Let's face it, DirecTV customers with the combo DirecTiVo boxes have been left in the cold for the past few years when it comes to TiVo announcements. Thanks to an agreement that shifted DirecTiVo customers to DirecTV's control, folks with the units haven't got to use the Home Media Option for the two years it has been out, and there's no sign of when TiVo ToGo or the Home Media Engine developer's toolkit will arrive for the units.
But that doesn't mean DirecTiVo owners don't have options. I've been happily using a PTVnet upgrade drive in my Philips DSR7000 (series 2 DirecTiVo) for the past couple months and I felt it was time to share all the possibilities this upgrade offers.
Stranded by DirecTV
When I first got a DirecTiVo combo unit in early 2002, It was a series one version and I activated it through TiVo.com. I paid for it just like a regular TiVo and got software upgrades at the same time as regular TiVo owners. Soon after, DirecTV stopped handling just the satellite subscriptions and instead moved to control both the TiVo subscription fees and the channel lineups. This made it easier to sign up a new box, since you just had to call one number to get both the TiVo running and your satellite channels paid for, but it also produced a fork in the codebase, where the software for DirecTiVo boxes was now under DirecTV's ultimate control instead of TiVo. This is when things started to go sour for customers.
The turning point was when series 2 DirecTiVos became readily available. Like the standalone TiVos, these new boxes offered all sorts of capabilities with their new hardware. The USB ports could enable wired and wireless networking. The faster processors could do more intense tasks. But unlike the standalone owners that quickly got to take advantage of their new hardware, DirecTiVo has remained essentially unchanged for almost three years. While DirecTV has left its users behind the innovation curve, the healthy hacking underground has been toiling away at various projects for over six years, and the projects have reached levels of maturity in terms of interface and features. The PVTnet upgrade drive draws upon the best projects.
Opening up with the PTVnet drive
The PTVnet upgrade drive fills a void, letting you talk to your DirecTiVo box over a network and opens up a world of possibilities afforded by the hardware. It includes the following:
- Enables single, large drives that go beyond the 137Gb limit (with the LBA48 hack)
- USB ports work (usb 2.0 even) with wired and wireless adapters
- Comes preconfigured with TiVoWebPlus (a web front-end to your TiVo), telnet, FTP, and a small handul of utilities
I got a prototype version of their 160Gb drive upgrade, padded and packed in a box with a sheet of instructions for installation.
The installation was as smooth as could be, taking only about five minutes to take the case off, swap my old hard drive with the new one, and button it all back up. The obvious drawback is that you lose all your settings and recordings by moving to a new disk, and as always keep away from both the power supply (lower left of the drive) and the white ribbon connector to the top right of the drive.
After it booted up (complete with custom screens) and grabbed the satellite info in setup, a quick reboot later and my old Linksys WUSB11 wireless adapter lit up and grabbed an IP off my router's DHCP server.
Using the web to control your TiVo
Definitely the coolest aspect of the upgrade was getting TiVoWebPlus. This differs from the tivo.com integration dubbed TiVo Central, where standalone Series 2 tivo owners can search for shows and set recordings. Unlike TiVo Central, this is actually running on your TiVo, so when you hit record the show will be added to your ToDo list immediately. If you open up your network to allow outside connections to your TiVo this also lets you set recordings from anywhere on earth.
Every web browser on my home network has a bookmark to the Now Showing list, like the screenshot above. It lets you know what is stored on the TiVo, and if necessary, lets you delete recordings immediately, through the web interface. I only have one TV in the house, and frequently work for hours upstairs in my home office. This page lets me know if there's anything worth watching the next time I take a break.
Clicking on an episode will show you info on it, and what episodes are soon to come (and whether or not they are new, which also helps plan recordings)
The one feature I use most often is definitely the search engine (above is a result for "American"). Even with the upgraded Series 2 hardware, my DirecTiVo box is still slow and clunky to find new shows and set them to record. Given that every computer has a handy keyboard attached, when I think of a show I'd like to add to my season pass list, I grab a laptop and pull this page up. It lets me search for any text string and I can record them in just a couple clicks, without having to use my remote to key in words or get stuck waiting a minute or two at the end for a season pass to get added.
Clicking on your search results brings up an info screen like this one.
Show details feature the additional info about original air dates, which no DirecTiVo can currently do. I love knowing whether or not next week's Saturday Night Live is a repeat from last seaon or not. Setting a season pass and single recording is just a click away and you will be notified immediately if there are any conflicts.
Every feature from the TiVo user interface is included in the package, letting you see the ToDo list of recordings set, the season passes, and what is currently showing. The TiVoWebPlus install also includes HackMan, a script manager that lets you turn features off and on, like an included Caller ID hack.
The info screens offer all the geeky info you'll ever need, including a way to find out how much free space is on the drive, and how that space is being used up.
Other features and extending the package
The other features mentioned at the start of this review, the large drive and the other network services, are great additions that round out the package. The LBA48 hack extends the limit that most TiVos have where the biggest free space they could see on a drive was 137Gb. With this fix in place, instead of running two drives with their added heat and noise, you can stick with a single large drive (as big as 300Gb).
The other network services are handy for any additional hacks you want to try out. As I explained last month here, I used the built-in FTP server and telnet server to upload some scripts that let me show off my TiVo's contents and upcoming recordings. It was all fairly straightforward, requring me to simply connect, poke around directories, upload scripts, make them active via chmod, and they ran just fine after a restart of TiVoWebPlus.
Of course, once you've got networking into a TiVo, the limits are almost endless, though I didn't want to push it further (I'm still new to linux stuff and tcl scripts). I've heard updating the OS to a 4.0 version with Home Media Networking is possible. Adding video hacks and streaming is also possible if you know what you're doing and where to find the scripts.
The obvious question is whether or not the upgrade is worth the cost. I'd say it is worth it, especially if you haven't upgraded your DirecTiVo's hard drive yet, since plain old upgrade drives have comparable price tags. If you're interested in networking or hacking a DirecTiVo, this definitely opens it up and gives you a useful way to interact with your TiVo.
Now that I've had this setup for a couple months, I can't see how I could live without it. I've never liked the limits of using a remote to key in show titles when searching and the way a TiVo UI lags for a minute after setting a recording is frustrating. This package solves those problems and opens up a whole world of fun tricks and features that rekindled my interest in playing with my DirecTiVo. I'm planning to move to a HD DirecTiVo soon and the first upgrade for it will be one of these drives. Building up season passes and finding shows is just so much faster in a web browser compared with using the TiVo UI.
Cost:: $199-449, depending on how many hours of storage you'd like
Compatibility: Series 2 DirecTiVo models: Hughes HDVR2, SD-DVR40, SD-DVR80, SD-DVR120, Philips DSR7000, DSR704, DSR7000, RCA DVR39, DVR40, DVR80, DVR120,Samsung SIR-S4040R, SIR-S4080R, SIR-S4120R, Hughes HR10-250 HDTV