During CES this January, I thought I heard a tinge of sadness when Channel Master executive vice president Joe Bingochea explained that his freshly launched, Android TV-based Stream+ relied on Google’s Live Channels app for its live TV and DVR functionality. At the time, I chalked it up to the bittersweet necessity of discarding the work that his company had done to create a pretty good DVR for its slightly older device, the DVR+. Looking back on it today, I’m not so sure.
I wanted the Stream+ to be great. Scratch that – I expected the Stream+ to be great, which is why I bought it on the day it was announced. Pairing Channel Master’s DVR expertise with Android TV’s wealth of apps was bound to be a huge upgrade over the limited over-the-top channels available on the DVR+. After weeks of delays, a Stream+ arrived on my doorstep on Monday. I’m sad to say that it is not yet great.
Google’s Live Channels has its benefits, such as episode descriptions within its program guide, but it has serious drawbacks compared to the DVR+. As Sebastian at Cord Cutting Helper pointed out in a review of that app, the program guide is limited to about 48 hours and cannot be searched. For a recording in progress, you can’t watch the beginning until the entire recording is finished.
Channel Master’s Stream+ support pages also blame Google often enough, with their frequent postscript, “Channel Master is not responsible for ‘Live Channels’ functions or issues. All Guide data, logos, and images are provided by Google. Any Guide data issues & questions, and bugs should be reported to Google.” Channel Master’s lengthy Known Issues page lists a bunch of problems and feature requests related to the Android TV OS and the Live Channels app while pointing out that its hardware appears to be fine. And don’t get me wrong, I believe everything Channel Master says about it.
On the other hand, no one’s offered a clear reason why Netflix isn’t available on the Stream+. On the Air TV Player, a very similar box also made by Technicolor but for Sling TV, Netflix is so integrated that it has a button on the remote. On the Stream+, Netflix doesn’t show up in the app store. Even after I sideloaded the latest version, the Netflix app refused to run, reporting that it was “not compatible with your device” even as the Who’s watching Netflix? screen loaded in the background.
(Bingochea also said he wished that the Amazon Prime app was available, but that appears to be a problem with most Android TVs including the Air TV Player. Unlike Netflix, the Amazon Prime app ran just fine after I sideloaded it.)
I have a few more minor quibbles with the Stream+. It’s recommendation bar is dominated by a link to a short YouTube video advertisement for the Stream+, which seems pointless in a post-purchase setting. Adjacent to the Live Channels is a Channel Master app; when clicked, it’s only message is Coming Soon. And on a personal level, the DVR+ knew the codes to control my five-year-old, admittedly off-brand TV/monitor, and so did the Air TV Player, but the Stream+ remote didn’t.
Now that I’ve got the griping out of my system, I need to also point out the good things about the Stream+. It has a Micro SD slot for recordings because one of the Known Issues about Live Channels is that the “External USB hard drive intermittently disconnects”. An external USB drive is cheaper per gigabyte than a Micro SD card, but the added slot shows that Channel Master wanted to find a hardware workaround for what it thinks is a Google bug. (I’ve also heard it whispered that an external USB drive usually works okay, which speaks to CM’s commitment to reliability.)
That wealth of Android TV apps remains Stream+’s biggest advantage over the small, fixed collection of internet TV channels in the DVR+. Its technical specs match up well against those of the Air TV Player’s, particularly its two internal tuners compared to the single USB tuner made for the Air TV Player, which uses a USB drive for recordings.
Two of those Android TV apps that I loaded are for Tablo and HDHomeRun’s DVR. Both of these OTA DVRs require separate hardware plus subscription fees, and both are a clear step above Live Channels. Like every other non-Netflix app I tried, they worked fine on the Stream+.
As I type, the Air TV Player is $130 (and includes a $50 Sling credit) and shipping today; the Stream+ is $150 and only available as a pre-order. For now, if you can get by with a single tuner (a big if!), and if you believe that Air TV’s DVR will remain free after its beta period is over, the Air TV Player is a better deal.
I definitely sympathize with Channel Master’s choices. Without subscription income, the DVR+’s homegrown Linux-based system was probably going to be a dead end. The natural way to provide a full spectrum of TV options was to embrace the equally free Android TV OS and Live Channels. The currently empty Channel Master app and the (hopefully?) placeholder YouTube video suggest that improvements are in the pipeline. The Stream+ has the potential for greatness, and I hope it gets there soon.