Tinkering with TiVo

Of course you love your TiVo. Here's how to love it 190 percent more, and then some.
A person with curly shoulder-length blonde hair sitting on a blue couch and leaning forward to watch TV while holding a TV remote in their hands.
Maybe you in 2004 catching up on your TiVo shows. Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

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This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the April 2004 issue of Popular Science magazine and involves outdated technologies and services.

In the beginning there was TiVo, and TV addicts saw that it was good. Now, just five years later, digital video recorders (DVRs) are everywhere from your DVD player to your PC to your cable box. And while TiVo (and its longtime competitor ReplayTV) still charges a fee for its guide service, several of the new DVRs use free proprietary guides. In other words, TiVo’s competition is thick.

  • Dept: Void Your Warranty
  • Tech: TiVo drive upgrade
  • Cost: $210
  • Time: 3 hours
  • Difficulty: dabbler | | | | | master (Editor’s note: 2/5)

But TiVo isn’t just any DVR. Unlike its competitors, it’s got a pathologically loyal customer base. (Googling the phrase “I love my TiVo” turns up thousands of testimonials.) And like Google before it, TiVo has seen its brand become a verb: We don’t digitally record shows, we “TiVo” them.

Fueling this cult is the sheer hackability of the box. TiVo runs on Linux, an open-source OS loved by geeks because it’s free of the commercial protections placed on systems like Windows. That means a TiVo’s brain can be modified to make it do just about anything.

Although most of these hacks, including the hard drive upgrade demonstrated above, will void your warranty, TiVo doesn’t mind the tinkering. The company sponsors an online hacking forum called TiVo Underground, and it pays attention to what posters want. Case in point: This fall it will introduce TiVoToGo, which will enable users to transfer recorded content to their PC, where they can burn it to a DVD or share it over their network—things hackers have been doing for years.

From 80 hours to 230

These are the CliffsNotes for installing a second drive:

  • Open your TiVo.
  • Unplug the existing hard drive’s data and power cables and remove it.
  • Plug the new hard drive into your computer, and use free open-source software to format it as a second TiVo hard drive. (Pre-formatted hard drives are available that allow you to skip this step.)
  • Attach both drives to a special bracket.
  • Insert into your TiVo and reassemble.

More TiVo hacks

The easiest hacks are “backdoors,” specific button combinations on your remote that enable features like an alphabetized personal playlist and a 30-second-skip button.

For more ambitious hacks, you’ll have to transfer your TiVo’s hard drive to your computer to modify its configuration files. Then you’ll need a network and Telnet software to remotely control the TiVo from your PC. If all that sounds like fun to you, keep reading.

  • Web scheduling: Go on vacation without TiVo’ing Alias? The TiVo Web Project lets you correct your blunder over the web.
  • Streaming data: The TiVo Control Station displays streaming web info, like stocks, scores, weather and eBay auctions, as overlays on your TV screen.
  • PC archiving: If you don’t want to wait for (or pay for) TiVoToGo, the TyTool does basically the same thing: saves recorded TV as MPEG-2 files on your computer.