Hackers Begin Modifying TiVo Machines

Build it and they will come—to take it apart. Modifying original equipment has long been one of the most popular activities among electronics hobbyists. Hard-disk video recorders from TiVo are the latest consumer-electronics products to go under the hacker's knife and emerge with upgraded capabilities.

Several news items have popped up lately reporting that modifiers are opening up the TiVo boxes, which are similar to personal computers, and are installing their own second hard drives to boost the machines' recording times. The mod is a workaround of an official TiVo upgrade that accomplishes the same thing but at higher cost. As any computer user knows, large-capacity disk drives are now relatively inexpensive.

Modified TiVo machines work perfectly with the company's service, including its onscreen, interactive program guides. "We're not trying to circumvent what the actual unit does," said Mike Hill, a hobbyist in Cincinnati. Hill's second hard drive boosted his machine's recording capacity to 14 hours, he claims.

Modifying anything—amplifier, car, motorcycle—usually voids the warranty. That's certainly the case with TiVo, but it doesn't seem to bother the folks who are doing it. The unauthorized hardware upgrade isn't much of a concern to TiVo, either, but attempts to decode the company's video file-storage format are. Such attempts could lead to widespread piracy and sharing of video clips, in much the same way as people now share music files using services like Napster. "I'm sure that would cause some isssues with the motion-picture industry," Mike Hill said. A software consultant, he doesn't mention how he finds time to watch all the video he can now record.