Review: DVR+ vs. Windows Media Center

Channel Master DVR+When I first read about Channel Master’s DVR+, I guessed that it was like my Simple.TV device. Tunes over-the-air TV? Check. Works best with a USB hard drive? Check.

As so often happens, I was wrong. The nice folks at Channel Master sent me a DVR+ to review, and I quickly discovered that it’s very little like Simple.TV. The DVR+ records OTA TV, but it doesn’t stream on its own, and it hooks directly to the TV for viewing. Come to think of it, those features match a Windows Media Center computer, so that’s what I’ll use for the comparison test.

By coincidence, I had just purchased a refurbished Dell Inspiron 660 (4 GB RAM, 1 TB HD, Windows 7 Pro, built-in HDMI output) plus a wireless mouse at Micro Center for under $200, which is about $50 less than Channel Master is charging for the DVR+ at its online store. Now let’s start reviewing the differences between the two.

Form factor: The DVR+ is sleek, wide and thin. Looks nifty. The Dell is a thick black box. Looks bulky. Advantage DVR+.

Setup: The DVR+ is ready to go almost out of the box. It includes a small amount of storage memory onboard, so it’s possible to record a few shows without a USB drive. It only took a few minutes to run its setup, let it scan my channels, and download its guide data. The Dell? Hoo boy! It took hours to download and install all the latest Windows security updates, the driver for the USB OTA tuner I added, and then scan my channels and download its guide data. Advantage DVR+.

Add-Ons: Although it’ll work without it, the DVR+ gains a lot of recording space with an external hard drive. The Dell needed an OTA tuner, so I used my rebranded Hauppage HVR-950, which would otherwise cost about the same as the external hard drive. Even.

Remote: The DVR+ includes a full-service remote control that can be taught to control its TV as well. The Dell has that wireless mouse. (I’ve tried Windows Media Center remotes, but never found one I liked.) The DVR+ remote is extremely complicated, with more buttons than my TV remote and almost as many as my Dish DVR remote. (That includes four color buttons that don’t do much yet, and a skip-forward button that only goes 10 seconds. Why not 30 seconds like every other DVR?) (Update: Deep in the hard-to-find full manual (PDF), there are instructions to go through the DVR menu to reprogram that button if desired.) The Dell mouse is extremely simple; it can never control my TV, but it can access anything in the Windows Media Center. Simple is good; I’m calling this Even.

Power consumption: A tip of the hat to the Channel Master folks who pointed out this one. According to my Kill A Watt EZ Electricity Usage Monitor, using my local rate of nearly 9 cents per kWh, my Dell uses about 60 9 cents of electricity per day, but the DVR+ uses only about 19 2 cents a day. That’s a difference of about $12 $2 per month to run Windows Media Center. Advantage DVR+, even after correcting my first use of the Kill A Watt.

Tuners: The DVR+ was just a little more sensitive than the Hauppage on marginal channels. I don’t know whether a different Windows tuner might work better. The DVR+ has two tuners, but the sole advantage of that here is being able to watch one live show while recording another. Halfway through a recording, I couldn’t watch that show live on the second tuner; I had to go to the recording in the DVR and fast-forward. On the other hand, if multiple OTA tuners are important to you, Windows Media Center will support up to four (!) tuners if you add them to your computer. Even.

Aspect Ratio: The Windows Media Center somehow automatically chooses the correct aspect ratio (16:9 widescreen or 4:3 standard definition-style) for every channel and sub-channel. The DVR+ always defaults to 16:9 for every channel and when playing every recording, as far as I could tell. Although I couldn’t find it in any documentation, there’s a button on the remote that cycles through three styles – the third is a zoomed-in view for those 4:3 channels that are showing 16:9 content in a letterbox. That last feature is nice, but having to click the 4:3 button every time I want to watch a movie on Get TV gets annoying. Advantage Windows.

Buffering: With the Dell, if I’m watching a show and I want to see what someone just said, it’s easy to skip back a little and watch it again. On the DVR+, it doesn’t buffer automatically that way (update: unless an external hard drive is plugged in). I’m out of luck unless I’ve already clicked pause (it’ll only go back as far as the pause request) or I’m already recording it, and in that case, it’s not so simple to watch it live. (See Tuners above.) Since the recommended configuration for the DVR+ is to include an external hard drive, I’d call this Even.

DVR+ guide showing missing channel data

The local Lesea affiliate shows Roy Rogers and Lone Ranger reruns, but I can’t tell that from the DVR+ guide.

Live guide: Both the DVR+ and Windows Media Center offer free online guide content, a huge advantage over other OTA tuner products. But what’s in that guide? DVR+ turned up blanks for several of my local channels that had full listings in Windows Media Center’s guide. Another shortcoming was that for the entire testing week, which included both Standard and Daylight times, my Bounce TV affiliate’s listings were consistently one hour off in the DVR+ guide but no where else – not Windows or Simple.TV or TitanTV or Zap2It. Everything else seems accurate in the DVR+ guide, so YMMV, but this is definitely Advantage Windows.

Extended guide: Discovery is the name of the game these days. With so many channels (even with OTA, there are usually at least a couple dozen), it’s hard to identify what to watch. Simple.TV does a great job of this on its iPhone app, but I’m not talking about Simple today. Windows Media Center’s Movie Guide at least presents posters of the full set of movies that will be available during the next 10 days or so, making it easy to thumb through them and select some that look good. Advantage Windows.

Searching: Another part of that discovery process is flexible searching. The DVR+ allows searching on title words only. Windows Media Center allows searching on title, keyword, categories, actor, and director. Both devices found future episodes of Arthur, but only Windows could tell me which upcoming movies starred George Brent. Advantage Windows.

Other streaming content: Channel Master incorporated online movie service Vudu into its DVR+. That’s a nice touch, but Vudu and Netflix, Crackle, YouTube, FilmOn, and a zillion other services are available on the Windows PC, even if most aren’t accessed within Media Center. Advantage Windows.

Music: Windows Media Center can access FM radio if it’s attached to its computer, typically as part of a TV tuner card. And Windows has quite a few streaming music sources available, or you can store music files to its hard drive. Nothing like that in the DVR+. Advantage Windows.

DVDs: The Dell plays them, and if I added a Blu-ray drive, I could probably mothball my standalone Blu-ray player. Nothing like that in the DVR+. Advantage Windows.

Miscellaneous: Soon after I installed it, I recorded a show to the DVR+’s onboard storage. After I attached the USB drive, I could no longer see that onboard recording until I disconnected the drive and rebooted the DVR+. Both devices accept system updates over the internet, often requiring a reboot, but that seems to happen more often with Windows. The DVR+ is quieter than the Dell. The DVR+ is a dedicated device, but the Dell could be a general purpose computer, especially when it’s not playing back a show. Even.

Conclusion: If that extra $12 $2/month (or more or less, depending on local electricity rates) speaks loudest to you, then I could see that as a really good reason to choose the DVR+. For me, the buffering, the automatic aspect ratio detection, the guide, and the universe of online content make me happier to stay with Windows Media Center.