I’m a part time broadcast, electrical, software, and audio engineer, among other things. As a long time OTA (Over The Air) fan, and like many cord-cutters, I was frustrated with paying so much money every month for the few non-OTA channels watched. So after digging around a bit I threw down my $$$ for the DVR+, with CM’s wireless adapter, and a 3rd party external drive. I did not pop (initially) for the “Advanced” remote, which is now the standard remote in the box.
I went this route purely on instinct that products that integrate OTA+OTT (Over the Air + Over The Top, or OTA + internet transmission) are going to continue to emerge; that the market is relatively young. The implication is that OTT availability of content historically available only via cable and satellite distribution systems is only going to increase.
The DVR+ does what it is advertised to do. I get High Definition TV with DVR capability from all of the major local broadcast stations for ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and PBS, and via my local internet company the ability to watch CNN, Bloomberg, and ESPN channels; all with full High-Def quality.
The financial reward for dropping DirecTV+AT&T for TV+Phone+Internet and going with the DVR+ is a cut in my monthly run rate from about $230 down to $76. That’s including the $20/month for SlingTV.
But, I really am sad to say that I’m not 100% satisfied with my investment.
If you’ve been a long time Tivo user as I am, you may be initially quite frustrated with the DVR+’s user interface, and in the longer term never quite happy with it. Multiple button presses are required to navigate menu paths for some functions where fewer are needed on the Tivo. Also, there are some DVR related functions I’m used to on the Tivo that are either missing or clumsily implemented. I don’t know whether there are patents in effect blocking more efficient implementation, or not, but the DVR+ menus are definitely more tedious to navigate than Tivo’s.
With regards to the SlingTV integration, the switching time from an OTA channel to a SlingTV channel can take over 30 seconds. This is under 5 seconds on the Windows version of the app.
There were also a few installation issues; a Seagate external drive did not just “plug and play” even though it was on the list of recommended devises, CM’s wireless device did not reliably support full HD streaming (it repetitively downgraded to SD quality or below), and I have some evidence that the DVR+ tuner does not perform quite as well as the tuners in Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung TVs I have on hand, as well as DirectTV’s OTA tuner accessory. I provide technical details on these issues in sections to follow.
But none of these has been a show stopper by any means. I am content that my primary goals of slashing costs for OTA reception with DVR capabilities while maintaining access to the handful of cable/satellite channels desired has been achieved.
On a further positive note, Channel Master seems to have staffed its customer support with knowledgeable, well trained, and very accommodating staff. On every call the agent accepted responsibility immediately and dove right in to sectionalize and resolve the issue; quite refreshing.
I really wish I could give Channel Master’s DVR+ a perfect overall recommendation. I have enormous and longtime respect for the company, and in particular its CM4228 antenna which I've studied and used quite a bity. But I admit I’m biased by my years of Tivo usage, and find the DVR+ user interface a bit clumsier, relatively.
Having said all that, and as mentioned in the “Background” section above, my instincts are the OTT+OTA business model is a winner and that Channel Master will be a long term player.
Don’t let the negativity in this dissuade you; remember I’ve stated my primary objectives were achieved! Any negativity here is intended to be constructive; relative to the big picture the issues are somewhat minor and I share them with the hope that it may help lead to improvements over time.
In all honestly, the only thing that would pry me away from the DVR+ at this point is discovering SlingTV (or a comparable offering) has been integrated into a Tivo box.
There are a number of them. From installation issues through usage issues, and I share them one by one below. I’ll apologize in advance for the level of detail in some cases, but I decided to err on the side of too much versus too little.
Also, I’d like to underline again that the intent of documenting these is to be constructive. I’ve every hope the feedback will get back to Channel Master, that they will be able to prioritize developments, and the user experience will be improved. I hope only to help the DVR+’s market acceptance.
The following sections detail the issues encountered during installation.
Along with the DVR+ I bought a Seagate STEA1000400, a recommended drive by Channel Master at "http://www.avsforum.com/forum/42-hdtv-recorders/1481183-channel-master-dvr-owners-thread-359.html”
I installed the DVR+, scanned channels, set up the Internet, and updated to the (then) latest "Current Release 132R". All went well this far.
Then I plugged in the Seagate and got a dialog indicating the drive needed to be "Validated". I clicked "Confirm", but then waited a bit over 5 minutes. Finally the dialog title changed to "Installing ...". I clicked "Confirm", but got a message indicating "Drive Error. This drive cannot be configured". No error number or indication of exact problem.
I tried once again with same result. So then I moved the drive to my (Windows 7) laptop and plugged it in. Windows recognized and configured it immediately. On the drive there were a few files including an XML file containing the drive’s serial number and a registration app launcher that I executed. I copied all the files onto another drive, and did a "Quick Format" under Windows.
When I plugged it back into the DVR+ a different dialog popped up indicating "Drive must be formatted ...". I clicked "Confirm", and after 1-2 minutes the drive installed successfully.
[Sidebar: that "Validating" dialog could use some improvement to reduce ambiguity, I think. Initially when the "Validating required ..." title was displayed and after clicking "Confirm" there was a sentence like "Please wait . . ." on the screen. But this took over 5 minutes to eventually change. During that time the "Confirm" button remains highlighted, so after a while you start to think your button press wasn't effective. But then, by attempting to navigate to the right, to the "Cancel" button, you discover the navigation isn't working and the "Confirm" button is actually disabled. (Pushing it has no effect, even though highlighted). After the 5++ minutes when the title changes to "Install . . .", the sentence "Please wait . . ." is still on the screen. So it's not completely clear you need to do something. But, by navigating to the right you recognize that navigation and the buttons are enabled again. So I moved back to the left and pressed the "Confirm" button. A small GUI issue, for sure, but an opportunity for improvement!]
I posted the above experience on avsforum.com and some helpful feedback and discussion followed from the users “RTPvid” and “pachinko” followed and I thank them.
The CM Wireless Adapter
I decided to purchase Channel Master’s wireless adapter (1) because it’s just a USB dongle and requires no additional power plug or adapter, and no additional wires (just cleaner overall), and (2) an instinctive worry about compatibility with a 3rd party adapter.
It did configure and begin to operate without any issues. But very quickly I became disillusioned with the DVR+. When tuning to CNN or ESPN, or any other SlingTV channel, the picture would come up (after some time as noted elsewhere) but at fairly low quality initially, then sometimes would, and sometimes would not, transition to HD. Even after transitioning to HD it would often downgrade back to SD and never get back to HD.
Then I discovered that when in SlingTV mode, the Menu -> Settings -> Connection screen provides a “Current Bandwidth” status. Whenever the DVR+ managed to get into HD mode this was pretty consistently at 3.7 Mbps (megabits per second). When I checked this during downgraded picture quality the bandwidth had fallen under 0.5 Mbps.
So I realized the poor quality was related to poor network speed and initially suspected my internet service, because it was relatively new. But I made multiple tests on speedtest.net, during both good and bad picture quality periods, and I was reliably getting the full 50 Mbps of my internet service at all times.
So then I removed the Channel Master wireless adapter and connected a Cisco/Linksys Wireless-N Bridge that I’d been using previously with my (now gone) DirecTV receiver without problem. Voilà! My disillusionment vanished. I since have stable and consistent HD, and every time I check the connection speed it is 3.7 Mbps.
The DVR+ sits on a shelf in a wooden hutch, with the TV above it, and my wireless router are on separate floor below it, with a linear distance of about 7 feet between them. The floor composition is 8” joists, wood flooring on top, wallboard on bottom (ceiling of room below). On the administrative menu of the Linksys Wireless Bridge the received signal strength is about 85%. When looking at the DVR+’s wireless status I’d estimate the indication was less than this, approximately 60% I’d guess. [It is hard to be precise because the nature of the DVR+‘s “level bar” that provides the indication is one that uses a color transition from a dark green to light bakground color which happens over a span of about 20% of the bar’s width. This as opposed to an abrupt end of the green bar that one could more accurately estimate from. I’d abandon the color transition, personally.]
So even though a bit more expensive, and a bit more clutter, if your wireless router is any significant distance from the DVR+, or there are any significant structures in between, I’d pop for an external wireless bridge. It will connect via common RJ-45 LAN cables and can probably be positioned more optimally.
[Sidebar: as an electrical engineer with a bit of RF experience, this outcome confirms one of the apprehensions about those little dongle wireless adapters that I should have paid more attention to initially. Common quarter wavelength antennas for 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies are about 1.2 and 0.6 inches, respectively. Because the physical space inside the dongle can’t be more than about 0.35 inches or so (horizontally oriented), there is clearly some sophisticated antenna engineering in play to get any reasonable receiver sensitivity into such devices, and it’s definitely beyond my knowledge and experience. But I think it’s clear they are less sensitive, and also have the disadvantage that you can’t move them about. A small wireless bridge on a wire can be moved so find the best convenient “hot spot”; a few inches can make a big difference.]
I have several HD televisions including Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung models, as well as the DirecTV AM21 add on OTA receiver for their DVR. I also have one channel which is marginal; it has a very low signal level and is also impacted by multipath reflections.
However, at most times all of the above receivers have been able to decode this signal, when the DVR+ is not. While it is a bit disappointing get the sense that Channel Master hasn’t put forth an optimal front end design, for me it has been a non-issue because the station is a mostly Spanish language local station that only occasionally televises local sport event. However, I can imagine others may find themselves affected by the same less than typical reception performance.
After about a month of using the standard remote I grew really frustrated and decided to go ahead and pop for the “Advanced” remote for another $30 bucks. What I learned in the conversation with Channel Master is that if I’d waited about 2 more weeks I would have gotten the “Advanced” remote to begin with. It seems they no longer package the original (now discontinued) remote, instead packaging what was originally an option, the “Advanced” remote. I note it no longer appears on the web site as an option, rather as a replacement.
The advanced remote is a definite improvement!
Over about 2 months now, I’ve gathered a list of little irritants with the user experience (UX) that I hope will someday get addressed. Again, bear in mind I’m extremely biased by my years of TiVo use.
Forwared/Backward "Skip" Speed
The speed steps implemented are labelled as “x2”, “x8”, “x32”, and “x64”, I assume meaning 2, 8, 32, and 64 times normal play speed. My main use of these is commercial skipping, and I bet I’m not alone. I found x2 way too slow, x8 a little too slow, and x32 a little too fast.
Remote Response Time
When commercials start, on my Tivo remote I can quickly click its Fast Forward (FF) button twice very quickly (less than ½ a second between clicks), and it will respond, bump up its speed on both clicks. After clicking twice very quickly on the DVR+ remote you immediately discover your 2nd click wasn’t accepted. It only bounced up one step to “x2”. You have wait almost 2 seconds before it will reliably respond to a 2nd click.
Queuing to Past Commercials
While skipping past commercials in FF mode, and you recognize you’ve reached the point where the program has resumed, and you click the Play button, you are left positioned at the point where you recognized the program resumption. I.e., multiple seconds past the start of resumption. In contrast, the Tivo implements a fairly good algorithm for subtracting a number of seconds from the point where you clicked, such that you wind up watching just the last few seconds of the last commercial. (I’m not talking about Tivo’s even new and better “Skip” mode, which is very nice!).
For a while this really bugged me. But I have to admit I managed to evolve a different behavior which has become tolerable. Mainly, I go to “x8” FF speed, and when I recognize program resumption I hit the rewind (RWD) button instead of the Play button. This transitions it immediately from x8 forward to x2 reverse. Now I just wait a few seconds until I see it wind back to commercial and hit play, and I can nail the common fade to black between end of commercial and start of program much of the time.
I get the same overall outcome as the Tivo, but with 3 button clicks instead of 2.
[This is Case #1 of the “Too Many Button Clicks” topic below.]
Can’t Slow Down from Fast Forward Speeds
On the Tivo, if you really want to move forward you can push 3 times and get to its fastest FF speed. Then, as you think you’re getting close to the place you want to be, you can click the RWD button once, and the FF speed moves down one step but you’re still going forward. On the DVR+ a click on the RWD button while in FF mode does not slow you down. Rather it puts you immediately into “x2” rewind mode.
To slow down from say x32 to x8 (one step slower) on the DVR+ you need to click the RWD button, then click the FF button twice to get to x8. This is 3 button clicks versus 2 on the Tivo.
[This is Case #2 of the “Too Many Button Clicks” topic below.]
Time from OTA to OTT (SlingTV/Internet) Channel
I’m talking here about the time to go from one of the channels received via antenna and picture + sound from one of the streaming internet channels via SlingTV. Via the new (advanced) remote you can click “Apps”, your screen goes dark, and after a few seconds you get a spinner icon (spinning wheel, formerly the “Hour Glass” icon). After another 5 to 8 seconds you get the SlingTV logo, after 5 to 10 seconds you get a guide, and a pointer positioned to the icon for the last channel you were on. After another 4-8 seconds the name of the channel appears in the top left, and another 5 to 10 seconds later you get picture and sound. Over time I’ve realized the total time has quite a variance to it. The shortest has been around 25 seconds, and the longest over a minute.
This is quite repeatable, and all I have to say about this is “UGH”. The switching time from one OTT channel to another is typically about 5 seconds. Just a lower case “ugh” on this.
Both of these times are higher than the SlingTV app running on my PC, which are 5 seconds from startup to video/audio, and 1-2 seconds to switch channels.
I have to guess there is something about the SlingTV implementation on the DVR+ that can be improved.
Flips Back to OTA Randomly
During the month of January (2016) when I originally purchased, while camping on CNN the DVR+ would suddenly drop the OTT channel and revert to the last OTA channel viewed.
When I called Channel Master about this the agent reacted very quickly, indicating the issue has been recognized “… by the 3rd party company that develops the SlingTV app …” and that a patch was in the works. But there was no estimate of when that patch would deploy.
Within the last month (March) the observation is that it has become much more stable. So on one hand this may be a non-issue anymore.
But I mention it because, while not often, the DVR+ still drops out of the SlingTV app occasionally, and back to last viewed OTA channel.
Occasionally Goes Dark (Comatose)
Every now and then the DVR+ just gets hosed up. I mean, it becomes unresponsive with a frozen screen. On at least two occasions this has occurred on select of CNN via SlingTV. The screen goes black as it normally does but the spinner icon never appears and the screen remains black. But I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen it frozen on the program guide. I don’t recall ever seeing it frozen on a picture, for what it’s worth.
Again, it’s not often, but it does happen, and the only recourse has been to pull the power connector out, wait a couple of seconds, plug it back in, and then wait a few minutes while it goes through its full start up procedure.
“Apps” Button Doesn’t Get You To Last App Channel
When you click the “Apps” button it takes you to the program guide, positioned at the various entries integrated into the guide for Channel Master TV, Vudu, SlingTV, etc. But it always takes you to “Channel Master TV” entry.
It would be a bit friendlier if it would take you back to the last app accessed.
Are You Still Watching?
Because I have an ailing father-in-law who camps on CNN continuously, we often run into a pop up with the question “Are You Still Watching?” and the programming is interrupted.
A minor but welcome addition would be the option to disable the (programmable) timer altogether.
Doesn't Cache Current Channels on Tuners
On the Tivo, the tuners get used in some sort of “oldest switched, next used” manner. That is, something like if Tuner 1 was switched to channel 2-1 an hour ago, and Tuner 2 was switched to channel 3-1 ten minutes ago, and you then select channel 4-1, since tuner 1 was the oldest tuner switched, it will drop 2-1 and go to 4-1. Tuner 2 will remain on 3-1.
Perhaps hard to follow, and I apologize for that, but what I’m getting to is that if you were watching that program on 3-1 that you went to 10 minutes ago, then quickly go to another channel, and then go back to 3-1, because there was already a tuner on 3-1 you will not have lost any program content. You can rewind to the point you left off because the Tivo was recording (caching).
The same goes for the example that the last two channels you viewed last night are the first two you’ll watch when you wake up in the morning. If you wake up 20 minutes too late for the beginning of a program on one of those channels, you can hit the RWD (back) button and queue back to the beginning of that program. Likewise, as long as you haven’t changed channels, if you don’t like what going on at the point you queued back to on that channel, you can go to the other channel, and since the other tuner’s channel hasn’t been changed you can also scroll back on this one.
It means the Tivo continuously records a sliding window of (I think) 30 minutes duration, and for both tuners.
But the DVR+ does not do this at all. For example, if you go from an OTA channel to any other channel (OTA or OTT) and then go back to the first channel, you cannot rewind back to where you left. Nor can you show up 5 minutes late for the start of a program and rewind back to its start.
This is a major feature of DVRs and the most missed of all. A number # priority in my opinion.
Number of Episodes to Record
There is no way to set this. And it leads to the next issue.
DVR Warning – Running Out of Space
After some time a dialog popped up with a message like the above followed by something like “… if you don’t delete your existing recordings new programs may not be recorded as scheduled ...”. This, to me, is a typical example of inadequate systems engineering. It means insufficient study and identification of common use cases. It leaves the user wondering what they have control over. Do they really have to go through the tedious process of deleting recorded programs one by one in order to free up space? Is there not a common sense algorithm implemented that simply chucks the oldest recordings?
After not taking any action in response to the “DVR Warning” dialog above just to find out what the outcome would be, I was eventually presented with a dialog with the above title, and the message “One or more recording were missed due to your DVR running out of space”. (The singular form of “recording” versus “recordings” is a typo in the dialog’s message, not mine).
Indeed I was then faced with manually going through recordings to delete them. So now it’s confirmed the DVR+ has no automatic deletion of oldest recordings.
This is another feature sorely missed. Who wants to come home and snuggle in to watch their favorite show only to learn it was intentionally skipped? I think the priorities need to be reconsidered here.
Two Minute Pre-Roll
Recordings seem to be started a full 2 minutes prior to schedule time. It’s a bit tedious to have to always select and start playback of a recording, and then have to push forward to get to its start. The DVR+ is connected to the internet, and via that and Network Time Protocol it therefore has access to multiple Network Time Servers. This means the ability to synchronize its notion of time to within milliseconds of worldwide standards.
Once again, Tivo does a much friendlier job of insuring that recording is started prior to broadcast time. The 2 minute DVR+ implementation is way too conservative, and without any intention of being obnoxious, feels like what I know as “fudge factor”. I.e., a tactic aimed at dealing with the unknown, and is unnecessary in this case.
Same Channel Back-to-Back Recordings
An odd thing here. Over prime news time there are two ½ hour shows on the same channel that I want recorded. I tried at first to just extend the record time of the 1st show by ½ hour, but the 2nd show did not record. So then I set up separate series recordings for both shows.
When the 1st show’s programming ends the recording continues for another two minutes into the 2nd show, then ends abruptly. To continue watching the 2nd show I select it on the DVR menu and hit play. It continues playing the program right where the 1st program’s recording left off. That is, in this case the 2nd program’s recording does not start at the normal two minutes ahead of schedule, rather it starts 2 minutes late.
While little or no program content is lost, the 2nd program’s content is distributed over the two separate recordings. There is clearly a start/end timestamp management issue here.
Recording Terminated Prematurely
On one occasion recording of a program was started manually because of an interruption. Then in a few minutes we selected the recording to watch it, eventually getting to a commercial and skipping forward at x8. But it apparently caught up to real time and popped out of fast forward mode. While real time viewing of the program continued, the recording was terminated.
Number of Clicks per Function
There is a concept in software interface design called “Cognitive Load”. It’s the concept that expresses the mental energy . required to complete an operation, like changing the channel for example. It reflects the amount of information presented at each step of the operation, and the number of decisions that need to be made. This load is proportional to the number of steps, while user satisfaction is inversely proportional to number of steps.
The DVR+’s user interface generally includes unnecessary dialogs (decision windows), and thus decisions, higher cognitive load, and thus lower satisfaction. As an example, compare the following two sequences of steps required to change channel on the DVR+ and on the Tivo.
Number of Steps
Click “Guide”, scroll to channel, click on channel, click “OK”, make choice on “Program Options” dialog, click “Watch This Program”.
Click “Guide”, scroll to channel, click on channel.
Here are a few of the cases I’ve tripped through so far:
Case #1 – Queuing Past Commercials (see above section on this topic)
Case #2 – Slow Down from Fast Forward (see above section on this topic)
Case #3 – Changing Channel (described in this section)
All of these require one or more additional steps on the DVR+ than on the Tivo.
Once more I’d like to underline that the motivation to make the effort to document the above experiences is truly to help. Yes, there is a selfish motive. If CM elects to address any of these short comings I’ll personally be much happier with my investment. But I’ll also be much more apt to recommend the DVR+ to friends, colleagues, and clients.