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March 21, 2008

New Life For Your Old TiVo

My five year-old Sony SVR-3000 TiVo went south. The 80GB hard drive just up and died with no warning at all. Just wouldn't boot and made nasty clicking sounds. I have a nine-year old daughter who absolutely MUST have her Hannah Montana, so I had to move fast or risk major domestic unrest.

I seemed to me that this scenario must be playing out in thousands of households right about now. There were boatloads of TiVo Series II units sold around the time we bought ours and all those hard drives are winking out all over the world, slowly but surely. So I decided to build this article based on the experience of replacing the drive.

Google "TiVo replacement drive" and you'll find a number of companies that specialize in TiVo upgrades and repairs. I chose DVRUpgrade.com and Weaknees.com since they looked like the most established operations. Contacted both and made arrangements for replacement drives, pre-imaged with the TiVo software specifically for my Sony. Hard drive capacities have jumped dramatically since I bought my TiVo, so I opted for a 400GB replacement from both companies. Since I always record at Best Quality, I went from about 20 hours to nearly 120 hours, a huge improvement that has dramatically changed the way I used my TiVo -- more on that later.

I ordered the same upgrade kit from each firm on the same day and received both boxes at the same time a couple days later via UPS. Both kits cost $199 with free ground shipping. The drives were the same too: 7200RPM Seagate DB35 mechanisms designed specifically for use in consumer media devices. Yes, you can shove just about any drive into a TiVo, but using a drive made for the task will yield smoother video performance and a quieter living room. Such drives can be difficult if not impossible to find in retail outlets, so it's best to get them from companies like the two I chose. The 400GB drive I chose can be purchased unformatted for $169, but then you'll have to spend another $20 for software specific to your TiVo model, get it all hooked up to your home computer, then do the image transfer -- not pretty. Of the two companies only DVRUpgrade.com offers do it yourself software installers. Though I briefly considered going this route, it saves a mere $20 and I'd have to borrow a Windows box to accomplish it. Our computers are all Macs and though we have a couple of Windows laptops lying around gathering dust, you need a desktop machine to do the deed. It's too much hassle for me to save a mere $20.

The out-of-box experience from both firms was virtually identical. The Weaknees kit included an "Upgraded By Weaknees.com" sticker for your TiVo and a hint card showing how to change your remote's Skip button into a handy 30-second skip. Both offer a one-page instruction sheet detailing exactly how to open the unit, remove the old drive, install the new one, and close it all up without binding any cables or forgetting to plug anything into the right socket. It almost could not have been easier. All you need is a simple screwdriver and basic manual dexterity. I was able to complete the task within ten minutes both times, and I was dawdling and taking notes the whole time.

Just Like New

Once you have your TiVo bolted back together, just plug it into your home theater system and turn it on. The experience that follows is exactly the same as if you had just bought a brand new TiVo from the store. Answer a question about your zip code, tell it how you connect to your system and identify your cable channel lineup, and TiVo does the rest. You lose all your stored programs, recording schedules and preferences, but look at it as an opportunity to clear out the old commercial network crap you've been watching and replace it with lots of public television -- I'm only half kidding here. Make a promise to yourself that you will not waste any more of your precious life watching bad television shows. TV is 90% wasteland but the other 10% can be a very good use of your time and that of your family. End of sermon.

Once you are up and running again, behold the vast amount of space you now have. Suddenly, you chose to set your Season Pass settings to "Keep Until I Delete", saving interesting programs for months instead of days. I found myself casually working my way through my favorite channel's upcoming shows, selecting anything of even remote interest to me of others in the house. Why not? Anything that turns out to be junk is easily deleted, and there is now plenty of space for it all. I also left TiVo Suggestions on, something I have never done because it tended to fill my old drive up so quickly. In a few days the system had suggested a number of excellent programs we would have otherwise missed.

Of course, you don't need to wait until your old drive dies to reap the benefits of an upgrade. The massive capacity and smoother performance you'll enjoy is worth the money. Both the companies I worked with offer excellent kits but I would suggest checking both sites and look for special offers before you order. As I write this, Weaknees.com had a sweet deal on their 500GB upgrade kit: $229 pre-imaged for your device.

Second Drive Option for TiVo Junkies

If you are a serious TiVo junkie, another option is to add a second drive to your rig. Not all TiVo units can physically accommodate a second drive, so check the Weaknees.com and DVRUpgrade.com sites to find out if your unit can handle it. While it is certainly possible to simply order a second drive and install it, this is not the most desirable method. You'll have two drives of differing ages and performance, one of which will eventually fail and take down both drives in the process. You also have a fair bit of low-level drive tinkering to do, which may be beyond your geek pay grade to accomplish. It is far wiser to order a pair of drives as a single upgrade kit, pre-imaged for plug-and-play installation. A pair of 500GB drives, for example, yields a whopping 360 hours at Best Quality, while a pair of top of the line 750GB drives gives so much space that your TiVo can't even display the number! The only downside is the increased noise level of the second drive in your living room. That was a deal breaker for me as I can't stand the thought of spending a day in front of a noisy computer, then relaxing in a room almost as noisy that evening. Then again, I didn't actually try this out so I don't really know how loud it would be. Just think about this before you decide how big to go.



Remote Possibility: Logitech Harmony One

Another item that is probably due for replacement or upgrade is your TiVo's tired old remote control. In my case, the Sony part is no longer offered even as a refurb; seems the lead level in the paint is too high in those old remotes to resell. Our beat-up old remote is held together with duct tape and the silkscreening is worn off the main buttons, so I contacted Logitech, the leader in programmable universal remotes, about a TiVo-compatible upgrade.

Logitech offers an array of attractive universal remote controls with some serious tech under their hoods. I selected their latest product, the HarmonyOne remote ($249). Now that may seem like a fair bit of cash for a universal remote, but this one is so much better than anything else out there that you won't mind.

The remote control hassle has become a real nightmare. When I am visiting a friend's house, I never touch their remote controls as a rule. Every one of them is different and so many things can go horribly wrong that I just don't do it. At my house, we have FIVE remotes for our home system, three of which are in constant use; it's absurd and frustrating. I'd love to just toss them all in a drawer and just use the front panel controls on all the devices, but these days many features are accessible only through the remote so you're stuck with the little plastic torture devices.

I've purchased and reviewed countless universal remotes over the years and none have been very good. There is always one critical function that they won't do, or one device's codes they can't replicate, or they turn things on in the wrong order, or need to be pointed just so or they won't work, or the damn batteries fall out and you need to completely reprogram it to do anything at all -- this is way more trouble than it is worth.

I am extremely pleased to report that Logitech has gotten it right with the Harmony One. It's absolutely brilliant. Slim and comfortable, it has a bright color touchscreen for major functions, or Activities as they call them: Watch TiVo, Watch a DVD, Listen to Radio, and so on. While touchscreen interfaces on remotes is nothing new, the level of sophistication on the Harmony One is light-years beyond anything else on the market. It even has an intelligent Help system that actually helps you solve problems and doesn't just send you back to the manual.

Out of the box, you drop the unit into its sleek black charging cradle to top up the replaceable lithium-ion battery inside. While it charges up, go over to your components and write down the make and model numbers of each device in your rig. Install the Logitech software in your Mac or Windows computer, then follow the prompts to enter this information into your new account at Logitech. By then your remote is probably sufficiently charged, so plug it into the supplied USB cable and let it update itself with the latest firmware if it needs to. The software then steps you through setting up your Activities, suggesting the most likely things you do with the devices you've specified. It works amazingly well. It knew that I want my TiVo on all the time and that I needed my first Activity to be "Watch PVR", which I renamed "Watch TiVo". It asked a couple of questions and set it up to switch on the TV and the surround amplifier/receiver and to leave the TiVo on no matter what. It set the input and output so I could listen through the surround system. Perfect!

Same experience with my DVD/CD player and the radio receiver functions in my surround amp/receiver, as well as my old VCR and my LiteOn DVD recorder. You can set it so that components remain on or off, or switch on only the components need for that Activity. The key feature is the way it intelligently asks about inputs and outputs so you never have to fiddle the TV/VCR button ever again. Set it once and it's done. You can even set the power-on sequence if you need to. The software found all my components instantly but didn't know all the remote codes for my Sony TiVo remote, so it directed me to point the original remote to the Harmony One and teach a few codes to it. After two of them, it said it knew the rest and it worked perfectly from then on. Need a particular oddball function from one of your old remotes? The Harmony One can learn it, then let you map it to one of its buttons or touchscreen icons. Sweet.

The above may sound complex but it's not; the Logitech software makes it super easy. You can add new devices at any time, remove old ones, make changes to button layouts, customize the touchscreen buttons, add your own graphics, and more if you want to geek out. The controls are laid out in a completely sensible way, not in that crazy haphazard way most remotes are. You always have a backup of all your settings on your computer and on Logitech's servers. The family loves it and babysitters can now easily operate our system without confusion. Take all your old remotes and stick 'em in a drawer -- you won't be needing them. I can't say enough good things about the Harmony One.

~David MacNeill

Logitech Universal Remotes

Posted by dtm at March 21, 2008 04:59 PM