Hack your cable box

Got a digital video recorder from the cable company? Save more shows on it with a new hard drive.
The inside of a cable box.
Peer inside your cable box.

Like TiVo before it, the cable-box digital video recorder (DVR) is a gadget that’s easy to love—until you realize that last week’s game has been erased to make room for Desperate Housewives in high-definition. Fortunately, you can easily double or even triple your DVR’s capacity by adding more hard-drive space. Be aware that since you don’t own the box, the cable company can fine you for messing with it. That said, if you have a Scientific-Atlanta 8300—by far the most common cable DVR—with the correct operating system, you can swap the internal drive for a bigger one. Or take the safe route and just plug an external hard drive into the SATA port on the back of the box. A caveat: You have to leave the external drive on all the time, and its fan can get noisy. Of course, you can always just turn up the volume on that extra month’s worth of recorded games.

  • Dept: Void Your Warranty
  • Project: how to record more TV
  • Cost: $100 to $200
  • Time: 10 to 60 minutes
  • Difficulty: easy | | | | | hard (Editor’s note: 2/5)

Before you start, determine which operating system your box uses—SARA or Passport—by putting the box into diagnostic mode. To do this, hold down the select button on the front of the box until the mail light flashes, then hit the info button. Scroll down to find the OS. Only SARA boxes can take a new internal drive, but either will work with an external drive.

Internal upgrade

Parts (available from several sources online)

  • Internal 3.5-inch IDE hard drive, up to 300GB: $100 to $150
  • Security torx bit No. 10 tool: $5 to $10


1. Use a security torx bit No. 10—a star-shaped wrench with a small hole in the middle—to remove the box’s cover. Then use a Philips screwdriver and a regular torx bit to take out the drive bracket.

2. Before removing the drive from the bracket, carefully peel off the tamper sticker. If you bend it too far, the word “void” will appear and the cable company could see that you tampered with it.

3. Unplug the data and power cables from the old hard drive and plug both into the new one. Reassemble the box and restart. It may take up to an hour for the box’s software to load on the new drive.

External upgrade


  • 3.5-inch SATA hard drive in an external enclosure, up to 300GB: $150 to $200
  • SATA-to-eSATA cable: $15 to $20


1. Connect the hard drive to the cable box—the eSATA end of the cable goes into the SATA port on the DVR.

2. Power up the drive. Then turn on the cable box.

3. When prompted to format the hard drive, choose yes.

How to get shows off the box

All DVRs encrypt their recordings to prevent piracy, so you can’t simply copy them to your PC or Mac. You can, however, record a show to your computer. The trick is to use a digital video converter, such as Pinnacle’s new $50 Dazzle DVD Recorder (pinnaclesys.com). Plug one end into the analog outputs on the back of your cable box and the other into your computer’s USB port. Hit play on the DVR, and use Dazzle’s included software to capture the video to your computer in real time. From there, you can burn shows to DVD for archiving.

This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the May 2006 issue of Popular Science magazine.