The ZapperBox M1 over-the-air (OTA) DVR delivers solid picture quality from local NextGen TV channels and the current digital over-the-air standard called ATSC 1.0.
ZapperBox now supports digital rights management (DRM), allowing users to watch and record DRM-encrypted broadcast channels. It features a user-friendly channel guide and offers the option to stream YouTube. But, the effectiveness of NextGen TV remains to be seen.
Table of Contents
- What is NextGen TV?
- Who should buy the ZapperBox M1?
- How I tested ZapperBox M1
- Ease of Use
- What I Liked
- Room for Improvement
- Ratings for ZapperBox M1
- Where to Buy
Overall, ZapperBox shows promise, but would benefit from further development. The single-tuner unit is priced at $249.95, while the dual-tuner costs $274.95.
What is NextGen TV?
NextGen TV is the latest broadcast standard that is being adopted by local TV stations. It’s also known as ATSC 3.0, or the latest version of the Advanced Television Systems Committee standards.
While the current standard (ATSC 1.0) isn’t expected to go away anytime soon, NextGen TV is capable of transmitting ultra-high-definition 4K video, HDR formats and immersive audio.
NextGen TV is a ways off from living up to its potential. So far, NextGen TV stations have only been transmitting up to 1080p.
And it’s worth noting that current digital TV signals that air in 720p and 1080i look very good when you have decent antenna reception.
In fact, you may not be able to tell the difference between 1080i on the current digital TV standard, and 1080p airing on NextGen TV.
For now, most people are still using digital broadcasts to watch local ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and FOX stations with a TV antenna.
Who should buy the ZapperBox M1?
If you’re an enthusiast of over-the-air TV who is eager to check out NextGen TV, the ZapperBox is a pretty good starting point.
Parent company BitRouter is rolling out regular updates and improvements to their hardware.
But anyone buying a NextGen TV tuner or DVR should only buy one that has DRM support. The company is doing a good job keeping customers updated through regular release notes on its website.
How I tested ZapperBox M1
I connected the ZapperBox M1 to the same outdoor TV antenna that I regularly use with a HDHomeRun Extend. I have also used a number of other OTA DVRs from HDHomeRun, and Tablo. I just reviewed the 4th generation Tablo using this same outdoor antenna.
An AirTV 2 and the now-defunct Fire TV Recast has been used with the antenna as well. I’m using my experiences with these leading OTA DVRs on the market to benchmark the ZapperBox M1.
I started watching NextGen TV at the end of January on my Sony Bravia A80J, which has a built-in NextGen TV tuner. One station that I regularly watch started airing 1080p instead of 1080i. While I am a proud stickler for top-notch picture resolution, I remain a little underwhelmed by the difference in resolution that NextGen TV currently offers.
The ZapperBox M1 has a black plastic case with two USB ports and a MicroSD slot on the side. The USB ports are for connecting an external hard drive for flash drives to store recordings.
On the back, there is an F-connector port, HDMI port and Ethernet port. There is a short antenna for Wi-Fi.
The remote control is palm sized. It has a numerical keypad at the bottom, a navigation wheel in the middle along with dedicated buttons for volume control, DVR, live TV and recordings.
It’s not the most elegant looking remote around, but it works well. To its credit, you can program “Learning Keys” at the top to control power, volume on a TV and A/V receiver.
Tuning ability: The ZapperBox performed well with getting UHF and VHF signals in my area on par with my HDHomeRun and Tablo. The channel guide displayed the NextGen TV stations alongside their ATSC 1.0 counterparts. So, for example, I had the option to watch WCVB, the local ABC station, with ATSC 1.0 broadcast or ATSC 3.0.
At the time of this review, DRM support was just rolling out. To get DRM support, it has to be manually done by the company. You need to enable remote access on the ZapperBox, and then email a specific department with your device ID number.
Sometimes NextGen TV channels have a slower loading time, which can be irritating. But overall, the picture quality looked good and remained consistent. The NextGen TV stations in Boston that I could get are transmitting up to 1080p.
Recording Quality: The DVR is now out of beta. The enhanced DVR features require a subscription to 14-day day guide data. You can record NextGen TV stations once you get DRM support added to your device.
Storage Capacity: The DVR requires a minimum 128GB of external storage (which you need to buy separately). You can use an external hard drive, SSD, flash drive or microSD card. But flash drives, microSD cards and SSD are not recommended unless they use FLC flash, or the pause buffer is disabled.
Ease of Use
Once your ZapperBox is set up and running, you have a nice grid-style channel guide, and a window of the station you are currently watching.
The channel guide indicates NextGen TV stations with a little blue rainbow. Navigating the menu will be easy for just about anyone.
I like being able to watch live TV and channel surf at the same time. It’s a solid feature on ZapperBox.
This should be a staple of all OTA DVRs, but unfortunately, some models don’t always allow that experience, depending on which streaming device or mobile phone you are using.
The setup process for the ZapperBox M1 is as straightforward as any modern streaming device or Smart TV. You will likely have to do one or more software updates during the setup process.
The Android-based software guides you through doing a channel scan and getting the device set up to use. You will need an internet connection for software updates.
The menu has a channel guide, option to watch YouTube and any recordings you have stored on the connected external storage.
Connectivity and Networking: The ZapperBox currently connects to a single TV through an HDMI port. You watch over-the-air channels through the TV input that’s connected to the ZapperBox.
That can be a limiting factor compared to other leading OTA DVRs such as HDHomeRun and Tablo. Those two DVRs have apps that allow you to watch OTA channels through streaming devices such as a Roku, or a smartphone and tablet.
Eventually, the ZapperBox will let you watch on other screens within your home network, but that hasn’t happened yet.
You have the option to connect the DVR via Wi-Fi or through Ethernet. You can watch ZapperBox without an internet connection. But if you want an updated channel guide or watch encrypted NextGen TV stations, you currently need to be connected to the internet.
Keeping an OTA DVR connected to the internet is not a problem for me. But there could be scenarios where maintaining an internet connection isn’t possible.
Once, I heard from a reader who was a long haul trucker. He wanted to use his laptop to watch over-the-air TV. In that case, I suggested a Hauppauge WinTV-dualHD TV tuner. It doesn’t require an internet connection and it’s portable, so it was a better solution for him.
Compatibility: I tried out the ZapperBox with a 16 year-old Samsung TV and a 2023 VIZIO SmartCast TV. In both cases, I had no problem connecting to the ZapperBox and watching live TV.
Software and Updates: There have been software updates rolling out at least once a month through the late summer and fall. The release notes section of the ZapperBox website keeps customers updated with what to expect, and which tweaks they might be interested in that are coming soon.
According to the company, they are currently working on fixing bugs with DRM support. It is not decoding all NextGen TV channels in some markets, including mine in Boston.
The build of the ZapperBox M1 comes off as solid and well designed. All of the slots and case of the DVR were tight and remained so during my testing of the product.
What I Liked
Being able to see the latest iteration of over-the-air broadcasts is neat. The ZapperBox has a well designed guide that is easy to navigate. I like being able to see live TV while channel surfing. Being able to access YouTube is a great idea.
- Access to NextGen TV & ATSC 1.0 stations
- Easy to use interface
- Live TV within the channel guide
Room for Improvement
Overall, I like ZapperBox M1 very much, but its biggest feature to date is also its biggest obstacle – NextGen TV.
It’s too bad that the rollout of NextGen TV has been so poorly executed. Had broadcasters decided not to use DRM to lock down the public airwaves, products like ZapperBox would perform a lot better out of the box.
Having said that, I have been impressed with parent company BitRouter’s ability to remain agile, release frequent software updates and keep their customers in mind. In my market, some ATSC 3.0 signals are still locked out even with ZapperBox’s DRM support, but the company is aware of the issue and trying to correct it.
ZapperBox currently costs about twice as much as the leading OTA DVRs on the market. They should consider following the lead of Tablo and drop their subscription fee for their DVR service.
Being constrained to a single device doesn’t really match how I personally watch TV on a given day. I prefer OTA DVRs that you can access on a TV, smartphone, tablet, or even a projector. I want a DVR that can add value to all the screens that already exist around my house.
- Slow loading times for some channels.
- Some ATSC 3.0 channels remain locked out in my TV market
- Content security support requires an Internet connection
Ratings for ZapperBox M1
On a scale of 1 to 10, the ZapperBox M1 rates an 7.75 based on my hands-on testing and how it compares to other leading OTA DVRs.
|Value for money
|Ease of use
The ZapperBox M1 adds NextGen TV channels and ATSC 1.0 channels to just about any TV in your house. The OTA DVR has a nice user interface, and it’s fairly easy to set up and use.
If you’re new to cord-cutting or over-the-air TV, the ZapperBox is probably not your starting point.
The current digital TV standard ATSC 1.0 is much easier to use. If you want to start recording TV shows or live sports, you are better off with a simpler OTA DVR such as the 4th generation Tablo or an entry-level HDHomeRun.
Performance & Value ratings
For now, the ZapperBox M1 is only for those eager to test out NextGen TV with the caveat that DRM has made the ATSC 3.0 standard unpredictable and unreliable.
If NextGen TV someday lives up its promise of 4K, HDR resolution, and less onerous restrictions, the value of the ZapperBox M1 will increase significantly.
The ZapperBox M1 could be a fun device for an OTA enthusiast who wants to tinker with the new broadcast TV standard. BitRouter continues to roll out new software updates and improvements every month.
I think as NextGen TV develops, ZapperBox M1 will remain a leading product in the space.
I am only recommending ZapperBox M1 for those who want to tinker with NextGen TV, especially given its price point and the unpredictable nature of DRM and its restrictions.
Where to Buy
You can buy ZapperBox M1 directly through the company’s website. There are two models to choose from.
The single-tuner unit is priced at $249.95. The dual-tuner costs $274.95.
BitRouter sent me a complimentary review unit to test out their DVR, but this is not a sponsored article or review. BitRouter has no control over my review or editorial process. If you buy a ZapperBox through links here, I do have an affiliate relationship with BitRouter. Any commission I receive helps support my work.