Saturday, August 04, 2007

TiVo Series3: More Storage Capacity

In Three Cheers for TiVo Series3, I said how happy I am with the digital video recorder I'm using with my bedroom TV. It contains a pair of CableCARDs that let it receive and record any two programs at a time on channels which my cable company grants me access to, including high-definition channels such as HBO, Showtime, and STARZ. It records them onto a 250 GB hard drive, big enough to hold about 32 hours of HD material, or 303 hours of standard-def stuff.

It would of course be nice if it would hold more ... but how can that be arranged?

An answer comes from this thread at the TiVo Community Forum. The Series3 TiVo has a connector in back for an external eSATA drive. Hook such a hard drive to the Series3 and hit certain keys on the remote as it is booting up, and the S3 "marries" the storage space on the eSATA drive to that on its internal drive. From that time on, the S3 uses the storage on both drives as if it were in one big pool.

An external eSATA drive is one that uses the Serial ATA (or SATA) bus interface, which was originally intended for computer-internal drives. (ATA stands for "Advanced Technology Attachment," if anyone cares.) An eSATA drive is nothing more than an internal SATA drive with an external, standalone enclosure around it. The "e" in eSATA stands for "external."

The eSATA drive connects with a host device — in this case, the TiVo Series3 — by means of (you guessed it) an eSATA cable that plugs into both the drive and the host device. If the host device is a TiVo Series3, the cable needs to be an "eSATA II" (a.k.a. "SATA II") cable. It has longer connector plugs than an "eSATA I" (a.k.a. "SATA I") cable. If you use the latter type with the Series3, results are unpredictable. The whole thing is apt not to work. The SIIG, Inc., CB-SA0111-S1 1-meter eSATA II (eSATA-to-eSATA) cable (available here for $17.59 plus $4.95 shipping) is a good choice because it snaps into place to provide a solid connection.

One fairly inexpensive way to implement the above would be to get a Western Digital My Book Premium ES Edition 500GB External eSATA and USB 2.0 Hard Drive, model no. WDG1SU5000N, available for $159.99 at 500GB would give me a total of three times the storage capacity I now have, for 98 hours of HD programs or 927 hours of SD. Throw in the cable and the total price is $177.58 before sales tax/shipping.

The downside of choosing the WDG1SU5000N:

  • It has no fan
  • It only has a "soft" on-off switch
  • It is not certified for 24/7 operation
  • It is not specifically designed for DVR use

A fan, though far from silent, helps cool the drive. I don't think that matters to me, for where I would put the drive has unobstructed air circulation — but sometimes it's better to be safe than sorry.

A "hard" on-off switch is recommended that mechanically locks in the on position so, upon restoring power after an outage, the drive powers up right away without user intervention. If an eSATA drive with a soft switch isn't on during TiVo startup, the Series3 will sit at a "reconnect the drive" screen until you physically turn the drive on, which means any programs you have scheduled do not get recorded until you intervene. That's why it is important to have an eSATA drive/enclosure with a hard power switch that will automatically power back up after brief power outages.

The WDG1SU5000N does not have a hard power switch but it does turn on automatically when the device it is connected to is supplied with power. It is not clear whether that would avoid getting stuck at the "reconnect the drive" screen or not. (I'm not quite clear, for that matter, whether the drive would need to be plugged into the wall, or would it draw power from the Series3?)

Not being certified for 24/7 operation, the WDG1SU5000N might be more prone to failure than a drive with 24/7 certification. The warranty on this drive is only for one year.

Not being designed for use with digital video recorders, the WDG1SU5000N lacks a firmware modification to reduce seek noise, at the expense of seek-time performance. Performance is very important in a desktop drive for a PC, but less so for eSATA expansion on the Series3, which still uses the internal drive for all guide and index information — which is where seek-time performance is crucial.

A 500GB drive that meets
the above criteria — 24/7 certification, DVR quiet-seek design — is model ST3500830SCE of Seagate's multi-model DB35 series. I can get it at for $170.30, with no tax and free shipping. But, as an internal SATA drive, it lacks an enclosure, which I would need to buy separately.

One such enclosure is Antec's Veris MX-1, which comes with a fan and eSATA cable and costs $55 (with free shipping) at It has a hard on-off switch.

So for a total of $225.30 I could have it all, so to speak.

Upping the drive capacity to 750 GB by opting for the Seagate ST3750840SCE, I'd be paying $277.93 at With enclosure, that's $332.93 — $107.63 more for that third quarter-terabyte of add-on storage. wants $75.80 (including $5.24 for shipping) for the ST3250820SCE 250 GB drive from Seagate. Add the enclosure for $55, and the total is $130.80 — a saving of $94.50 for eschewing a second quarter-terabyte of add-on storage.

Decisions, decisions, decisions ...

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