Though I’ve been a technology careerist my entire life, I’m not one of those consumer types who just has to replace older gear that is perfectly adequate to my needs simply in order to have the newest gadgets. So it wasn’t until a couple months ago, when my long-suffering VCR began failing, that I began looking for a digital video recorder (DVR).
To further cement my image as a dinosaur, let me mention that my TV service is over-the-air (OTA) exclusively. First off, I’ve never lived anywhere where cable (or pizza delivery) was available; and as for satellite, I subscribe to the philosophy of Fred Reed, who once observed that “if the good lord chose to make idiots, that was his business, but I wasn’t going to pay thirty bucks a month to look at them.” The Phoenix area has a plethora of digital OTA stations and networks, and they do for me just fine.
For whatever reason, those of us looking for an subscription-free OTA-capable DVR have really only one choice available in the marketplace, and that’s the ChannelMaster CM7400. [Update, 4/2014: This is no longer the case. The TiVo line now records OTA, and is so much better.]
WHAT IT’S GOOD FOR
The CM7400 has two tuners, meaning it can record a show while you’re watching another, or record two shows simultaneously as long as you’re either not watching at the moment, or are satisfied watching one of the channels that it’s already recording (either from the beginning of that show (time-shift mode) or in real time).
It allows you to pause a show you’re watching in real time, handle a phone call or a potty break, then come back and start it from where you paused. You can even make up the lost time by zipping over the commercials until you catch up with the real-time show. Additionally, if you turn on the TV late for the beginning of a show, it allows you to “rewind” the show and watch it from the beginning, assuming you left the unit on and tuned to that channel. The nicest part of all this is that you don’t have to pre-plan any of these benefits, they’re just there.
Another benefit is the capability of recording shows by name, no matter when they are aired, or no matter how often our moron networks juggle their “regular” time slots around with absolutely no advance notice to the public. Recording proceeds whether the unit is powered off or on. You can specify priorities for different shows, so that if three or more shows ever happen to air simultaneously, the unit can decide which two you prefer to record; and if the disk gets full, it will delete low-priority shows in order to record a more important one.
The CM7400 offers streaming interfaces to VUDU, Facebook, Flickr, Pandora, Picasa, and Twitter, none of which I use. It doesn’t include interfaces for Netflix or Hulu, which I probably would use. (Since my DVD player does, it’s no big thing to me either way.)
PROBLEMS AND ANNOYANCES
I’m listing these in order of severity, with the worst up front.
The biggest failure of the unit is that it can’t handle its own multitasking.
You’ll be watching a recorded show when a commercial comes on. You press the skip button on the remote to skip 30 seconds… and nothing happens. You align the remote more carefully and do it again. Nothing. You try fast forward. Nothing happens. Then you look at the clock — yup, it’s two minutes before an hour or half-hour mark, and the unit is getting ready to record something (or to stop recording something). The “REC” lights haven’t yet turned on (or off), but they will soon. Meanwhile, your unit is practically falling all over its own feet.
When it’s in that mode, it wants no part of your interactions. But it will remember them! And then, 60 seconds or more later, even after the commercial has finished and the show is airing again, the unit will suddenly skip 30 seconds, skip another 30 seconds, and then zoom into fast forward mode. In all probability, it will still be in “don’t talk to me” mode, and so will ignore all your attempts to stop your show from zooming past for up to an additional 30 seconds.
This is a majorly frustrating human interface failure. Control freezes that last over 60 seconds without any response are an abomination, especially when they later proceed out of control and cannot be cancelled.
PLAYBACK STUTTER ISSUES
Even if you are doing nothing with the remote buttons as you are watching a prerecorded show, the unit’s preparation to start or stop recording another show will often cause your playback to stammer, stutter, and outright pause. And you have to gut it out, because it’s not going to respond to any of your attempts to pause or stop the playback while you wait for the unit to stop thrashing.
POOR SCHEDULING INTERFACE
The interface to schedule recording of shows by name is unwieldy. You can’t just type in the name of a show (although the keyboarding interface you would use to do this is perfectly available) — you can only choose from a list of shows that the unit knows about. The unit knows about shows only when they currently appear in its TV “guide” screen, which it assembles from programming information broadcast out of band by each network and channel. Once these shows fall off the guide, they fall out of the list you can use to program the recorder.
The issue arises because different networks and channels provide different advance notice in their schedules. Some stations show what is coming up for three days in the future. The CW network provides a mere six hours of future information in their guide. And our local PBS stations broadcast no guide at all. So for example, if I want to program the unit to automatically record CW’s “Nikita,” I have to sit down between 2 PM and 8 PM on a Friday to do it or it just isn’t possible. (And forget catching the PBS shows, ever.)
Furthermore, not all channels spell the same show identically. If you find “American Dad!” on one channel and program it to record all episodes, you will miss some other channel’s episodes run under the name “American Dad” (with no exclamation mark).
To “solve” this issue, ChannelMaster allows you to subscribe to a web-based service that provides extended advance listings for all the networks. It costs $50/year. I can’t tell you if it works well, because the whole concept offends me.
What would be a whole lot simpler is if the unit would just let me type in “Nikita”, maybe even with a radio button choice between “Contains” and “Exact Match.” I mean, really! Maybe the unit could even reserve a couple of those disk blocks to save a rolling memory of one or two week’s worth of program titles as they fell off the front of the schedule guide. There are several better solutions here other than a $50/year subscription “service,” and any competent engineer could have come up with them.
[Update, 9/2013: This problem has a converse side as well, which I discovered after a recent night-long power outage. While attempting to ascertain whether or not the unit lost its programming schedule over a power outage, I discovered you cannot get the device to produce a complete list of the series you have scheduled to record! It will show you upcoming programs scheduled to record — that is, those that currently appear in the programming guide, limited to the next day or two. If it’s Monday, you have no way of knowing if it’s still programmed to record a Friday series. This led to my discovery of yet another problem with the unit, which is that it is possible to accidentally program it to record a series twice from the same channel at the same time, tying up both tuners. Canceling this misbehavior, in view of the other programming difficulties enumerated above, led to a significant amount of anxiety.]
When I first got the CM7400, I had a problem with the closed captioning. I would set it on, and it would work fine all night and the next morning, but around 24 hours after I turned it on, it would be off again. It did this for a few weeks, and the ChannelMaster tech was no help at all. Finally it stopped failing, for no apparent reason.
[Update, 9/2013: Looks like I was overconfident. The unit regularly refuses to show captions, despite insisting that the captioning feature is still on, until you put it through a full system reboot. Turning the captioning feature off and then on again does absolutely nothing to fix the problem.]
MEAT-AXE DISK MANAGEMENT
The CM7400’s directory of shows you have recorded is handily hierarchical. If you have ten episodes of “Mission Impossible” on the drive, “Mission Impossible” will show up once on the main list; clicking on it will show you the individual episodes.
What isn’t obvious is the abuse of this hierarchy that occurs when the CM7400 has to decide what to delete because a program with higher priority needs to be recorded. If, for some reason, it decides to choose “Mission Impossible” as the sacrificial goat to make room for the new program, it will not delete the oldest episode on file—it will delete the entire folder of ten episodes, needlessly destroying nine episodes to make room for one. And this isn’t the “nice” kind of delete, where you can push the “show deleted programs” button and get them back—they are gone.
THE ETERNAL RECORDING
[Update, 9/2013] Reviewing your recorded content, it’s not unusual to come across a program with the “recording in progress” icon still on it, except that it’s several days old. The program recorded fine, and completed, but was somehow never closed out. You can’t delete it until the unit realizes it’s no longer recording. You can choose “stop recording” from the menu, which the unit seems to accept, but does nothing useful. The only way to turn off the icon and delete the program is to perform a system reboot, which takes two to three minutes. I have to do this two or three times weekly.
[Update, 9/2013] Every so often, the unit records a program in a weird mode in which the program timer doesn’t track with the program material. Using any of the forward or backward controls affects the program timer, but the actual viewing of the program does not advance the timer at all. To the viewer, what this looks like is that when he encounters an ad and tries to skip over it by hitting one of the forward buttons, the program material immediately resumes from where it was the last time he pressed one of the forward or backward buttons — usually right after the previous ad. Now he has to jump forward past the entire segment of the program he has just watched in order to skip the ads that appear after it. Then he can watch the next segment of the program, until it is time to skip the next ad, when the fun begins again.
Worse, if the viewer wants to skip backwards a few seconds to review something, he has to entirely re-locate his current place in the program. And heaven help him if he needs to press the skip-backward button several times, as every time he presses it the timer is reset, establishing a “time wall” that is very hard to regress past.
POOR REMOTE DESIGN
The remote has a “VUDU” button located in the “buttons I use every five minutes” section, vertically between the “info” and “skip ahead 30 seconds” buttons, instead of on the south side of the tracks with all the other buttons you use only once a week. When you accidentally hit the VUDU button, everything you were doing stops dead, and you are subjected to 30 seconds of waiting for the VUDU screens (that you didn’t want) to come up. There’s no way to abort the request.
Every so often, as I am pushing buttons on the remote having to do with recording stuff (I forget exactly which buttons cause this), the CM7400 will give me a notice warning me that disk space is dangerously low and I may lose some stored program material. The only problem is that the disk is often 40%-60% free when this notice comes up, and nothing short of me recording a “Jerry’s Kids Telethon” is going to fill it any time soon. I finally clicked on the button for “never show me this lie again.”
[Update, 9/2013] In addition, on occasion the unit responds to control requests with various messages concerning being “unable to obtain lock” or the like. They are useless, debug-level messages that the viewer can’t do anything about anyway, so I have no idea why the programmer decided they were worth displaying.
This issue was probably exacerbated by my having one of the first 1080-capable rear-projection TVs from the Eocene era (2000), with component video but no HDMI. My television’s DTV inputs are capable of displaying 480p, 480i, or 1080i signals. The CM7400, though capable of displaying 1080i signals, comes configured out of the box for 720p, which was entirely beyond my TV’s comprehension. The initial setup and configuration of the CM7400 produced nothing but green fuzz until I realized what the problem was, hooked its composite video output into a spare TV jack, and finished its programming from there before returning it to the component input channel.
I use the ChannelMaster CM7400 nearly every day. The picture and sound quality are fine — I especially like that the unit doesn’t knock a gratuitous 20dB off live broadcast volume like my old VCR used to.
But the programming quality is really atrocious. It’s what you’d expect from beta software, only nobody is fixing the bugs in it.
Would I buy it again if I were buying today? Yes, of course, because there is simply no other unit that records OTA TV for free, like my old VCRs used to. I will say that if any new units enter this marketplace niche, I would give them a hard look, mostly because of the awful multitasking behavior of the ChannelMaster unit, as well as its poor scheduling interface. But for now, I’l live with my CM7400 and gut through the frustrations. Who knows — maybe somebody at ChannelMaster will release a firmware upgrade that fixes this problem. [Update, 9/2013: Still waiting!]
[Update, 4/2014: I sold my 7400 some months back and purchased a TiVo Premiere, their bottom-of-the-line DVR. It has every feature the 7400 had, plus more — and it all works.]