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NYC Time-Warner customers getting DVRs

A story in today's NYT talks about the current plethora of digital cable and satellite choices for customers. It includes a note about Time-Warner's NYC customers getting DVR boxes. They are deploying Scientific American's Explorer 800, which features dual tuners and a 80Gb hard drive that records native digital signals, much like a Directivo (resulting in a much better picture free of compression artifacts). They're charging less than $10 a month for the service and the boxes are free making it much cheaper than TiVo. [via /.]

July 31, 2003 in News | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Should I upgrade my own tivo, buy a prepared drive, or have someone do it for me?

If you own a TiVo you've never upgraded but are considering it, and you've seen my writeup of my own upgrade process, and my review of a prepared drive installation, you are probably wondering what would work best for you. Before you can answer that question, a summary may help.

The DIY approach: You can go your own way

For my recently purchased Series 2 tivo (purchased for $199 - price still good until Thursday), I bought a bare 120Gb drive from newegg.com for $98, and an upgrade bracket and kit for $58. It took approximately 3 hours to complete the work, start to finish, including a couple hours wasted on research and trial and error, with about one hour of actual dismantling and rebuilding. The final product was a 188 hour TiVo at an upgrade cost of $156.

While the DIY upgrade may appear not for the faint of heart, if you've ever built your own PC you can definitely tackle this project. If you've worked with hard drive upgrades in PCs before and understand what master and slave jumpers are and what they do, you can totally do this.

The instructions that are out there are very detailed and easy to follow, and you can skip most of the tedious backup and restore steps. In reality, once I had my tivo opened up and the drive removed, I only had to connect up the two drives to my PC and run a single linux command from a bootable CD. The script was finished in a matter of seconds and the drives were prepared and ready to go.

I spent probably 15 minutes taking the TiVo apart initially, and putting the Twinbreeze kit in took another 30-45 minutes or so of reading detailed directions and piecing things together.

Middle ground: Someone does the icky PC stuff for you, you install

Your other option is to buy an upgrade drive ready to drop into your TiVo, and your task is simply to open it up, follow the supplied directions, and add the second drive. There is no shortage of small companies, websites, and professional hobbyists that offer this sort of package, including Weaknees, Hinsdale (the guy that wrote the upgrade how-to), TVrevo, 9th tee, among many others.

Looking at a few sites selling prepared drives, a 120Gb upgrade for my series 2 tivo will cost you $170 (replaces original drive only), $199, $229, or $189, depending on who you choose.

But what are you really paying for?

When you buy a prepared upgrade drive for your TiVo, you are essentially paying about double the price of a bare drive you could buy online. The dark secret of all these upgrade kits is basically that someone is sitting in an apartment running a program called BlessTiVo(scroll down to part 10, then configuration #1 to see the how-to on it). It's another single, one-line command from a bootable linux disk that takes seconds to complete. Then they tack on a $100 premium to the drive they bought for less than $100 and ship it off to you.

On the bright side, you're also paying for your valuable saved time. With most of these kits, all the steps that feel dangerous and cause nail-biting are handled by someone else. When your drive arrives, you pop open your tivo and put the new drive in, and you're done. In my DIY upgrade, I probably could have completed the drive install job in about a half hour.

I would even go so far as to say the Weaknees kit looks like the best deal of the lot, since they throw in their Twinbreeze kit. Where I paid $156 for my own drive and kit, they offer the same parts for $208 with the drive. If two hours of your time and some slight risk are worth more than $52 to you, the prepared drive and kit is a pretty good deal.

Do it for me: the clean hands approach

Most all the sites offering prepared upgrade drives also offer an upgrade service for those phobic to tivo tinkering. It's usually another $50 on top of other charges, and again, you're really paying someone to run a single command in linux and screw some drives in. I could imagine these guys getting the whole process down to maybe ten minutes with some practice. The main downside is that you have to give up TiVo for several days-to-a-week when you ship it off. The upside is aside from disconnecting your tivo and putting it into the mail, there's not much you have to do.

The cost for my TiVo upgrade done entirely by someone else would run $220 (replacing your original drive), $225, or $257.

The Verdict

Adding in my $199 cost of the TiVo, the bottom line is that my DIY upgrade cost me $355 and 3 hours of my time. If I went with an upgrade kit, the total cost would have been in the neighborhood of $400 and cost me about 30-60 minutes of time. If I would have paid someone else to do it all for me, it would cost about $425-450 and no TiVo for a week, which you can't really put a price on :). Before I set out to upgrade my TiVo, I would have guessed the price differences would be more pronounced, but keep in mind I bought an expensive kit that most TiVos do not require, so it could have been $50 less.

When weighing the options to determine what path you should take, the most important consideration is the cost of your time. If you're busy, pay someone else to do the time consuming bits for you. The second most important consideration is assessing your own level of technical expertise. If you've tinkered with PCs before, it shouldn't be any problem, but if you're new to digital gadgets you are probably better off paying someone to do it, and as you can see, it's not that much more expensive for a total upgrade service.

July 30, 2003 in Q & A | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Stating the Obvious: iPod and TiVo

This new piece at Stating the Obvious talks about ideas for the next generation of iPods that may store content from music labels or the Apple store, and compares the device to TiVo's success with promotional advertising.

While I was skeptical at first of TiVo's promotional messages, I have to admit I kind of like the promotions that get downloaded to my TiVo. So far they've been fairly high quality, with movie trailers I wanted to see, beautifully produced porsche and lexus ads that run a couple minutes in length, and my personal favorite, the BMW short film ads that feature prominent actors and directors. I was tired of watching the BMW short films online, in tiny, grainy quicktime windows and welcomed the full resolution ads on my TV.

Michael Sippey should be happy to note that TiVo employs many of the ideas he lays out in the Home Media Option. I'm working on a full review of HMO for this site, but one of the cool things is that it comes essentially pre-loaded with photos and music from TiVo. It might be a broadband-only feature, since I'm guessing from looking at the content, it may use about 40-50Mb of storage. The "Music From TiVo" available in my Music and Photos section features a selection of music from Universal. I can't copy or buy the music, just stream for my enjoyment, but I was happy to see my favorite Jurrasic 5 tune and a broad range of other artists from 50 cent to Queens of the Stone Age.

I actually wouldn't mind seeing this feature expanded to more than one label, perhaps to a handful of record labels. I'm always looking for new music and don't listen to much radio anymore, so most mainstream stuff is new to me. TiVo has likely turned the space into a revenue source for them, and since it offers some utility to users like me, it's win-win for TiVo and customers alike.

July 29, 2003 in Op-Ed, TiVo | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Prismiq

While searching around for a product that would let me stream video files from my pc to my TV, I found the PRISMIQ, a black box of sorts that does a lot of what the home media option on the TiVo offers, but also lets you stream video and your desktop to a TV. It offers an ethernet port and something I haven't seen too often: a PCMCIA slot to allow standard laptop wireless cards to be plugged in, giving you 802.11.

July 29, 2003 in Products | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Mounting a second drive in a TiVo using Weaknees' Twinbreeze kit

twinbreeze.jpg In the previous stage of the upgrade process I covered how to prepare a new 120Gb drive for a series 2 TiVo. I purposely left out the steps where you install the drive back into the TiVo, saving that process for this review.

The first TiVo I upgraded last year was a Directv comibnation tivo/satellite receiver, and it was designed to handle two hard drives (but shipped with one). Adding a drive to that machine was no problem, since it was already pre-drilled for the drive and there was even spare IDE cables and power connectors available. The series 1 and series 2 standalone TiVos require a special bracket however, making things a bit trickier (I don't know if series 2 directivos have the bracket for a second drive still).

There are other kits out there for adding a drive, but I decided to go all out, picking up Weaknees' TwinBreeze kit with the optional fans and PowerTrip. After checking out the options, it seemed to have the best fit and finish, and they offered additional things to help keep my upgraded TiVo running safely. I had heard some horror stories on the TiVo boards about kits that used velcro and adhesive to hold drives, and how they weren't very sturdy.

The kit runs a bit on the expensive side, at $58 for the full package with everything. You could conceivably buy just the $29 bracket and pick up your own cables at a place like Fry's or CompUSA, but I took the easy route. Cooling is always a problem when adding an additional drive to a small space, so the additional fan for the bracket is a nice addition along with the quieter replacement fan in their optional cooling kit. The PowerTrip is necessary if you are using a new series 2 box made by Tivo. TiVo decided to downgrade the power supplies to a very low 38 watts (the power supply in standard PCs is probably 200-300 watts), so the powertrip staggers the startup of the two hard drives, making the wattage hit a bit easier on the small capacity supply.

0_twinbreeze-kit.jpg The Weaknees Kit

The kit is straightforward with nice printed directions that feature photos, and you can download a full color pdf version of the same from their site. I installed the small bracket fan early so I didn't have to do it later when it was inside the TiVo.

The Install

The first order of business is to attach the two drives onto the bracket and is pretty simple to do. The only trick is making sure the new second drive is pointing in the right direction (I messed this up the first time around).

1_drives-mounted.jpg Two drives mounted

2_installing-drives.jpg Two mounted drives, from the bottom

Next, you attach the IDE cable to both drives, and feed the cable down the hole between them (which is right above the connection to the motherboard). This was easy to do, but complicated to explain in directions and I had to read it through a couple times to figure out what drive got which connector.

3_ide-cables.jpg IDE cable attached to the drives

Once that's all connected up, you need to get the power cables connected to the drives, with the PowerTrip connected between the cables and the motherboard. The bracket fan requires a connection as well, and I ended up with a bit of a rats nest of power cables.

4_bracket-installed.jpg All cables attached, including the PowerTrip

Next, the large plastic bracket slides neatly into the old hard drive bay using an ingenious design. The last step is to secure the bracket to the TiVo. With most series 2 machines, there are brackets on the side to make this easy, but on my personal TiVo (model 24004A), there are no brackets and a couple screws are required to form a bracket (the red arrows point to the bracket holes that do not have anywhere to screw into.

5_needed-brackets.jpg Non-existent brackets for the opposite side (arrows show where special screws will attach)

In the absence of brackets, two long screws are used with spacers, and they attach on the bottom side of the tivo.

6_screw-spacers.jpg Screws passed through, with spacers to hold them up

7_screwed-through.jpg shot from the side, showing small bolt on the bottom that tightens the screw

When the bracket is firmly in place, the drives are connected to IDE and power cables, you're done. The kit included a replacement fan for the factory fan, but unfortunately, my 24004A unit has a larger fan that the replacement doesn't fit.

8_install-complete.jpg Everything secured and complete


Once the bracket install is complete, the cover can go back on and you're ready to plug it back in and enjoy your new upgraded TiVo.

9_done.jpg The last screw

The Verdict

With the second drive in place (and set to run quiet per my earlier instructions), there was only a slight increase in noise from the additional fan and drive. As for temperature, I moved my TiVo off the floor, and onto a speaker cabinet with some short spacers to give it air flow from the bottom. Previously, the single drive stock tivo ran around 38 degrees Celsius. With the new setup it has been running right around 32 degrees Celsius for the past week, even during a heat wave (and sans air conditioning in my new home).

The kit is a tad expensive but is very sturdy, with everything firmly bolted in. It took about 20-30 minutes to install the drives onto the bracket and the bracket into the TiVo. The illustrated instructions were clear and complete, making it a painless process. I'm very happy with the purchase and with the second fan, the temps are running great, so I'm confident this TiVo will run smoothly for a long time.

Update: In a follow-up post, I covered the question of whether you should do this yourself or pay someone to do it.

July 28, 2003 in Product Reviews, SuperTiVo Project | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

MythTV how-to

I've been considering building a media center project PC, and I was torn between choosing an open source, free software system like MythTV and Freevo, or a commercial OS like Windows Media Center. The thing that's kept me from trying the open source programs out was the complicated setup that requires some serious linux knowledge, and unknown device support.

MythTV looks fantastic, offers pretty much every feature of TiVo (recording, scheduling, playback, music and photos), and then some (picture-in-picture, weather reports, arcade games, downloaded movie playback, web front-end). Thankfully a step-by-step guide to setting up your own MythTV box has been written, and it looks very comprehensive and not insanely difficult for someone with basic linux experience. [via BoingBoing]

July 28, 2003 in How-To | Permalink | Comments (44) | TrackBack

Study: TV tuning a 'must have' for computers

According to a Jon Peddie Research report, TV tuners are a 'must have' for computers and the study further claims that up to 30 million computer users have the ability to watch TV on their PCs.

That number seems incredibly high to me, considering my own purchasing habits and what I see on the market. I've owned probably 7 or 8 computers in the last five years and only one had a TV card in it. I'm also weary of how many people go to the extra effort to make it work. Of the 5 or 6 apartments and homes I've lived in over the past few years, only one place had a perfect setup: live cable in every room (and near my desk) that didn't require a set-top box. When it works, it's great, but in my experience it's tough to get everything working together.

July 25, 2003 in News | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Toshiba's new PVR laptop

After seeing my first Windows Media Center laptop (which features tv recording, movie, photo, and music playback and management), I wasn't impressed due to the form factor, but comments indicated that I was thinking too tivo-centric and portable PVRs have their uses.

Today Toshiba announced their new Windows Media Center notebook, and although I've seen the light on portable WMC machines, on this model I have to question the portability factor. It's based on their P25 17" widescreen system (copycat to Apple's 17" x-large pizza box?) which I've played with before. A couple things struck me about the P25 when I tested it: it's gigantic for a laptop, feeling even bigger than the powerbook, and it weighs a ton. About 10 pounds to be exact. At some point, these "portables" are going to feel more and more like lugging a desktop around. [via gizmodo]

July 24, 2003 in News | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Preparing an upgrade drive for the TiVo

open tivo I decided up front to buy a 40Gb TiVo knowing that I could upgrade it myself cheaper than what TiVo sold the 80Gb model for (an extra $100). To start off, I browsed the forums looking for tips and found that adding an additional 120Gb drive would be pretty cheap and be pretty painless.

After reading a lot of forum posts, it seemed clear that most people say you should get a 5400rpm upgrade drive, because the extra speed of a 7200rpm drive isn't really necessary in a TiVo, and only contributes more noise and heat to the machine. While shopping around for cheap 120Gb drives online, I couldn't find anything in a slower 5400rpm setup so I just decided to go with a 7200rpm drive from Maxtor.

Oh, there are a couple issues on putting large drives into a TiVo. One is that the linux kernel used to only recognize drives up to 137Gb in size, ignoring any additional space, but with a bit more hacking it is possible to get around that. I wasn't going to use anything larger than a 120Gb drive so this wasn't an issue. The other big issue is the swap file in TiVo's version of linux. When you take a series 1 machine beyond 140Gb or a series 2 machine beyond 180Gb, if the box ever gets a GSOD (green screen of death -- a very rare major error), the required rebuild cannot properly complete because the swap file will be too small. There are ways around this, where you can increase the swap file to 127Mb reliably. Increasing to 128Mb or beyond seems to cause a lot of problems, but again, since my setup was only 120Gb + 40Gb I was in the clear.

I picked up a bare 120Gb 7200rpm Maxtor drive from newegg.com, a place I buy a lot of PC upgrade parts. It was only $98 at the time I purchased it, but may be less (or more) at the time of this writing. One thing about the maxtor that intrigued me was a quieting utility maxtor made called Amset. Amset lets you set your drive's speed to either ultra quiet at the expense of fast seek times to or still fast but only slightly quieter. It sounded like a great feature and everyone on the tivo boards raved about it so I decided to give it a go before I added it to my TiVo.

Small, tedious problems

I only have a newer PC running XP at home and knew that I couldn't boot the machine into XP with the new drive attached, as Win2k and XP add drive signatures that will harm the drive. The amset utility would only run in DOS so I went to bootdisk.com to find a simple win98 boot disk I could boot into and run the program. Unfortunately, my floppy drive is toast, which I found out only after searching for 30 minutes to find an old floppy in my house and finding it couldn't be recognized.

I thought I was sunk, but I noticed bootdisk.com linked to a pretty cool site with software written by a guy that has created bootable CDs that pop you into DOS just like a floppy. Eventually, I found a method to create a bootable ISO that you could also toss your own programs onto, so I burned a CD with DOS and amset. I unplugged my XP drive, popped the new drive in as the primary master, then used the DOS boot disk (ha! DOS boot!) to get a prompt and ran the utility successfully. All told it took me 90 minutes to figure all this stuff out and complete it to this point.

And now, the TiVo

startingtivo.jpg
The unsuspecting TiVo

I powered down my TiVo and gently removed the case, the power cables, and IDE cables from the drive, and then the drive itself. There are a couple things to watch out for when messing with your TiVo internals. One is that you should never touch anything near the power supply, as you can fry it and hurt yourself in the process. The other, and this is specific to series 2 Tivos, is to be careful with the white ribbon cable on the front of the motherboard, if you touch it, make sure it's properly seated before you ever turn the box back on, as that can also fry the whole system.

opentivo.jpg The open TiVo

opentivo-nodrive.jpg The original drive removed

The only thing left to do is run some software to prepare the new drive and marry it to the original one. I used the popular and super simple-to-use MFS 2.0 tools, which can be downloaded as a bootable ISO here. Once burned, I placed the TiVo drives into my computer as suggested, with the new drive jumpered as a slave drive on the primary controller, and the original drive kept as master (with slave present for my stock western digital) on the secondary IDE controller (I kept my XP hard drive unplugged).

drives-connected-pc.jpg
Drives connected to my PC

laptop-pc.jpg MFS Tools booting while reading the how-to

I loaded up the hinsdale how-to instructions on a separate laptop so I could read it, and booted the system up. I checked the boot sequence to see that indeed linux could see I had 120Gb and 40Gb drives attached (if it reported an incorrect size, there could be problems).

The how-to instructions are pretty complete, but entail making a backup and restoring your TiVo's original drive and writing that to a windows hard drive, but it requires a fat32 disk that I don't have handy. I decided to skip all the backup procedures, knowing that there are places online that people store and share their TiVo rom backups if I ever needed them someday (probably not -- didn't with the past TiVo's upgrade).

With that, I could skip all the way down to Step 10, and follow the first scenario, since I was adding a new B drive. I only had to run one command, typed exactly as shown in the tutorial. After a second or two, it was complete and reported a new size and approximate number of hours for the TiVo.

success.jpg Success!

This was surprisingly smooth, easy, and fast. I could upgrade another tivo in probably ten minutes start to finish. Previously I had done some upgrades on a DirecTivo that required copying the original drive to a new one, then adding in a second drive and that took the better part of a day to complete, but this couldn't have been smoother.

That's it! All that was left to do was plop the drives back into the TiVo and power it up. I'm going to hold off on the details of reassembly, saving that for the next stage of upgrade which includes a review of the Weaknees Twinbreeze package.

Update: In follow-up posts, I covered the install of the Twinbreeze package and the question of whether you should do this yourself or pay someone to do it.

July 23, 2003 in SuperTiVo Project | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

TiVo announces new free bundled Basic service

Last week, Ryan posted a rumor that a basic tivo service was coming out and it looks like it is true after seeing their latest press release: Switching Channels: TiVo Revamps Strategy.

TiVo Basic will be freely included with some new upcoming PVR devices from Pioneer and Toshiba. TiVo Basic appears to offers live TV pausing, up to 3 days of show data that you can set recordings by hand, but repeat recordings are only by time and channel, with no season passes.

It sounds like it'll be software-upgradable, letting anyone with the free basic version move up to the regular version by ponying up the full monthly fee of $12.95. They're calling it a "trojan horse" form of marketing, though I wonder what sorts of conversion rates will be seen. My guess is most people buying a DVD player or set-top box that includes TiVo Basic would just stick with the included features, and that the convenience of extra features don't seem to be worth $13/month. [thanks rapunzel]

July 23, 2003 in News | Permalink | Comments (38) | TrackBack