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TiVo Dies; Is Resurrected

In the last couple of weeks, something strange has been going on with our TiVo. While watching either live TV or recorded programs, occasionally the action would freeze for a second, then the picture would dissolve into chunky compression artifacts before clearing up and returning to normal. This is similar to what a TV show looks like when its satellite feed is interrupted momentarily, which happens on occasion, so that’s what I thought it was. Until the TiVo started freezing up.

The effect I described above started getting worse. You’d be watching a show you recorded, then everything would freeze for several seconds, and for the next few minutes, would stutter to the point where you couldn’t watch the show. I discovered it was the TiVo malfunctioning when I tried to fast-forward past a section of this, and it wouldn’t fast-forward for a few seconds, either. It was just frozen. Eventually it would come un-stuck, but this was pretty unnerving. I figured that the hard drive was going bad. Now, since a TiVo is, in effect, always recording 24/7, that can be pretty rough on a hard disk. But a 26 month lifespan? That’s pretty lousy. I resolved to do something about it.

The kicker was this morning. Since yesterday, we’ve been having massive storms here in Florida. The power has been “winking” a little bit (not going off, but the lights dimming for a few seconds at a time every so often). I have my TV / TiVo / stuff on a cheapo surge protector, but not a UPS, and the power fluctuation probably wasn’t helping the TiVo’s already-ill hard disk any. So when I turned on the TV this morning, all I saw was a blinding green screen (TiVo wonks call it the “GSOD” for “Green Screen Of Death,” named after the Windows operating system’s own Blue Screen Of Death). The screen informed me that the TiVo had detected a “serious problem” and was attempting to fix it, and that I was not to disturb it for three hours. After which, if it did not reboot itself successfully, it asked me to call support. Well, it must have been doing this all night, because it kept rebooting itself every few minutes and returning back to that GSOD. Yep…the TiVo was dead.

This didn’t really worry me. Being a computer guy, I know that a TiVo is really little more than a specialized, miniature computer, with a regular IDE hard drive inside. Knowing that there was a large community of TiVo hackers and aficionados on the web, I went over there to read up on my problem.

Online documentation seemed to confirm that the hard drive was my problem, but there was a utility I could use to test the disk in order to make sure. So, I disconnected the TiVo, took it apart and plugged the hard drive into Phobos, the multipurpose gaming and testing computer under my desk. I ran the utility, and sure enough, it told me that “This drive is failing.” I couldn’t even access the boot sector. Sigh…one Maxtor Fireball 3, in the trash.

At this point, I started getting worried that repairing my TiVo would void my Lifetime Subscription status. If you don’t know, TiVo service costs a certain number of dollars every month, unless you pay the flat $300 fee for lifetime service. However, “lifetime” means the lifetime of your TiVo device, not you. So if your TiVo gets destroyed, you gotta start paying monthly fees or pony up another $300. Since we have had our lifetime subscription for only 14 months, it hasn’t yet “paid for itself” in monthly service fee savings. I was determined not to void it.

Fortunately, I learned that the component of your TiVo that the lifetime subscription is tied to is the motherboard, not the hard drive. So you could replace every piece of the TiVo except the motherboard and still keep your subscription. But this reminded me that a surge of electricity could fry even the motherboard, so I added an uninterruptible power supply to my shopping list.

After doing some research, I learned that replacing a TiVo’s hard drive is incredibly easy, all things considered. All you have to do is buy an IDE hard drive just like the kind you would buy for a computer, install an image of the TiVo operating system on it, and you’re in business. Even better, I decided to use this opportunity to vastly upgrade the storage capacity of my TiVo by selecting a larger hard drive; the dead Maxtor was a 40GB. So off I went to Best Buy, where a 120GB Seagate 7200.7 was on sale for a fabulous $60, and picked one up (as well as an APC Back-Ups ES 350). This will triple my TiVo’s storage capacity to approximately 127 hours (at basic quality).

Typically, when people upgrade or replace their TiVo’s hard drive, they get a bootable CD from the web and use it to make an image of their old drive. This allows them to migrate the TiVo OS, all their settings, season passes and soforth from their old disk to the new one. Unfortunately, my original disk was fried. My only hope was to purchase a complete image of the TiVo operating system from PTVupgrade, where they have a program called “Instant Cake™”. Basically, it’s a bootable CD-ROM image that you pop into your computer, it installs itself on your new hard drive, and you’re ready for action. It costs $30, but you can download it directly to your computer without waiting for a CD to ship in the mail.

So that’s what I did. The imaging process took all of about five minutes, then I put the TiVo back together and plugged it in. Voila! I’m back in business, and I have triple the storage capacity that I had before. Fantastic!

Almost my entire Saturday was used up doing this, but in the end it was a fun project. Yes, I know, I’m a geek. I love this kind of stuff. Especially when all of your hard work pays off and you see a tangible result in the end.

If you have a TiVo model TCD240xxx and need a new hard drive, I’m your man. 🙂

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