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Subscription-free DVRs are great for those who get their programming over the air

For those who have decided to ditch the tyranny of monthly fees from a cable or satellite TV provider in favor of getting their programming the old-fashioned way, for free via a TV antenna, the choices in DVRs are slim. Certainly the TiVo Premiere is one alternative, but it -- and the monthly fee (*Est. $13 to $20) -- are probably overkill for over-the-air only use.

Instead, if you are willing to live with a decidedly un-TiVo-like interface and a somewhat stiff initial price, experts point to the Channel Master CM-7000PAL over-the-air DVR (*Est. $335) as a good choice. Dish Network subscribers might sense an air of déjà vu, as the CM-7000PAL was originally released as the Dish Network DTVPal -- a solution for that company's subscribers who relied on over the air for local channels and who faced losing those as a result of the transition from an analog to a digital broadcasting system.

Reports say that while the interface is a little on the primitive side, it's perfectly usable. Beyond that, the CM-7000PAL is a full-featured HD DVR, with dual over-the-air digital tuners, the ability to pause, fast-forward and rewind programming, and enough capacity (250 GB) to hold more than 30 hours of TV programs in HD or 250 hours of SD fare. Reports add that picture quality is excellent and that the DVR is pretty reliable -- something that could not always be said in its earlier days (before lots of firmware tweaks) when it carried the Dish Network label.

David Reinhart at BigPictureBigSound.com says that the CM-7000PAL "makes the argument against pay TV even more compelling," and he gives this HD DVR a 3.5 out of 4 rating. CNET is not quite as impressed; yet after reeling off a small list of negatives, David Katzmaier says that while the CM-7000PAL is the only option for antenna users who want a DVR, it's not a bad one.

The big negative compared to other DVRs is that the quality of the programming guide varies by where you live. David Reinhart is based in NYC, where TV Guide on Screen (TVGOS) is available, providing seven days of detailed program information for most of that city's local channels. Elsewhere, however, you might be limited to the basic guide data that is part of the digital broadcasting standard, which might provide only a day or two of information and sometimes less.

Setting up the DVR for recordings is harder work than with a TiVo or many cable/satellite TV-provided alternatives. Rather than being able to set up schedules by program name, you need to do it by time block, much like an old-fashioned VCR. On the plus side, reviewers say that it's easy enough to do. CNET says that while the interface is Spartan, it's also uncluttered and responsive. In addition, while you can't program by title, there is a search feature that will let you hunt by keywords, which works well.

Beyond the interface, reviewers find lots to like. The remote is very similar to the one provided with Dish Network's DVRs, and that's a good thing. David Katzmaier says that it's easy to navigate and filled with nice touches, such as a 30-second skip-ahead button that's just right for breezing past commercials.

The built-in tuners are excellent. Katzmaier reports that compared to the TiVo Premiere, the Channel Master CM-7000PAL picked up additional channels and did a better job locking onto those that were marginal. He also adds that the CM-7000PAL is "remarkably stable -- more so than any DVR we've used."

The CM-7000PAL's availability at retail is becoming scarce. In its place, Channel Master has announced the Channel Master TV CM-7400 (*Est. $400), which is scheduled to begin shipping before the end of 2011. The new Channel Master DVR offers a number of enhancements over its previous offering. One is support of clear QAM (what cable companies often use to distribute unencrypted cable channels); the CM-7000PAL only supported over-the-air digital signals.

The second is the ability to connect to the Internet for additional programming. Wi-Fi is built in, but content provider support is meager -- just Vudu and the Vudu apps platform. While that gives you access to what's considered to be one of the better-quality sources of Internet streaming movies, the lack of more widely used -- and less expensive providers such as Netflix -- limits its appeal. Vudu apps does have some worthwhile content, including Pandora, Facebook and Twitter.

As the CM-7400 has yet to ship, no reviewers weigh in. An analysis at GizmoLovers.com goes over what to expect with the new DVR. Reviewers wonder whether its high upfront box cost might make a TiVo Premiere -- with its more sophisticated programming guide and better access to online content -- a better value for "cord cutters" who use a combination of OTA broadcasts and Internet providers for their TV programming.

The biggest drawback to DVRs is that archiving and sharing video is more difficult, though all let you dub to a VCR or DVD recorder, and some will let you download video to an external hard drive. If you are interested in saving or sharing lots of recordings, a DVD recorder with an internal hard-disk drive might be worth considering. Those offer some of the features of a DVR, including the ability to pause and rewind live TV and store hours of programming. However, none can record high-definition video in HD; HD programming is recorded in standard definition.

Not long ago, there were lots of options in this category. However, only one manufacturer is producing hard-drive DVD recorders, and the models available have far less functionality than the most basic DVR.

The Magnavox MDR-513H/F7 (*Est. $200), which is made by Funai, is a DVD recorder with a 320 GB hard drive that can store up to almost 400 hours of programming (at the lowest-quality setting). It records in standard definition, not HD. The Magnavox MDR-513H/F7 lacks its own programming guide, but it can use the one sent over the air as part of the digital broadcasting standard. However, it doesn't use that guide for programming. Instead, users must resort to the old-fashioned system of entering channels and recording times manually, much like a VCR. The recorder has a QAM-compatible digital tuner, meaning it works with over-the-air TV and unscrambled digital cable without a box. You can also record the output from a satellite TV receiver or digital cable box -- though the lack of an IR blaster makes timed recordings a challenge.

Magnavox also offers the MDR-515H/F7 (*Est. $250). It ups the ante by including a 500 GB drive for nearly 630 hours of standard-definition recording in the lowest-quality setting and more than 100 hours in the highest-quality one. There are also a number of small but useful functional improvements, including a redesigned remote that features larger buttons and a better layout.

These Magnavox HDD DVRs are a reasonable choice for those not interested in HD programming or incurring a monthly fee. We've not seen professional reviews of the Magnavox MDR-513H/F7 or MDR-515H/F7, but user reports are generally favorable, and they are the subject of an extensive discussion thread at AVSForum.com. For more information on DVD recorders with hard-disk drives, see the separate ConsumerSearch report on DVD recorders.

DVRs - Digital Video Recorders Runners Up:

Dish Network DuoDVR ViP722K *Est. $6 per month

2 picks including: CNET, PCMag.com…

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Factory Refurbished VIP 722K Dual Tuner HD DVR Dish Network
Buy from Amazon.com
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New: $399.99 $149.99   
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