Set Top Boxes

One of the great innovations of the cable television era is the Electronic Program Guide (EPG).  This grid shows the viewer what is on all channels now and for hours and days in the future.  Television broadcasters are required to include this information in the program stream, but exactly what happens to this data is up to the television manufacturer.  Most will show you programming information for the channel you are watching, so seeing what is on requires the viewer to tune each channel and wait for the data to load.

The other great cable innovation is the Digital Video Recorder (DVR).  DVRs let the viewer record programs for later viewing (time shifting), pause programs to answer the phone, rewind programs, fast forward through commercials, and use slow motion to see what really happened.

OTA set top boxes bring these features to broadcast television.  There are a lot of options, but I am only going to talk about two — TiVo and Channel Master’s DVR+.  Both include a rich EPG and interactive DVR functions.  The TiVo has more features and a better EPG, but the DVR+ is very good, does not require phone or internet connectivity, and costs about half as much.

Channel Master DVR+

The DVR+ the best OTA DVR not named TiVo.  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 and Pandora.  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 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 very reliable and complete.  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 $250.  For $300, you can store 320 hours of HD programming.

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


Tivo has the best EPG of any OTA DVR.  Besides accessing and recording OTA content, the TiVo DVR can access streaming content from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Spotify, and others.  You can stream from the TiVo to other devices using ios and android apps.  You can download programs from the OTA DVR with these apps.  The four tuner model with a 500g disk is $49.99…plus $15 per month forever.  In seventeen months, you will have spent more for your TiVo OTA than the DVR+ with a 2t disk.

The TiVo OTA works with the Mini and Stream, but the 500g (75 hours of HD) disk is not expandable, so it’s not really a whole house solution.

Follow this spot for more information as it comes to my attention.

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7 thoughts on “Set Top Boxes

  1. Pingback: Broadcast TV | Free TV For Me!

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  3. Tivo Romio OTA supports external hard drives up to 3tb and the internal 500gb hard drive can be easily replaced with up to a 3tb hard drive for a total of 6tb. Add a couple of Tivo Minis and you have a whole home DVR. You can pay the monthly subscription or get a lifetime sub now. Tivo does have THE BEST EPG and UI of any DVR hands down.


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