With more than a million units sold, TiVo is fast becoming a household name. The company's personal video recorders (PVRs) offer an easy-to-use way to perform tricks with live television (such as rewinding and replaying that spectacular shot you missed when the phone rang), not to mention automating the process of recording shows you want to watch. I was lucky enough to try one of the first TiVos that shipped, and I’ve been hooked ever since. However, as with most cases in which someone voluntarily uses the word “hooked,” pretty soon I wanted more. It wasn’t enough to have 30 hours of recording space. I needed more! And why couldn’t I put my TiVo on my home network, like practically every other device in the house? What if I wanted to turn my TiVo into a Web server, or use it to look at weather maps, or use it to copy recorded video to my computer for later viewing?

You might be surprised to learn that you can customize your TiVo in a number of appealing ways, just like the folks on The Discovery Channel's American Choppers or MTV's Pimp My Ride. (Hey, maybe someone should start a show called I Broke It! that covers hapless self-upgraders—I’d watch it!)

A Little History
How did theTiVo become so customizable? TiVo became popular with hackers early on for two reasons. First, OS instead of a proprietary OS, it ran a version of Linux that made it easy to understand and play with. TiVo's disks use a standardized format that can be read on ordinary Windows, Linux, or Macintosh computers, and if you’re familiar with Linux you can easily add files and programs to the disks to customize your TiVo. Second, when people started figuring out neat TiVo tricks and talking about them, TiVo didn’t act like a typical technology company and begin barraging people with cease-and-desist letters. In fact, the company helped build a wonderful community of people who have technical interest in TiVo’s inner workings. All TiVo asks is that hackers don’t publicize ways to steal the TiVo service or programming. This terrific approach has helped fuel the growth of the TiVo development and customization community. Even without becoming a full-fledged member of the TiVo Underground, you can make TiVo better suit your needs. The first step, though, is figuring out what kind of TiVo you have, because the type might limit the functionality you can add.

Know Your TiVo
Several flavors of TiVo hardware are floating around in the marketplace.

  • The original Series1 hardware design was manufactured by such companies as Sony, Philips, and AT&T. If your TiVo is big and boxy, it’s probably a Series1 unit. These units have room for two internal disk drives, plus a motherboard connector that you can be use to add an internal network card. These units run version 3 of TiVo’s software. The Series1 unit is by far the most customizable because it’s fairly easy to add disks or network connections to the unit and it lacks the changes made to later TiVo units that make them more difficult to fiddle with.
  • Series2 units include two built-in USB ports, which can be used to plug in external wireless or wired LAN adapters to get your TiVo on the network. TiVo sells these units under the TiVo brand name; they run version 4 of TiVo’s software, which accommodates the Home Media Option (HMO) software package that lets you view photos, play MP3s, and share recorded programming on your TiVo.
  • DirecTiVos (also called “DTiVos”) are TiVo units with an integrated DirecTV satellite receiver. Even though they run the same basic software as other Series2 units, the hardware inside is a bit different: DTiVos can record two programs at once, and they lack the ability to record shows from cable or over-the-air antennas. The units also include an encryption chip that makes it much more difficult to modify the TiVo software or extract video from the unit, and they can’t use the popular HMO software.
  • You can use DVD players and recorders with TiVo service from Pioneer and Toshiba as Series2 machines—except you can’t run HMO—and the DVD players and recorders play back disks like a regular DVD player would. However, the cool part is that you can take a TiVo-recorded show and burn it to DVD, a process that is ridiculously complicated with other units.
  • The newest model in the TiVo family is the Hughes HR10-250, which is basically a DTiVo that also lets you record and play HDTV signals. In fact, you can record two HDTV broadcasts or satellite transmissions at once, while watching a third prerecorded show.

Adding Storage
The most popular modification for TiVos of all stripes is adding more disk space. On average, 1GB of disk space is roughly equivalent to one hour of recording time; thus, the 30GB Sony SVR-2000 that I added to my collection back in 2000 could hold about 30 hours of recording, but after I popped in an additional 120GB disk drive, it can now hold about 147 hours. (To find out exactly how much your unit thinks it can hold, check the System Information screen.) You’ll be glad to know that you have effectively no limits to how big your TiVo can get; for example, you can pop a pair of 250GB drives in and have a monster home video jukebox. However, you’ll notice that as the list of recorded programs gets longer, your TiVo will get slower and slower unless you add a cache card or are good about cleaning things up. Most of the TiVo users I know who have upgraded their units have used a single 120GB or 160GB drive, because such a drive is easy to add.

Of course, opening your TiVo's case instantly voids its warranty. As long as you’re careful, though, adding more hours to your TiVo is no harder than adding a new disk drive to your computer, except that the TiVo has no shield covering its power supply—be very, very careful when the lid is off, and never do any kind of TiVo surgery while the unit is plugged in.

You'll need to figure out what kind of TiVo you have and how much you want to expand it. An easy way to find out what kind of TiVo you have is to check out this table from Hinsdale, which lists all known TiVo models and tells you what type and size of disks it shipped with. Then you can decide whether you want to add a second drive or replace your old drive with one or two new drives.

To perform the upgrade yourself, here’s what you need:

  • A disk drive—You can replace the drive that’s in your TiVo with a new one or add a second drive to the existing one. Any modern IDE disk drive will probably work, although some are definitely quieter than others.
  • Two Torx screwdrivers—You'll need a T10 for the screws on the back of the case cover and a T15 for the screws on the drive bracket.
  • A mounting bracket for the drive—Even though the TiVo already has space for a second drive, you need something to attach the drive to so that it doesn’t rattle around. WeaKnees.com sells brackets that come with all the other tools you need (including a small pair of Torx screwdrivers and the mounting bushings for the disk drive) for $15, as do 9th Tee and Hinsdale.
  • An additional “Y” adapter for the power and IDE connections (for Series2 units)—Although you might need this adapter for a Series2 unit, Series1 units are prewired for an additional drive. Hinsdale and most other upgrade vendors will include the necessary cables if you buy one of their premade kits.
  • A copy of the Mfs Tools suite, written by the pseudonymous Tiger—You use these programs to back up your TiVo’s existing content, clone images from one disk to another, and marry a new drive to an existing one.

The mechanics of how you add the drive are worthy of an article in themselves. I’ll summarize them briefly, but for step-by-step instructions you should see the Hinsdale How-to TiVo upgrade (described in “Where to Learn More”). The basic process is simple:

1. Unplug your TiVo and open it by using the Torx T10 screwdriver to remove the screws on the lid. Slide the lid off. Remember, keep your fingers and tools away from the power supply!
2. If you’re adding your own second drive, you’ll need to remove the TiVo drive and attach it as the master on the secondary IDE channel in your PC while the PC is powered off. Add the new drive as a slave device on the same channel, then power up and boot with the Mfs Tools disk. Next, use Mfs Tools to make a backup of your existing TiVo data, then use it again to link the two drives. When you’re done, shut down your PC—don’t just power it off—then disconnect the two TiVo drives. (If you’re adding a pre-blessed upgrade disk such as those that 9th Tee or Hinsdale sells, you probably don’t need to perform these steps.
3. Attach the new drive to the new drive bracket, then plug it in to the secondary IDE and power cables inside your TiVo. If you have a Series2, you might need to use the additional cables mentioned above.
4. Mount the new drive and bracket inside your TiVo, using the mounting hardware that came with the bracket. In most units, the bracket simply sits next to the existing bracket, and fastening it is a matter of a few screws.
5. Put the lid back on and let the unit boot.

After the boot finishes and you see the little swinging-TiVo-bug movie that plays when the unit reboots, you should be able to go to the System Information screen to check the increase in recording time. Of course, if your TiVo won’t boot at all, you can begin troubleshooting by double-checking the jumpers on the drive and making sure all the cables are plugged in correctly. A wealth of more extensive troubleshooting information is available at the TiVo Underground forum on the TiVo Community Forum Web site.

A note about Step 2: Make sure you create a backup of your existing TiVo data! When I upgraded my first TiVo, the unit wouldn’t boot after I finished. Instead of using Mfs Tools, I had used an older (and allegedly faster) tool that ended up hosing my drive. I flailed around trying to fix the problem, but I only made things worse, so I ended up having to restore from a backup. Be careful out there.

If you’re like my Aunt Betty and would rather not do the work yourself, you can still upgrade your TiVo. You can send your TiVo off to be upgraded by services such as WeaKnees.com or Hinsdale, although the cost varies according to the drive size you want. Many vendors sell pre-blessed drives that you just pop in to your TiVo—a good choice if you’re handy with a screwdriver but don’t want to fiddle with the software. You can also buy new TiVos that have been upgraded by third parties, but those units don’t include the standard TiVo warranty.

Wiring Your TiVo
There are three reasons to consider hooking your TiVo to your home LAN:

  • If you have two or more Series2 machines, you can use the Home Media Option software, which lets you view photos or play MP3s from Windows or Mac OS X machines on your network, and which also lets you copy recordings from one TiVo to another.
  • If you have a Series1 or Series2 machine (but not a DTiVo or HR10-250), you can tell the TiVo to use the Internet to retrieve guide data instead of using the built-in modem. This is a great trick if you don’t have a phone line near your TiVo (although you need one for initial setup).
  • If you have a Series1 or Series2, you can use the network interface to extract video, schedule recordings, send messages to your family, and do a variety of other cool tricks, all of which revolve around installing software on the TiVo as described below.

At the same time I was inflating my Series1 box to 147 hours, I put a TurboNet 100-BaseT Ethernet adapter from 9th Tee in my Series1 unit. Series1 units have a nifty little motherboard connector that you can use to add this particular card, which the TiVo 3.x software is smart enough to recognize. If you have a DHCP server on your network, all you have to do is install the card and reboot your TiVo; it’ll pick up a network address and you’ll be off to the races. If you want to use the network card for program guide downloads, you’ll need to change your dialing prefix to “,#401” in the Phone Information screen; doing so tells the TiVo software to use a direct connection instead of dialing the modem.

Series2 units have two USB ports that you can use to connect a supported wired or wireless network interface. (Officially, only Linksys USB adapters are supported. The TiVo homepage page lists a number of other adapters that might work). As a bonus, the Series2 software lets you set the TCP/IP settings you want to use; if you want to do that with a Series1 machine, you’ll have to do some fiddling as described below.

Installing Software for Fun and More Fun
Most consumer devices are closed: You can’t customize them easily, if at all. If you don’t like the way they work, or if you want to expand their functions, well, too bad. TiVos are different. With the right tools, you can easily add programs that do all sorts of nifty things, including:

  • Controlling the TiVo from a Web browser with TiVoWeb—For example, I can use TiVoWeb to schedule recordings for programs when I’m away from home or to see and change settings that aren’t visible from the standard TiVo interface.
  • Displaying JPEG or TIFF files on screen—Add-on programs can automatically fetch weather radar images and let you display them with a few keystrokes on the remote; you can also use this capability as a low-rent photo viewer.
  • Displaying arbitrary text messages on screen—Some programs let you read your email onscreen, see Caller ID data for incoming calls, and so on. If you’re handy with a C compiler, you can write your own programs to display and retrieve anything you like.
  • Copying video files from the TiVo to a PC—You can then watch the files on the PC or burn them to DVD. This is such an often-requested feature that I’ll talk about it in its own section below.

If you have a Series1 unit, by far the easiest way to install software on your unit is to buy Jeff Keegan’s book Hacking TiVo and use the included CD to copy the software to your TiVo drive. Failing that, you can attach the drive to your PC and boot it, but you must not boot into Windows with the TiVo drive attached! Windows writes disk signatures on any volume it finds at boot time; this is harmless to most disks, but fatal to the disk format that TiVos. Provided that you safely boot into some non-Windows environment, you can copy the files across.

For Series2 and DTiVo units, the process of installing software is much, much more complicated for two reasons. First, these units use a different type of CPU, so you have to use or build binaries for the correct system architecture. Second, these units were designed to keep you from adding your own software, so you have to do a complicated shuffle that involves faking the TiVo into loading two different versions of its boot software. Once you’ve got the software working, it’s fairly straightforward to use, but this isn't a process for novices.

No matter what kind of unit you have, the first thing you should install, of course, is a Telnet server, followed immediately by an FTP server. This combination will let you remotely connect to your TiVo and put files on it. Unfortunately, there’s no way to set a password, so be careful not to put your TiVo directly on the Internet. After setting up these two servers, you can start installing software to your heart’s content.

Extracting Video
Not long after the TiVo was first released, people started asking how to copy video from a TiVo unit to a computer. For a variety of reasons, this isn’t as simple as just plugging in the disk and copying files; TiVo uses a proprietary, and largely undocumented, file-system format called the Media File System (MFS). The actual programs are stored as MPEG streams, but in a TiVo-proprietary format called .ty. Fortunately for us, intrepid hackers in the TiVo Underground figured out how to read MFS disks and how to turn .ty files into regular MPEG-2 streams. Thanks to their hard work, you have three ways to get video from appropriately modified Series1 or Series2 machines:

  • You can FTP the files to your PC. This is an inefficient method, but it has the advantage of not requiring much additional software on the TiVo.
  • You can install the mfs_server package, which makes the contents of the “Now Showing” list visible to the TyStudio client.
  • You can install the tserver_mfs7 package, which makes recorded programs available to the TyTool program.

TyTool and TyStudio offer the capability to copy a recorded program to a Windows PC over the network, then turn it into an ordinary MPEG-2 file. At that point, you can watch the program using a DVD player such as WinDVD. With some additional processing to convert the audio stream, you can burn the video to DVD, Video CD (VCD), or Super Video CD (SVCD).