You Can Hack It

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Like many other couch potatoes who take their quality TV time seriously, I hailed the arrival of TiVo as a liberator. Back in the dark ages of TV watching — about four years ago — there were two ways to catch your favorite shows. You could run your life on the networks' schedule, or you could enter VCR-programming hell. Then came TiVo, a miraculous device that remembered what I liked and let me watch it whenever I wanted. But, as I soon learned, TiVo could be tyrannical.

The problem occurred when the machine ran out of room on its puny 30-gigabyte hard drive (space enough for about 10 hours of TV at best quality). Loath to delete or miss anything TiVo had saved especially for me — who wants to disappoint a machine that has worked so hard?--I lost a lot of sleep watching things I wasn't quite in the mood for. Take the night I stayed up bleary-eyed through the three-hour Russian version of Solaris just so TiVo could cram the next day's Simpsons and West Wing onto its NOW PLAYING list. There must, I knew, be a way to make TiVo work a little harder.

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Luckily for me, there is a whole subculture of TiVo users who squeeze better performance out of their boxes by hacking into them. Two how-to books on the topic will be published in August (TiVo Hacks, O'Reilly; Hacking the TiVo, Premier Press). There's also a step-by-step guide at Or you can do what I did: install a ready-made upgrade from All hacking will, of course, void your warranty. But what you get in return is a supercharged TiVo with three or more times the recording capacity. The larger the hard drive, the less you're forced to watch stuff on TiVo's schedule.

With TiVo, the hacking process is simpler than you might think. This is because TiVo is not so much a stereo component as a computer that runs on the free operating system called Linux. It uses IDE hard drives that you can purchase at any computer store for about a dollar per gigabyte. You need to hook up the hard drive to your PC or Mac, install a free piece of software called BlessTivo, open the TiVo box and attach its new brain. (Reverse the process, and you can make a backup of precious TV recordings on your computer.) Most TiVos have space for two drives running side by side, so you don't need to lose shows and settings on the original.

If all this sounds too perplexing, you can take the easy way out. The drives at — although pricey at $159 for 80 gigabytes, all the way up to $449 for 320 gigabytes — come with the software installed, all the equipment you'll need to wrench open your TiVo, and blessedly lucid instructions. I took longer than the estimated half an hour to finish the job but only because I have a hard time remembering which way you turn a screw to loosen it (lefty-loosey, righty-tighty, just in case you're wondering). If you're similarly home-improvement challenged, WeaKnees will do the job for an extra $50.

Result: my TiVo can now record 80 hours of TV at the best-quality rate or 145 hours at the lowest quality. That isn't anything like the limit — you can get up to 344 hours on the 320-gigabyte drive — but it's enough to record every single West Wing ever broadcast. And maybe I'll have space left for a nice long Russian movie.

Questions? E-mail them to Chris at