Cutting Loose: Connected TV for Everybody Page 2

Channel Master TV

Channel Master may be a familiar name to those of you who have conventional TV gear or a satellite dish lying around, but the set-top box and antenna manufacturer has turned to the digital media receiver market of late, and their most recent offering, the Channel Master TV, offers about as much integration as you might desire, packing an OTA HD tuner (though no support for digital cable), a carefully curated selection of useful apps, and a DVR into a tidy package that should be easy to negotiate for cable-cutting newcomers.

The Channel Master is a bit bigger than most of its DMR brethren; it'll remind you a lot more of your old cable box than any of the other offerings on the market. There's even a front-panel clock. The package also includes an IR remote that can be set up to manage your TV and one other component, most likely a disc player or AVR; given the intended application this is probably enough; I don't see the device as making its way into complex home theater setups that'd require a more elaborate remote.

The box features three onboard antennae; I had no trouble establishing a solid connection with my router in either of the rooms in my home (admittedly, it's a small NYC apartment, but transmitting through brick and lath and plaster is a challenge wherever one may be). In the end, I ended up parking the device near my router and using a wired connection anyway, but wireless works just fine.

You'll find plenty of connectivity out back. The large back panel makes it easy to cram in plenty of options for integrating the device with your setup, whether it's ancient or modern - HDMI, RF coax, composite, and component video, along with optical audio (which carries Dolby Digital 5.1), and analog stereo audio on RCA jacks. Very sensible for a device geared to those looking to test the connected TV waters, with little interest in replacing a current set. You'll also find a pair of USB ports (for storage or a keyboard, if you don't mind such things as part of your TV experience) and an eSATA port - nice, though it confuses matters a bit.

A wizard walks you through setup basics (and a clearly written and illustrated manual fills in the gaps that the software doesn't address). I hooked up an over-the-air HD antenna without issue; the onboard program guide scanned the input and came up with a surprisingly large amount of data on the channels I was receiving - really one of the better-presented program guides I've seen outside of those offered by the cable providers themselves. If you're interested in OTA HD TV and need a tuner, the Channel Master probably improves upon your existing set, especially if you're looking to add functionality to an older TV.

And that's a good thing, since the Channel Master TV isn't long on app supply. You'll be watching movies and TV episodes via Vudu and live TV via an HD antenna - and otherwise either consuming locally stored audio and video on USB drives or checking in with your Twitter and Facebook contacts and keeping up to date on news and weather using a small selection of apps, supplied under the Vudu banner and using a consistent interface with the rental service. The apps are nicely done, but there's a real need for better content access - a streaming subscription service of some sort here, especially considering the ubiquity of Netflix on other, lower-priced boxes.

Channel Master is, of course, at work on other provider partnerships, and these things to tend to change at the drop of a hat, so if you're interested in the unit's other functionality, it's probably worth checking back with their Web site periodically. You never know.

Basically, the Channel Master introduces you to connected digital media in a traditional fashion - on-demand video on a rent-per-view basis, plus stuff you're already familiar with. And that's true for the unit as a whole: the accent throughout is on the familiar. The Channel Master TV is, for the most part a DVR for OTA content with some connected-TV fixings; the onboard 320 GB drive has room for plenty of content, there are two ATSC/Clear QAM tuners, so you can record two programs at once (though you can't record Vudu content, which makes the package a bit less attractive if your primary interest is online content). You can pause and rewind live TV, schedule recordings, etc. - the usual DVR stuff.

Out of the box, the program guide gives you a two-day window for free - but if you want a full two-week preview, it'll cost you $49.99/year. Worthwhile? That's unclear - it seems unnecessary up front, but since the DVR is a central feature, keep in mind that the lack of long-term preview definitely makes scheduling recordings a challenge.

With multiple ports for connecting hard drives, I'd hoped for a similarly straightforward experience accessing movie and music libraries on attached drives. Videos are browsable by filename, while metadata-based browsing of music libraries by artist, album, and genre is available, along with playlist creation. Unfortunately there's no full-text search function, which makes dealing with large music libraries pretty tough going - the device is crying out for an app to handle this. Channel Master is working on bringing streaming music services to the box, but until that happens (and even afterwards) better support for local music libraries would still be a useful addition.

The big downside (aside from the relatively high cost of the box) is the lack of support for the mainstream streaming services - that means no Netflix, no Hulu, YouTube - which may be a dealbreaker for many. The TiVo Premiere (with Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video) might make more sense for those primarily interested in Web video content, and offers similar DVR functionality (along with a cable-ready tuner) at a lower price point, though somewhat offset by a higher monthly subscription cost. Still, the Channel Master's bare-bones app repertoire makes for very simple operation, especially for those new to the connected TV experience, setup is dead simple, and the hardware'll interface with just about anything you have lying around.