Last christmas we finally gave in and bought a TiVo, and even though I had my doubts at first, not being a big fan of TV in general, I have to admit that I like this device a lot more than I would have thought.

Previously, I was fed up with cable TV to a point where I would watch almost no TV at all, other than maybe the occasional Startrek episode. First of all, being tied to the particular time that shows aired was getting increasingly difficult with two kids. Second, most TV shows simply aren’t good enough to compensate for having to sit through endless commercial breaks, and third, it seems like all the interesting shows are always on when I don’t have time to watch TV or simply don’t feel like it. VHS is simply too much of a hassle to be a real alternative. And for movies, we pretty much gave up with TV and switched to Netflix 3 years ago. This is the main reason that we have not bought a TiVo before, since we were (and still are) happy with Netflix, which meant that we always had some new movies at home.

After about 5 months with a TiVo, I find it hard to imagine not having one any more. Even though I still watch very little TV, the added convenience is simply great. Whenever I have a few minutes and feel like watching TV (for example when bottle-feeding our baby), I simply switch to an episode of The Office, Southpark, Chapelle’s Show, or whatever else I might have recorded. I can easily stop in the middle of a show and continue to watch it some other time, and even if my wife wants to watch something else in the mean time this is no problem, since the TiVo remembers where I left off.

The major downside is the fact that the entry level (“40 hour”) TiVo models only store a small amount of recordings. While they can store up to 40 hours, this is only the case at the lowest quality setting, which causes noticeable image degradation. I usually record at high (not best) setting, which is good enough for me and yields around 20 hours.

Of course, all of this can be changed fairly easily by “hacking” the TiVo, and this is a major aspect of the TiVo’s fascination for me as a geek. Internally, the TiVo is a real computer that runs the Linux operating system and stores its recordings on a regular IDE hard drive. One of the simpler and well-documented upgrades consists of upgrading the hard drive. Older (Series 1) TiVo’s generally have room for two hard drives, which makes it easy to add a second hard drive. Most newer (Series 2) TiVo’s only have room for a single hard drive out of the box, but people have come up with various ways of adding a second drive using custom mounting brackets. Of course, with hard drive prices being as cheap as they are these days, a simple option is to replace the existing hard drive. One hour (at least the way TiVo counts this at the low quality setting) equals approximately 1GB, so the entry level 40 hour model comes with a 40GB hard drive. Replacing this with a 120GB drive is definitely enough of an initial boost, and it is always possible to add a second drive later if this still is not enough space.

The canonical guide for all types of TiVo hard drive upgrades is the excellent Hinsdale How-to.

Upgrading the hard drive capacity is only the first step, though, since a lot more things can be hacked. Other hacks allow users to gain network access to their TiVo, which in turn makes it easy to install and use additional hacks, such as the various options for extracting recordings from the TiVo, for example in order to archive them on DVD-R. This is a somewhat controversial topic and is not discussed on some of the TiVo-sanctioned websites, but I believe that it falls well into the fair use of the device, as long as it is only done for personal use.

This is my introductory posting on this topic. Future postings will cover specific hacks and other information, such as the exact process I followed to perform the hard drive upgrade and get network access to the TiVo at the same time.