Hack of the Month #1 Expanding Storage Space on a DVR

First, a little about how we watch TV in the house. We don’t watch anything live. We DVR it. But, when you have a Comcast High Definition DVR, the small storage space (usually about 150 or 180 GB’s) only allows about 30 HD hour long shows. I still haven’t watched the last three episodes or 24 or Lost, and we have almost the whole season of Damages to watch. I also watch Rescue Me in bunches, usually 3 or 4 episodes at a shot. So as a result, my DVR usually shows about 85% full. The problem with this is that I started having shows not get recorded because there was no space left on the hard drive on the DVR. The following are directions on how to expand your storage space of a Comcast Scientific Atlantic 8830 HD DVR. YMMV, but most other cable/FIOS boxes work the same way.

The Back of the Box

On the back of the SA 8830 box, you’ll see a few USB ports, a firewire port, and a SATA port. Depending on your cable company, most of these ports are turned off, but in Comcast’s case, the SATA (Serial ATA) port is turned on. Originally, Comcast wanted to sell/rent external HD to plug into this port, but they haven’t done this yet, probably due to the fact that this may cause more service calls.

Inside of the Box

Well, not really inside of the box, but close enough. For all practical purposes, your DVR is a computer running a small version of Linux (an open source operating system) with a hard drive and the DVR software. Our goal is to increase the available hard drive space. Once we complete the steps below, the software will pick which drive (internal or external) to write to. As far as the box is concerned, both drives are the same

What We Need

Here are the items we need

  1. External Hard Drive with a SATA connection (Depending on the model, you may find this referred to as eSTATA)
  2. SATA cord. If you buy this in a package this cord will come with the hard drive
  3. Power.
Steps
  1. Remove the power cord from your DVR (just like you are resetting it)
  2. Power up the external hard drive
  3. Using the SATA cable, connect the SATA port on the back of the DVR to the external hard drive
  4. Plug the DVR back in and power it up
  5. When the software for the DVR starts up, it should find the external hard drive and it will ask you if you want to format the hard drive. Answer yes and let it format.
  6. Click the MYDVR button on the remote and check the available space. If you don’t see any increase in space, you’ll need to repeat steps 1 and 4 again. When I did mine, I had to repeat the steps twice.
  7. Enjoy your extra space. In my case I bought a 500 GB external drive, and my percentage full went from 86% to 15%.
Caveats

You can purchase this type of drive from Western Digital and they are marketing as DVR extenders. They run about $120-$150. OR you can buy an External Hard Drive (I bought mine on ebay for about $52). The Western Digital is warranted for this and they have a handy 800 number in case you get stuck. Another caveat, once you’ve done this, if 1) your DVR fails or 2) your external hard drive fails, you’re out of luck. The DVR will assign a code when formatting the hard drive that will only allow the hard drive to be read from this particular DVR. So I can’t take the external hard drive to another DVR

FAQ
  1. Can I just record the stuff on the DVR and take it to my computer and burn DVD’s with it? NO. The method of encryption is such that it needs the DVR that it was originally formatted with to work
  2. I have a USB to SATA converter cable and a USB external hard drive. Will this work? Maybe. The thing to remember is that the data throughput via SATA is a lot faster than USB. If it would work, I’d think you’d see a lot of stuttering and video and audio lag. The SATA external cable is as fast as an internal hard drive
  3. Can I just replace the Internal Hard Drive on the DVR? Maybe..I’ve heard though, that Comcast, when you turn the box in, will check the internals of the DVR. They have coated the inside of the box with a dye that will pick up the oil that may be on your fingers when doing this. I’ve heard of people who wore nursing gloves and replaced the hard drive that way. But, is it worth the headache when a valid solution only costs you $52
  4. Can I get the parts from NewEgg and make my own? Yes, but it’s almost as cheap to do it this way.

Leave ideas for next month’s Hack of The Month in the comments

 

Mark H

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15 Responses

  1. Any idea whether this might work for one of the Verizon FIOS DVR’S?

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  2. It might. Most of this depends 1) on the box and 2) whether or not Verizon has enabled the eSTATA port. You could call customer service at Verizon or do a quick search for your area at avsforums.com and search for your particular box. Fios in my area are using the SA 8830 and have enabled the esata port

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  3. Great! I’ll check on it.

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  4. and even if it doesn’t work, you end up with another external hard drive (and I need lots of those) for a decent price

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  5. Verizon turns off the esata port, so its not possible.

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    • Now that just bites 🙂 There really isn’t a business reason that they haven’t enabled this port. If I were you I’d email higher up the verizon chain and ask why

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  6. Thanks for the tip. You wrote that if the external HD is formatted by the DVR and the DVR fails the HD will not be readable from other operating systems. But can you still hook it to another system and choose to reformat it so it is still usable for other purposes or will it be locked out?

    Thanks,
    John

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  7. Yes, it will be fine, just reformat it. You just lose the data.

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    • When you hooked up your external drive and the DVR reformatted, did you lose all of your programs you had already saved?

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  8. -:* that seems to be a great topic, i really love it .*~

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  9. Before I go and spring for an eSATA Hard Drive, does anyone know if this will work on a Motorola DCT6412 III? That would be SWEET! Thanks, everyone!

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  10. Hey, great article–thank you for the wonderful tips Mark!!! I just want to follow up on what Robert asked in Aug. 2010, but I didn’t see a reply. He asked:

    “When you hooked up your external drive and the reformatted it, did you lose all of your programs you had already saved on the DVR? ”

    So all the stuff that I have saved and don’t want to lose, will that be lost when adding an external hard drive?
    Thanks in advance!
    Steve

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  11. Hello there, You’ve performed an excellent job. I’ll definitely digg it and for my part suggest to my friends. I am confident they’ll be benefited from this site.

    Like

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