Some people are cord cutters — fed up with cable bills that seem to rise every month, hardware rental fees, and the unshakable sense that they aren't getting a ton of value for their entertainment buck. The just-under $150 Channel Master Stream+ and its ability to both stream online content and record free over-the-air broadcasts promises to keep them happy in a cable-free world. Does it deliver?
While I can't truly count myself among cord cutters, since I never subscribed to cable as an adult in the first place, I'm very much of the mindset that there are a ton of alternative video sources out there, and between online streaming and OTA broadcasts, I'm a happy camper. I've been using OTA DVRs for well over a decade now, but with existing options starting to feel a little stagnant, my attention was piqued when Channel Master announced its Stream+ Android TV-based DVR back at the start of the year. Would this be the hardware to bring my TV-watching into the modern age? Let's take a look.
At its core, the Stream+ is a pretty standard Android TV box (or cylinder, rather), and arrives running Nougat (no Oreo on its way yet). It supports 4K output, HDR, and pretty much everything you'd want from your video source. But unlike your garden-variety Android TV unit, this one's equipped with dual ATSC (the digital broadcast TV standard here in the States) tuners, letting you watch one live television channel while recording another.
|Size||7.5cm high x 10cm diameter|
|Video output||HDMI 2.0 supporting up to 4KP60 UHD 10-bit HEVC|
|Audio output||Optical S/PDIF|
|Internet connectivity||Ethernet 10/100, Wireless 2.4 GHz / 5 GHz|
|Expansion||USB 3.0, microSD slot|
|Tuner||ATSC 1.0 Dual|
|Price||$150 price tag is competitive with both regular Android TV boxes and stand-alone DVRs, no subscription needed for guide info.|
|Setup||Easy to get up and running.|
|DVR operation||No skip/advance controls, no ability to extend recording times, no support for sharing recordings.|
|Software issues||Buggy behavior that may or not be fixed, aggravating UI.|
|App support||No Netflix. 'Nuff said.|
Wiring up the Stream+ is pretty straightforward: attach your antenna feed, connect to your TV over HDMI, and plug in the included AC adapter. There's optional optical audio out if you choose to take advantage of it, and an Ethernet port for wired internet access — though I didn't run into any problems at all going the full wireless route.
I already have a nice antenna mounted outside, so hooking it up to the Stream+ was trivial. If you aren't already wired for HDTV reception, you still have plenty of options, and I also evaluated the Channel Master amplified indoor SMARTenna+ when conducting this review — I'll circle back around to cover that shortly.
Maybe the biggest decision to make when setting up the Stream+ is what you want to do for DVR storage. In order to pause live TV or to record content, you'll need to attach either an external USB hard drive, or pop a supported microSD card into the slot on the unit's base. To keep things uncluttered, I went in the latter direction, but if you choose to follow suit you'll need to use a U3-rated card — I just happened to have one such card lying around, but all the others I had on hand weren't fast enough.
Software setup is relatively painless, especially if you're using an Android phone or tablet — Google's app can easily transfer network settings over to the Stream+, and believe me, the less text you're trying to enter with a remote control the better. Then the box scans for available broadcast channels and starts populating its guide. In moments, you're ready to start watching.
Now, my primary interest in the Stream+ is as a DVR — having Android TV stuff is a nice extra, but this thing is going to live or die based on how easy it makes watching and recording programming. That's a particularly tricky subject to tackle since the Stream+ runs Google's Live Channels as its DVR software. And as you're about to hear, I've got some serious issues with how it operates.
Part of me doesn't want to blame Channel Master for Google's software, but it's impossible to divorce the two. If CM had developed its own in-house DVR solution, I could avoid this conundrum, but having stuck me with Live Channels, I'm forced to treat this as package deal.
Let's start with the good, because there is a fair amount of it here. The channel guide is great, and is a real step up from what I'm used to, complete with program synopses and artwork. You can choose any program from the guide to select for later recording, either one-off episodes or a complete series. Sadly, guide content is limited to just two days' worth, preventing you from easily planning your viewing further out.
As I'd only expect from an OTA DVR, the Stream+ records the HDTV bitstream as it receives it, with no further re-compression. This maintains the highest quality content possible. Hiccups in transmission are also handled pretty gracefully, and momentary interruptions in your signal are recovered from without the excessive glitchiness I've seen with some other DVRs.
But there's a lot that's wrong here, too. Some critical features are outright missing, others are severely lacking in their implementation, and there seems to be a disturbingly cavalier "oh well" attitude in regards to some problematic bugs.
Sadly, the Live Channels app itself is resistant to screenshots when there's video playing.
Top on that "missing" list is the ability to jump forwards or backwards in recordings. Sure, you've got fast-forward and rewind controls, but no instant 15 or 30-second back/ahead button. Whether you're skipping commercials or just trying to catch a line you weren't paying close enough attention to on first pass, these tools are fundamental to how I use DVRs, and their absence here is inexcusable.
A prime example of an "undercooked" feature is the way recordings are scheduled. While you can easily select a program to save, the system is entirely too strict in limiting recording to the constraints of that guide data. For instance, sometimes a broadcaster will be a little out of sync with your system's clock. I've seen other DVRs compensate for this by starting recordings a minute or so early, and similarly running them a minute over. But with the Stream+, there's no such flexibility, and a large number of my recordings saw the final 30 seconds of a show cut off.
There's also no way to manually set recording times independent of guide data — maybe a sporting event ran long and later programs have been shifted to accommodate. You may know that the show you're interested in is starting late (and will run late), but you can't just tell the DVR to "begin recording on this channel at 6:45, and continue for the next hour" while ignoring its guide data.
As for those bugs, there's a stupid, really annoying one where if you are watching a pre-recorded program and hit the "guide" button on your remote, your video goes blank, a spinning "progress" wheel pops up (though nothing will ever happen), and eventually your audio drops out, too. The only way out of this is pressing three buttons on the remote: back twice, and then home.
I wouldn't dare ship a product that failed during such casual use, and especially without an intuitive way to get things working again. But all Channel Master has to say on its support pages is that this is "a known operational inconvenience that may or may not be changed by a future software upgrade." To say that I'm filled with less than overwhelming confidence in a company publicly expressing that attitude would be an understatement.
I could go on and on about how thoroughly the ball was dropped here, and how disappointed I am about how this experience fails to live up to the great potential of an Android TV DVR. Delivering features like the ability to stream recordings to other devices on the local network should be absolutely trivial, and the absence here speaks volumes.
Channel Master maintains a "Known Bugs & Issues" page for the Stream+ containing a veritable wish-list of what should be very basic DVR features — many of which I've mentioned here. Time after time, they're marked with "Request sent to Google/Amazon/Netflix/whomever." I feel for Channel Master and its reliance on these third parties, but that doesn't make it any more fair for the company to put its users in this situation. "Maybe things will get better, but it's out of our hands" is a lousy tagline.
I love a good remote, swimming with buttons that give me one-touch access to every last corner of a device's functionality. This one, though, is a bit lacking.
The basics are here: number pad, seek and play controls, channel, volume, and everything you'll need to navigate around the system interface. There's also a built-in microphone that's enormously helpful when conducting searches.
Still, there are noticeable failures here, many tied to the way these buttons are interpreted by Live Channels. I've already discussed the absence of any skip back/ahead buttons, but another important one I'm missing is a consequence-free "get this stuff off my screen" button. When you're several menus deep adjusting closed captioning settings or setting your next program to record, you want a quick way to get back to what you were watching. Here, all you have is the "back" button, but press that one too many times and (without any additional confirmation) you'll be booted back to the home screen, losing any live-TV buffer you had in the process. The system sorely needs some sort of "cancel" button independent of "back" that can be pressed indiscriminately without losing the show you were watching, or at least should display some kind of "are you sure" message before discarding the DVR buffer.
There's also a problem with inconsistency. The "info" button gives you an episode synopsis when watching live TV, but does nothing at all when watching a recorded program. While that data is still accessible elsewhere, the shifting effect of these buttons based on playback mode is not at all user friendly.
The remote offers Bluetooth connectivity in addition to infrared support, letting the remote operate without line-of-sight access to the Stream+ box. That sounds good, but when you're also using the remote to control your television, this leads to a situation where it's easy for the two devices to become out of sync — normally pressing "power" would turn both on or off at once, but if the Stream+ gets a Bluetooth signal that the TV misses over IR, one will be off when the other's on. It's easy enough to fix, but nonetheless annoying.
While I'm most concerned with the lackluster DVR functionality here, perhaps the Android TV support can make up for that to an extent, tapping me into popular streaming options. YouTube works quite nicely, and I can easily lose a couple hours browsing clips on the couch. And for users with a big local library of media, VLC is fantastic with its support for streaming all variety of formats from network drives. HBO and Showtime can bring you your premium-content fix ... but there's one big elephant in the room here. Well, maybe two.
There's no Netflix. And there's no Amazon Prime. OK, maybe you're a Hulu dude (weirdo) and this doesn't matter, but I don't think I'm too out of line in saying that if your streaming device doesn't work with Netflix, it probably shouldn't exist.
Not what a search for "Netflix" should return.
In what's starting to sound like a broken record, Channel Master passes the buck on to Netflix ("We've asked them to support the Stream+! Maybe they will eventually!"). Let's all pause for an exasperated sigh.
This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the Stream+ can operate as a Chromecast, but I was similarly unable to get Netflix running that way, either.
Channel Master, get this crap resolved. The Stream+ has been on the market for months. None of these issues should have existed on day one, let alone this far out. Paying users don't deserve this kind of uncertainty.
As I said before, in addition to testing the Stream+ with my existing outdoor HDTV antenna, I also tried the unit out with CM's amplified indoor SMARTenna+. The flat-panel antenna offers seven optimized reception configurations, and can scan through all of them to find the best option for your home.
Installation is easy — you mount the antenna on the wall of your choice (I elected to stick it in a window, but right on the wall is fine), run an included coaxial wire from the antenna to its power supply, and then connect the power supply with a shorter run of wire to the Stream+ itself. Once first powered up, the SMARTenna+ goes through all its reception modes and chooses the strongest.
By and large, the SMARTenna+ performed competitively with my outdoor solution. Drop-outs still happened, but considering the convenience offered from an indoor antenna, I'm willing to lower expectations a smidge.
I've got two complaints about the system that are worth talking about, though. Assuming you're not satisfied with just how "smart" the auto-configuration mode is, manually selecting antenna options is a pain — you've got to press the SMARTenna+'s single input button over and over, and there's not enough feedback on how it's presently configured.
The other complaint is based more on the Stream+ side of things, but it's exacerbated by the SMARTenna+ — you don't see a signal-strength meter when tuning channels, so it's near-impossible to adjust the antenna's placement or configuration mode in order to maximize reception. Channels either work or they don't, and you can't tell if your adjustments are making things better or worse outside that binary feedback.
Still, it's super-easy to install and the $90 price tag is probably a lot less than you'd spend mounting and wiring an external antenna — this one's so light you can hold it up with thumbtacks or a couple pieces of tape. If that's important to you and you're fine with auto-configuration, you shouldn't have many problems here.
When you have such high hopes going into a review, and are so thoroughly let down, it may be time for a little self-reflection: Were my expectations out of line? I've been using the Stream+ for several weeks now, and I just can't convince myself they were. Doing DVR right isn't overly complicated, and here so many of the pieces are already in place that's it's incredibly frustrating to not see them come together in harmony.
From the Live Channels DVR functionality to the lack of formal support for some important Android TV apps, Channel Master seems all too willing to deflect blame to other companies for its own product's shortcomings. I am sympathetic to these uncomfortable realities of its business model, but none of that makes it any easier to recommend the Stream+.
Right now, this feels very much like a beta product. If Google makes good on all of Channel Master's requests for new Live Channels functionality, I'd cautiously encourage users to check the Stream+ out. If Netflix gets on board, too, so much the better. And if we're ever so lucky as to get a new remote with skip ahead/back buttons, I'll sing the Stream+'s praises from on high. But right now, I just can't see any good reason to pick this device up.