Upgrading TiVo

Most of this article is fairly old.  It was first written in 2001, and updated a few times over the years. It's pretty easy to find TiVo expansion kits these days, and they've had networking built-in for years.

Back in late 2000 I bought a 30-hour Sony TiVo box, of the "stand-alone" variety (i.e. not a DirecTV satellite box).  With the video quality set to an acceptable level, I really only had about 15 hours of storage.  Until you've owned a digital video recorder, you don't know just how little space that really is.

I'd heard that you could expand the storage, so I went looking on the Internet.  I found the 9th Tee Enterprises web site, which has a full set of goodies for enhancing your TiVo box.

I went with a $300 kit that included an 80GB hard drive, a shock-absorbing mounting bracket just like the one in the TiVo box, a Torx T-10 screwdriver for opening the case.  The drive came "pre-blessed"; without that you have to install the drive into a PC and run a utility to set things up.  The TiVo units ship ready-to-go for a second drive, so the IDE cable and power connector were already inside.

The whole upgrade took all of ten minutes.  Mount the hard drive on the bracket, open the case, stuff the drive in, connect the cables, close the case.  Done.  Instead of 15 hours I have 60 (135 on the lowest quality setting).

That went so well I bought a TiVoNET network adapter kit as well.  This is a 10base-T Ethernet card with a special adapter hooks onto the TiVo test connector.  With it installed, the TiVo box no longer needs to use your phone line.  It uses the Ethernet to connect for its daily update, and with a few tweaks you can telnet into the TiVo box and even control it with a Tcl-based web server.

Getting the network adapter installed and configured was a bit more of an ordeal.  The folks at 9thtee were very helpful, responding to e-mail promptly.  I wouldn't recommend setting one of these up unless you have some Linux experience.  The TiVo box runs PPC Linux, and all of the setup tools run under Linux.

TiVo's official position has been that they support the drive upgrades -- it costs them nothing -- and semi-dislike the network card because people were using it to pull video streams off of the TiVo box.  They really ought to *love* the network card though, because it reduces their operating expenditures greatly by removing the need for dialing into an ISP.  (After the v3.x upgrade, you no longer need to hack the software.  Just put ",#401" into the dial prefix field.)

Pulling video off of a stand-alone video is a difficult and not terribly worthwhile process.  The lip sync is difficult to maintain, the files are large, and converting them to VideoCD or DVD doesn't produce outstanding results.  The story is different for DirecTV boxes, where you can get at the MPEG-2 streams downloaded from the satellite.  The 9th Tee web site has some useful links if you're interested.

Discussions about everything *except* pulling video streams off can be found at the AVS Forum web site.

Repairing TiVo

In January 2005 one of the hard drives started to seriously fail.  The classic symptoms are stuttering video, freeze-ups, and the occasional spontaneous reboot.  I learned what the symptoms meant in this forum.

Over the past year or 18 months the box would occasionally lock up (maybe once every 4 months), but I blamed that on the 3.x upgrade.  I had noticed quarter-second "hiccups" a few months earlier, and was concerned, but not enough to search for a solution.  By mid-January it was clear we had a problem.  The hiccups turned into 5-second pauses, which would sometimes get better if we rewound and replayed a segment.  Some sections of video were unwatchable, and at one point the box rebooted in the middle of a show.

Because I had 110GB of storage already, I knew I needed a replacement drive that was at least as large.  I didn't want to go with a 120GB, because it's hard to judge actual capacity based on "marketing megabytes".  The maximum capacity of a Series 1 TiVo is about 140GB, so I went up a notch to 160GB.

I ordered a replacement drive from Hinsdale, which turned out to be a Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 9 (quiet, cool, 7200rpm, large cache, nice drive!).  Using the Hinsdale "How-To" and Tiger's MFS tools (downloaded from the Hinsdale site), I was able to copy the contents of both of the old drives to my single new drive.  All programs and settings were preserved.  I'm right where I left off, but with 165 hours instead of 135 (73 hours at "high" quality instead of 60).  The TiVo is noticeably more responsive when opening the "Now Playing" and "To Do" screens, probably due to the enhanced speed of the hard drive.

The process required partial disassembly of one of my PCs, as I needed all four IDE channels (two old drives, one new drive, CD-ROM drive to boot from), and the copy procedure took about 20 hours.  I suspect it would've taken less if I'd deleted all of the programs that TiVo recorded on my behalf.  There may also be some Linux options I could have set, e.g. I don't believe DMA was enabled, though I'm not sure how much of a difference that would have made.

Beyond Repair

On June 17, 2006, we had a brief power outage.  When the TiVo came back up, it booted into the Green Screen of Death.  It managed to recover a little, but fell over again a short while later.  I currently suspect software corruption.

We ended up buying a TiVo Series 2 80-hour dual-tuner model.  The dual tuner works great with the cable box, and "TiVo to go" has opened up a number of interesting opportunities.

In December 2007 we bought a Series 3, but after some issues with cable cards we switched to a TiVo HD.  Now we have a dual-tuner TiVo that can receive Comcast's HD and encrypted channels. We added an external 500GB drive to boost the capacity.

In April 2013 we bought a TiVo Premiere XL4 -- four digital tuners, 300 HD hours.