Channel Master TV CM-7400 Over-The-Air HD DVR Page 2
There’s an RF audio/video output fed by a built-in demodulator that displays the DVR’s image on the unused channel 3 or 4 of your television’s tuner, though it’s the least attractive option for image or sound quality and should be avoided if possible. Additionally, there’s a TOSLINK optical audio output to pass stereo and multichannel digital audio to legacy receivers that can’t process HDMI directly. The unit outputs either PCM or bitstream Dolby Digital based on a setting in the menu. Other ancillary connections include the aforementioned eSATA port, the second USB port, and the Ethernet jack. HDMI, RF coax, and composite video/stereo audio cables are included, along with dedicated Setup and User Manuals. Channel Master gets points for its clear and well-executed documentation here.
The supplied remote was a mixed bag. The critical Guide key is easily found by your fingers below the navigation cluster; and the Menu button, which accesses the DVR’s colorful onscreen menu, is right above it. These two buttons, along with Mute, Last Channel, and the channel and volume rockers, are all backlit. Channel Master erred in not also lighting the transport keys used for DVR functions, which are too small for intuitive touch operation and difficult to discern in dim lighting. Smartly, the company did supply four color-coded shortcut keys which, during regular viewing, gain direct access to the recorded-show library, onboard media library, Vudu movie app, and live TV. The universal remote also controls the basic functions on your TV as well as one auxiliary component such as an AVR or disc player you can designate from its internal code library. I set it up to control a couple of different TVs I tested my sample with, and it functioned just like a cable DVR remote, allowing “punch-through” volume control of the TV without leaving DVR mode.
Setup is greatly simplified by an outstanding onscreen wizard. The green-and-black-themed, high-definition menu graphics look modern, and the screens were easy to navigate. The wizard takes you through the usual set-up commands you might expect to see on a disc player: setting output resolution and aspect ratio, establishing your network-connection and audio-signal preferences, and so on. In this case, once you’ve created the network link, you also have to input your zip code so the DVR can load the proper local programming guide.
Interestingly, the CM-7400 offers a sizable number of menu choices for setting the output resolution, including 1080p/24, 1080p/30, 1080i, 720p, 480p, and 480i. The best option proved to be 1080i. HD broadcast content is typically 1080i or 720p; setting the unit to 1080p at either of the two available frame rates resulted in noticeably jerky motion on most content. I would have preferred a passthrough option that would allow the native signal of a broadcast or 1080p Vudu stream to pass to the monitor without scaling or conversion.
The last step in the set up is the channel scan, in which the tuner captures and stores the available broadcast channels in your area. A scan with a basic tabletop antenna in my suburban New York locale resulted in the CM-7400 DVR grabbing all the primary local broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS)—most of which have additional multicast channels that offer alternative programming—as well as a few extra ones that aren’t available on my cable system. Additionally, another half-dozen or so foreign-language stations came in. The capture screen shows signal strength for all the different channels; you can go in afterward and delete the ones you don’t watch from the guide. I also tried scanning my basic-cable feed, which resulted in stronger signals for the local broadcast channels compared with antenna capture, but no significant advantage in image quality.
After living with the CM-7400 for several weeks, I found it generally lived up to its promise, though not without some quirks, and, unfortunately, not without some reliability issues.
To begin with, the unit runs hot. DVRs do run warm generally, but anyone touching the top of the cabinet would likely be startled by the heat that collects there over time, and particularly on the underside of the unit. Although there are small vents lining the bottom and sides of the cabinet to facilitate fanless convection cooling, their effectiveness is hindered in part by Channel Master’s poor decision to use tiny, 0.125-inch, stick-on rubber pads for feet instead of taller footings that would have lifted the unit up higher, allowing far more air flow beneath it.
Indeed, the CM-7400 got so hot that I felt the need to pull out the digital thermometer I keep in my tool kit for checking fireplace TV installations. After placing the probe in the offending location beneath the unit, it quickly ran up to 119.3 degrees even with the product turned off! With the CM-7400 powered up and playing a recorded show from its drive, it climbed to 123.4 degrees.
I wondered at first if my sample was flawed, but online user reviews for the CM-7400 confirmed this was a common observation. Later, after I suspended the unit about an inch off the table with a couple of wood blocks under the feet, the surface temperature on the underside dropped considerably, but still ran pretty hot at 107.2 degrees.
Prior to propping the piece up, I experienced a short period with the CM-7400 in which it locked up repeatedly when I tried to change channels or just call up the guide or menu. The unit became unresponsive to the remote and could only be cleared by pulling the power cord and rebooting it, after which it quickly locked up again. Whether this was somehow caused by the heat build-up, or perhaps a glitch that occurred following a firmware update I performed that seemed to precipitate it, it only began behaving normally again after I left the unit unplugged for more than 24 hours and then started the set up with a full factory reset from the menu. Reports of lockups were also found among the online user reviews, so I know I wasn’t alone. Since then, however, I’ve kept the CM-7400 elevated and it’s worked flawlessly.
Once I got it working right, the CM-7400 proved itself an effective and engaging component. I used it primarily with a large flat panel I set up in my bedroom, where I have no cable jack. With its ability to access or record all the major network primetime and late-night shows, I rarely felt wanting for more. Picture quality was excellent through both the HDMI and high-def component-video output, and my learning curve with the remote and the system interface proved fairly short and painless. As with any cable or satellite DVR, you can pause or rewind live TV or hit the Replay button to jump back 7 seconds. More unusual is the inclusion of a Skip button that jumps you forward 30 seconds to perfectly coincide with the length of most commercials —a feature I’ve previously seen only on TiVo-based DVRs. This greatly speeds navigation through advertising breaks on recorded or buffered programs. In case you’ve never tried it, you can typically shave about 20 minutes off each hour of programming by bypassing the commercials on a recorded show, and skipping is a lot more convenient than fast-forwarding.
Calling up the Premium guide provides a nice grid with a good-sized window showing the active channel, allowing you to continue watching while you explore other viewing options. You can use the channel rocker to page up and down through multiple entries, or the navigation keys to go one by one. When inside the grid, the Skip button jumps you forward by a day, and the Replay button returns you back. There was a high degree of customization for recordings, including how long I wanted them saved and what priority I wanted to assign them for automatic erasure as space became needed for new shows. The CM-7400 always kept track of how many shows it was recording, and queried me if I attempted to change a channel or record something that would conflict with a recording in progress.
Hitting the Info key while in the grid calls up a full page with show details. Striking the same key while watching a show full screen calls up a banner with a truncated show description, and as you scroll with the up/down navigation keys, the banner changes to show you what’s playing on neighboring channels. My only complaint is that you often don’t get the full show description from the banner for a show you’re not yet watching, and no function is provided to expand it. Ideally, hitting the Info button a second time while the banner is up would expand it for full reading; with Channel Master TV, it just goes away. Frustrating...
As noted, the Vudu onscreen menu and performance were excellent, though after loading some music files and photos onto the CM-7400’s hard drive, I found the personal media library to be of little value. For example, although you can make music playlists, album folders appear with their songs in alphabetical order rather than by track number. And there’s no facility for cover art. Welcome back to the dark ages!
Overall, I was impressed with how well Channel Master thought through the basic DVR interface, feature set, and aesthetics for the CM-7400 DVR. My enthusiasm was tempered, however, by its hot running temperature—which doesn’t strike me as a good thing for the long-term well being of any electronic component—and the initially glitchy operation that I, and some other users, have experienced. Channel Master addressed both these issues in a letter to customers in February, prior to my evaluation, and extended its warranty to one full year parts and labor. (Go to support.channelmaster.com and search for “Temperature-related concerns.”) The CM-7400 is also relatively expensive—at $450 for the unit plus the first year’s Premium program guide, it could take several months of savings on cable service to make up for the cost. Still, if you can live with those caveats, as a standalone DVR designed specifically for off-air broadcast, it fills a unique niche in today’s market, and I can’t deny it filled one quite nicely in my home. I’ll be sorry to see it go back.