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September 17, 2004

Tivo Hacking Inferno: The Three Levels of Hell

Like Virgil in Dante's Inferno, let me give you a brief tour through the circles of hell for Tivo hacking, at least from my perception of what Tivo, Inc likely finds sinful. I've traveled through the first two levels and while a little crispy from the trip, there are some positive elements from taking the ride. The third inner core of hell I haven't seen firsthand, but I strongly believe that it should not be visited. There is no redemption for the sinner there.

Tivo Hacking Hell is definitely not a vacation destination for everyone, but for the techno-geek like myself, I consider it a high tech adventure trek. I should note that this post isn't meant to be a How To Guide. There is a lot of documentation out there for the fellow traveler that can do a better job than I can. I'll also note that my experience has all been on a Series 2 Standalone Tivo and your mileage will definitely vary depending on what model you own.

The first circle of hacking hell is defined by those who modify their Tivo hardware to add disk space. Tivo appears to turn a blind eye to this kind of modification, although you'd likely not find a sympathetic ear from Tivo Support should things go horribly wrong. The second circle is set aside for people who add additional software to their system including the ability to extract video, and in this area, Tivo definitely regards this as a sin, albeit they could make life much more difficult for hacking if they so wanted. The third and most evil level is a place devote for those who try to steal Tivo service fees, and I find this contemptible on many levels.

What to pack

To get to the first two levels, you'll need to have a couple of things handy. First, you'll need an old Intel computer with an IDE bus, at least a 5 - 10gig drive with free space (or more if you want to save your recordings), and a CD drive. The computer must be able to boot off of the CD drive and you'll need to either have a CD Writer or a friend who can burn a couple of CDs from an ISO. You'll also need a Torx wrench and a screwdriver, which can be found in practically any hardware store.

You'll also need to purchase some computer parts depending on your needs as I'll describe later in this document. If you are going to upgrade your disk space, you'll need to purchase 1 or 2 larger drives (unless things have changed Tivo Series 2 can only access the first 137Gigs of each drive), and if you go with two drives, you'll need to have a different IDE cable, a power Y splitter cable, and likely have to order a special mounting kit to fit it in the Tivo.

Circle 1 - Upgrading your disk space

The gold standard documentation to do a disk upgrade is the Hinsdale Guide, and I'd recommend you read it very carefully before you put torx wrench to Tivo.

If you've assembled or upgraded a PC before, the hardware portion is pretty straightforward. There are a couple ways to damage your Tivo (or you) like touching part of the unshielded power supply or accidentally disconnecting a very important wire, but for the most part, it was a low risk venture.

Like others, I recommend taking out the original hard disk and keeping it safely stored somewhere instead of simply adding a second drive to mix. If things go bad, you can likely just reconnect the original and everything will be back to where you began. More importantly, if you proceed on to the next circle of hell, you have something pristine that you can always fall back upon and get things back up running. This saved my butt, so I'm talking from experience.

The basic process is that you take out the original drive from the Tivo, install it in your old clunker computer and boot it off of a specialized boot CD. The software will help you back up the drive to the another disk. At this point, you power down, hook up your shiny new big hard drive to the clunker, boot the system up again, and copy the data on to the new drive. You will also need to "bless" the drive to tell it you have more disk space. Overall, it's pretty easy stuff as long as you make sure your drives are set in the right Master/Slave position and on the right IDE bus. It takes a while to do and it is much easier if you do not care about the shows already recorded on your original drive.

The upside of doing this is that you can get a nice big drive in your Tivo and be the envy of all your friends and neighbors. The downside is that you void your warranty, there is a small risk that you could fry yourself or your Tivo, and you could be out the cost of your Tivo and few burned eyebrow lashes. Don't say that I didn't warn you.

Circle 2 - Hacking the OS

For those adventurous souls, you could step right into Circle 2 without reconnecting the drive to your Tivo, but I wouldn't recommend it. There is too much that could go wrong and you could save yourself some frustration by verifying that your shiny new hard disk is working properly before trying to monkey with the OS and software.

Traveling in this area is much like visiting a third world country. You'll likely be frustrated by the limited communication skills you'll have with the locals, you'll spend a lot more time sitting around trying to find your way rather than making visible progress, and the support you'll find from local healthcare workers will make you wish that you bought that medivac travel insurance so you can be airlifted out if things go wrong.

It helps if you speak the language and in this locale it's Linux. You don't have to be a Linux guru, but it certainly would help at times. At a minimum, you'll need to know how to use the command line and how to move files around (cp, mv, ftp), set privileges (chmod), and have a little idea on how to navigate around the OS. It's gotten easier over time, but it's still very daunting without it.

Part of the problem is that the main source of this development is the message boards at DealDatabase. The people there really create a lot cool stuff and some are very helpful, but they definitely have a low tolerance for simple, oft-repeated questions. You'll likely feel like an idiot and while it might sound easier to ask for help on a simple Linux command like chmod than look it up yourself, you'll definitely regret posting it there.

The other major frustration is that much of the software and instructions are a "work in flux" and you'll have to wade through tons of posts and replies, many of which contradictory, to actually find the right way to do something. It's fairly common to read what looks to be a straightforward post that takes you through a process step by step, only to read 70 replies later that one of the steps was wrong and will cause you and your Tivo irrevocable harm. The lesson in this is to read through an entire thread one or more times before proceeding. Also, learn the search function there well because you'll be using it alot to bone up on the vocabulary.

When I hacked my Tivo, I used what is commonly called Sleeper's ISO, which according to the forum, is now out of date and really out of fashion. Looking around for this might help you get started, but there is no real substitute for just digging in, reading as much as you can, and then trying it out. Once you get it working you can then talk to your Tivo via telnet and ftp. It doesn't end there though because you'll want to add software to extend the Tivo's functionality. For instance to extract video, you will need to install software like TyTool. By the way, Tytool is nice because it gives you a step-by-step way of extracting video and putting it on a DVD.

The upside of doing these hacks is that you can add functionality to your Tivo that you ordinarily don't have available to you. Extracting video is the most common, but there are tools for un-deleting a deleted show, having Caller ID flash on your screen when the phone rings, and a better web browser that you access from any computer connected to the web.

The downside is that it takes an eternity to learn the bare essentials and get it working, and when you've finally got it all working, Tivo will likely send down a software update and screw everything up. Odds are good that you'll at some time lose all your recorded show and almost a certainty your wife will be annoyed that the Tivo is up in your office being fixed when her favorite show is on. It's also pretty clear that if Tivo gets annoyed enough by hacking, they could fundamentally make things more difficult for hackers to update their software and Tivo could potentially see that you have a hacked the OS and ban you from their service.

Circle 3 - Stealing

I just want to re-iterate that I find this sort of hacking bad for Tivo and for its users. Tivo cannot survive without service fees so if they annoy you, there are plenty of other PVR options that don't require monthly fees. Many people including myself love their Tivo and hope they can make their business successful in the long run, and this type of hacking reduces their chances. Most developers that hack the Tivo realize this, and as devotees themselves, avoid helping other people try to do this.

Conclusions

Like I said from the beginning, Tivo hacking is not for everyone. As Tivo continues to evolve and offer new features, the reasons to modify a Tivo become less compelling. I can understand the business reasons for avoiding litigation by limiting video extraction, but grabbing video from a Tivo is one of the few good reasons many people continue to do it. Perhaps Tivo-To-Go will be enough for most people, so I look forward to that being rolled out.

I also am hopeful that the HMO feature and an evolving SDK will attract more open source projects like JavaHMO. Working with third party and open source developers help Tivo innovate at a low cost, so I hope they open more of their system for modification and enhancement.

Posted on September 17, 2004

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