Upgrading the TiVo
Tonya and I have been big fans of the TiVo digital video recorder since we first got a 30-hour unit a few years back. It fits our style of watching television perfectly, since we previously used our VCR to record TV shows for watching when we felt like it, rather than on the scheduling whims of network television executives. There may not always be much on TV that’s worth watching, but if there is, the TiVo captures it for us. (See Andrew Laurence’s two-part TidBITS review of the TiVo for full details; there’s also been a great deal of discussion of TiVo and other digital video recorders in TidBITS Talk.)
But all was not well in TiVo-land for us. The change happened when we moved from Seattle back to Ithaca last year. In Seattle, we’d happily limped along with antenna reception of about six channels; the TiVo helped us extract shows we wanted to watch from our limited selection. The video quality wasn’t great, but that was largely the antenna’s fault, and we weren’t interested in buying a satellite dish. In our new home in Ithaca, though, we could no longer receive TV over the air, forcing us to pay for cable. The TiVo showed its worth once again, helping us find good shows from our now-massive selection. The video quality still wasn’t great because I’d set the TiVo to record at either Basic or Medium quality to avoid erasing shows before we wanted to watch them. Even then, the TiVo didn’t have enough space to store the variety of shows we might want to watch on any given night.
Clearly something needed to be done.
Perhaps the Sequel? One possibility was buying a new TiVo Series 2, which offers up to 60 hours of recording time (all the quoted sizes match roughly to gigabytes of disk space when recording at Basic quality, the lowest level, so a 60-hour unit probably has a 60 GB hard disk in it). The TiVo Series 2 is also smaller, features a new remote control, and, most interestingly, has a pair of USB ports, just like on our Macs.
Research on the TiVo Community Forum revealed suggestions from TiVo about how they expect these USB ports to be used. With USB-to-Ethernet adapters, you’ll be able to download program data over a broadband Internet connection rather than the internal modem, and at some point you’ll be able to access your TiVo over the Web. Plus, that extra bandwidth will enable a video-on-demand service, making it possible to order just shows you wanted – the example given was the popular Se… er, "Fooling Around" in the City" (dratted content filters!) that would otherwise require a monthly subscription to HBO. You could also attach a USB CD-ROM player, have the TiVo Series 2 import the music in MP3 format in a Music Library (complete with album names and title tracks downloaded from the Internet), and play it from there. Finally, TiVo also plans to make it possible for you to connect digital cameras for importing and displaying photos. Slide shows could even include music from your Music Library.
Although the TiVo Series 2 hardware is available now, none of these services are out yet as far as I can tell (though there is completely unofficial support for a number of USB Ethernet adapters, with which you can download guide data over the Internet instead of via the modem). TiVo’s Web site merely says that the "two integrated USB ports will allow support for a number of digital peripherals and access to exciting new future services in home entertainment." Since I’m already happily using my Macs as MP3 music and digital photo libraries, I’ll wait and see how good a job TiVo does. Plus, buying a new TiVo Series 2 would cost $400 for the hardware and another $250 for the lifetime service. $650 is more than I’d like to spend right now, especially given that the TiVo Series 2’s 60 GB hard disk isn’t that large compared to the size of inexpensive hard drives today.
(And yes, I know I could also buy a ReplayTV unit, which already has some of this functionality, but I’m extremely fond of the TiVo and its interface. For other people, a ReplayTV or other digital video recorder might be a good choice.)
We Can Rebuild Him. We Have the Technology — These promised features for the TiVo Series 2 are possible because the TiVo is essentially a computer running a custom version of the Linux operating system. And as Andrew Laurence mentioned in his review, a huge user community has grown up around the TiVo, in large part because the company has been accepting of the many hacks and modifications TiVo owners have performed on their TiVos.
Without question, the most common hack is to add more disk space to a TiVo by installing a second hard drive. The process involves connecting the new drive in slave mode to your Mac (not too hard in a Power Mac, but essentially impossible in any other model), formatting it with Erik Wagner’s free MacTiVo Blesser program, and then transferring the drive over to your TiVo.
The MacTiVo Blesser program is a bit old, isn’t Mac OS X-native, and the last comment posted on the site is from over a year ago (plus, unless Erik has ponied up for .Mac, the entire site will go away soon). It didn’t make me particularly comfortable, and although I’m perfectly capable of mucking around in the innards of computers, the discomfort discouraged me from taking the time to investigate more fully. More recent and more supported software and instructions are available for PCs, but I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for using a PC if I could possibly avoid it. Finally, I was concerned that any bare drive I purchased wouldn’t come with appropriate mounting hardware for the TiVo – I’m not one of those people who can bear attaching hard drives with plastic cable ties.
In short, dealing with the TiVo had been pushed to the back burner.
Arthroscopic Surgery — That was when Michael Adberg of Weaknees.com (a self-admitted terrible domain name) contacted me to ask about sponsoring TidBITS. He and his partner did FileMaker consulting, but they’d started Weaknees in late 2000 to provide TiVo upgrades after they’d been bitten by the TiVo bug. Sponsoring TidBITS was a bit expensive for them, but then Michael suggested paying partially in the form of a TiVo upgrade. Though we don’t make a practice of it, we’re not opposed to the concept of barter, particularly for hardware we’d likely buy anyway. Besides, we like to have experience with our sponsoring companies, and what better way to get it?
Michael shipped me their standard upgrade – currently priced at $265 with free shipping – for adding 145 hours to a single-drive TiVo (I had to check the model number on the back of my Philips-built TiVo to verify that I had a single-drive unit). The well-padded package included a pre-formatted 120 GB Maxtor drive, printed installation instructions, a mounting bracket, all the necessary mounting hardware, and the all-important Torx #10 screwdriver for removing the screws that hold the TiVo case shut. I happen to have a collection of screwdrivers that included the necessary size of Torx screwdriver, but many people may not have this particular tool, without which you can’t open a TiVo.
(For anyone who works with electronics frequently or finds opening cases with lousy or incorrectly sized screwdrivers frustrating, I strongly recommend Wiha’s tools – I have a slotted/Phillips set and a Torx set, though I’d probably get one of the larger interchangeable blade sets if I were buying now.)
With everything ready, I disconnected my TiVo from its many cables, set it on the dining room table, removed the screws, and tried to open it. Failing miserably, I then followed the advice Weaknees suggested for opening the extremely tight case (which involves putting the TiVo on the floor, where it’s easier to apply more pressure). It’s certainly possible to open TiVos, but TiVo has no incentive to make it as easy as Apple does with the Power Macs. Bear in mind that opening your TiVo voids your warranty.
The rest of the upgrade process went exactly as the instructions said, including cutting a cable tie that restrained the second power connector and removing the hard drive cable from a clip. The two pages of instructions were accurate, clearly written, and accompanied by pictures, though marred slightly by a couple of typos and the way they made you go off in the middle and read a separate set of instructions for attaching your drive to the mounting bracket. If you’ve ever opened up a Mac to add memory or a hard drive, you shouldn’t have any trouble installing a hard drive in your TiVo. The hardest part for me, in fact, was getting the case back on straight after I was done. The entire process took less than 30 minutes, despite the fact that I was working methodically to avoid mistakes.
After I reconnected all the TiVo’s cables and plugged it back in, it came back up and reported 184 hours of space at Basic quality. More important to me was that it said I’d have almost 52 hours at Best quality, so I immediately changed all my Season Passes and Wishlists to record at Best quality. Later that night, after the TiVo had recorded some shows, Tonya and I compared the difference between Basic and Best. Basic was certainly watchable, but Best was crystal clear, and using it significantly improved the TiVo experience for us. Life was good again.
(I also noticed that Weaknees sells external modems you can use to replace fried internal modems and recommends using a phone line surge protector to safeguard your TiVo’s modem from thunderstorms. It’s good advice – two months ago, a massive storm managed to hang our TiVo’s modem for ten days. I was initially worried I’d have to hunt down a new modem, not realizing at the time that the TiVo modem is soldered to the motherboard. Luckily, unplugging the TiVo and plugging it back in reset the modem; I’ll be getting a phone line surge protector to go with the old uninterruptible power supply I use to protect the TiVo, VCR, and cable box from power spikes and outages.)
Goldilocks Upgrades a TiVo — To sum up then, there are three basic ways you can expand your TiVo.
First, as I noted earlier, you could buy all the parts and pieces separately and do it yourself. That will undoubtedly save you money because you aren’t paying for someone to format the drive or package it with mounting hardware and installation instructions. If you’re comfortable buying and installing computer components, and you have the time to spend assembling all the parts, this is certainly the least expensive approach. The TiVo FAQ will point you in the right direction.
Second, there’s the upgrade kit that I got from Weaknees. I gather that there are also a few other companies offering similar upgrade kits. Upgrade kits are ideal for people who are comfortable installing computer components, but don’t mind paying more to avoid the trouble of researching and ordering all the pieces and formatting the drive (which isn’t even possible unless you have a Power Mac or a PC).
Finally, if you’re just too intimidated by opening your TiVo, Weaknees and other companies will perform the upgrade for you. It costs more, of course, and you must ship them your TiVo. I’d recommend this option for people who have never opened a Mac before and who are concerned they might not understand the directions (you can read Weaknees’s instructions online if you’re unsure of your comfort level).
In the end, I’m glad I used the Weaknees upgrade kit, since doing it from scratch would have taken hours, and that in turn would have meant putting the task off forever. Now I have a far more capacious TiVo that can store a wider variety of TV shows and play them with a high quality picture, and the whole effort took less than a half hour out of my weekend.
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