August 7, 2008

Is Your TiVo Filling Up? DVR Expanders Can Give You More Room to Record

By Edward C. Baig

Beijing's Olympics provide a reminder why many of us love our digital video recorders. By automatically recording shows onto a hard drive, we can take in sporting events, movies and other programs when we want, without worrying about time differences or schedules determined by TV honchos.

But as with any other hard-drive-based contraption, DVRs have limited storage. All too often, in arranging to record a program on my TiVo HD DVR, I've received the dreaded "not enough disk space" warning. That means deleting shows I haven't watched yet or, worse, wiping out recordings I want to hang on to for posterity.

TiVo fills up even faster when I record programs in high-definition. HD claims roughly 10 times the amount of space as standard-definition recordings.

The Iomega DVR Expander Drive and Western Digital My DVR Expander drive I've been testing promise to increase your DVR's storage capacity, so you won't have to fret about it for a long time.

The Iomega and Western Digital boxes both cost $200 and have 500 gigabytes of storage, equaling about 300 extra hours of standard-definition or up to 60 hours of high-def programming. By adding the Western Digital drive to my TiVo, I upped its capacity to up to 927 standard-definition or 98 high-def hours. You'd have to watch an awful lot of TV to exhaust that much storage.

The two drives are about the size of a chunky hardcover book; the Western Digital box is a little thicker and shorter than the Iomega.

You may ask: "Why do I need a DVR expander when I've got an unused external PC hard drive? Couldn't I just plug it into the DVR's USB port?"

It's not that simple. The USB ports on TiVo, for instance, cannot be used for external storage. Instead, the DVR expanders connect to a different port, called eSata, which TiVo says is more reliable and robust. (I use the USB on my TiVo for a Wi-Fi adapter.) If you do have an eSata drive, you can probably make it work with TiVo by employing an easily found online hack -- except there are no guarantees, and you won't have TiVo's blessing.

For now, the Western Digital expander is the only external drive "verified" to work with TiVo, though Iomega insists its drive is compatible, too. Both work with Scientific Atlanta DVRs used by such cable companies as Cablevision, Comcast, Cox, Rogers and Time Warner. Seagate is planning to bring out a DVR expander this fall.

Another thing to consider: DVR expanders increase the amount of space you have for shows but are not backup drives meant to preserve recordings if (and probably when) the DVR's hard drive fails. If either drive breaks, the recorded content is lost, unless you previously transferred shows to a computer or portable player using TiVo Desktop software.

This probably has as much to do with digital rights as anything else: Content providers may not want you storing every episode of a series.

How the boxes worked on my TiVo.

*Installation. With the drive and the TiVo unplugged, you connect a supplied eSata cable from the expanders to the TiVo. The lack of an eSata port meant I couldn't boost capacity on an older TiVo model in my house.

When you power everything up, the TiVo should detect the presence of an "external storage device." I received a message recognizing the Iomega box. But I also got warnings that the drive was not verified for use with this DVR. I could proceed but only at my own risk. Despite Iomega's assurances that it would work, I went no further.

TiVo says the Western Digital drive has fewer compatibility issues than other tested drives and was designed to be fast enough to record two high-def shows at once while playing back a third.

I repeated the installation drill with the Western Digital box, but, oddly, it took 15 minutes before TiVo found the drive. I called Western Digital's tech support, but before I got very far, the drive was detected. From there, everything went smoothly.

*You can't take it with you. Recorded programs are partly stored on the expander and partly on the DVR's internal drive. You cannot tell TiVo to record on one drive vs. another. TiVo sees one larger drive rather than two smaller drives.

If you unplug the extender, you can't watch recent recordings. You also can't move the extender from one DVR to another. Nor will the drive work on a PC unless you wipe out its contents.

TiVo did tell me that anything recorded on the internal drive before installing the extender would remain intact. Thankfully, my prized recordings were still there -- now with lots of room to spare.

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