) antenna to receive over-the-air broadcasts. There's not much else to the slim, gray box, although it's pretty deep (10.5 inches), so you'll need considerable room on your TV stand. On the other hand, it includes an IR extender, so you can hide it in a cabinet and still control the DVR+ with the included remote.
Inside, there's 16GB of built-in flash memory, which can record two hours of HD content, but it's really designed to be used with an external hard drive (not supplied), which can be connected via a USB port on the back. Unlike the original Simple.TV, the DVR+ has dual-tuner capabilities, so you can watch one program while recording another, or record two programs at once.
The DVR+ has an HDMI output on its back, so it can connect directly to your TV. By contrast, competitors like Aereo and Simple.TV require a separate box, such as a Roku. (Aereo is available in nine US metropolitan areas at the current time, and remains the target of legal action from television giants including Disney's ABC, CBS -- the parent of CNET -- Fox, and Comcast's NBCUniversal, alleging that the service violates their copyrights and that Aereo must pay them.)
You'll also need to connect the DVR+ to the Internet to receive EPG data. There's an Ethernet port on the back, but if you want to connect wirelessly, you'll need to spring for the $40 Wi-Fi USB dongle. Connecting the DVR+ online also allows you to stream content from Vudu, which is accessible from the program guide. (As far as other online streaming apps go, Channel Master is exploring more partners, but has nothing to announce at this time.)
The DVR+ also records programs by name, rather than just VCR-style commands such as "record channel 4 at 7 p.m. for an hour." That means if your favorite show moves its time slot, the DVR+ will also be able to find it, as long as the title stays the same. I wouldn't count on it being quite as sophisticated as TiVo, but you're also not paying a $15/month fee.
The DVR+ isn't Channel Master's first foray into over-the-air DVRs. The Channel Master CM-7000PAL had its loyal defenders, although CNET's review was just lukewarm. (That product actually originated as the Dish DTV Pal before being reborn under the Channel Master brand.) The follow-up Channel Master TV was much more disappointing; I was sent several review samples and could never get it to work reliably.
I had a few minutes of toying around with the DVR+ during a demo in New York and it was responsive and the user interface was easy to navigate. It has a no-nonsense feel; there aren't any cute TiVo-style animations or techie flourishes like smartphone/tablet control, but it gets the job done.
The biggest hurdle for the DVR+ may be the upfront cost. $250 isn't cheap, especially when you have to bring your own hard drive and antenna, plus pay an extra $40 for the Wi-Fi dongle accessory. But when you take into account lifetime cost, the DVR+ looks a lot more attractive, especially for cord-cutters looking to escape monthly TV fees once and for all.
The DVR+ will start shipping in early January 2014 and will be available for purchase via Channel Master's online store and Amazon. Channel Master also says it intends to add bundled packages that include a hard drive and antenna in the future, although no specific bundles are available yet.