From the edge of reason…and sanity…

My new old DirecTV TiVo Network – for now

Almost 4 years ago I became a DirecTV subscriber. It was SOOO much better and cheaper than my local cable company, which became part of Comcast shortly before I canceled. Plus they offered a real dual-tuner integrated TiVo unit long before anyone else considered such a thing. My, how things have changed…

This is a combo Rant and Geek Out article…

First, the Rant. DirecTV was cool when I got it. It cost about 20 less than cable for more channels, and with a REAL TiVo that could record two things at once while I watched a pre-recorded third. There were some peculiarities – because of old existing wiring I hooked a receiver in the family room to power a bedroom on the other end of the house using an RF modulator (which allowed me to share a TiVo between two rooms anyways), etc. but certainly nothing annoying. Except when the trees grew and blocked the line of site to the satellite. A chainsaw took care of that though. I had few problems with “rain fade” – only in the harshest of storms, and only for short times.

At the time, the new TiVos were based on the standalone Series 2 platform, which had USB ports and future features like multi-room viewing, networking, etc.

Well, over those 4 years, things took a turn for the worse.

First, the extra features of the TiVo never materialized. DirecTV didn’t permit TiVo to enable the features, supposedly because they didn’t want to incur the wrath of broadcasters worried about their near-perfect digital transmissions being pirated. So while the standalone TiVo users got to ditch their phone lines, watch programs recorded on any TiVo, and transfer to laptops and iPods, we got…nothing. Not a single new feature. Oh, we did get a software update that did make it a little faster, and group programs into folders, but that was it. The kicker? The software INCLUDED the features of the standalones – just not enabled. But ve have vays… 🙂

Second, channel quality has gone WAY downhill. They try and squeeze more and more channels into the same space. Well, with digital signals you can do that, if you compress them more. But if you compress them more, artifacts of the compression become more noticeable. Local channels seemed to be hit the most, along with pretty much everything but premium channels. Even then, the Dolby 5.1 transmissions on the premium channels seem to become more scarce. I dropped my premium channels some time ago.

Third: To get HD, I’d need to get new receivers (replacing my TiVos with either a non-TiVo model, an older HD TiVo that can’t receive most of the newer HD channels (DTV switched to an MPEG4 format for new channels), or their non-TiVo DVR which has its own problems to be worked out still. I’d also need a new dish, run two more cables from the dish to the distribution point, and probably have to cut down a tree to hit the other sats.

Fourth: Since Murdoch took over, DirecTV has for the most part severed their relationship with TiVo, developing their own DVR based on an NDS platform (another Murdoch/Newscorp entity). No new features, and if it breaks, your get one of theirs instead. They are probably fine, but they are not TiVos, and lack some of the features you’ve gotten used to and expect. Newscorp is selling off its stake to Liberty Media, but who knows what will happen? In the meantime, Comcast and TiVo have a relationship, Verizon is an option with FiOS TV (with their own DVR), and TiVo has the Series 3 cable- (and FiOS-) compatible HD unit (but VERY expensive, plus the cost of service).

Over those four years though, I’ve gotten two more integrated TiVos. So I’m invested. I’ll probably switch to FiOS once my commitment to DirecTV is over at the end of the year (for the most recent TiVo purchase), depending on if I can live with their DVR or purchase a couple Series 3s and pay for the service. In the meantime, I want some features.

Fortunately, there is a way to get them.

If you’ve got DirecTiVos (or regular TiVos) and you’re a true geek, you already know that you can put in a larger hard drive. You can add a second drive too, but I don’t recommend it for heat and noise reasons. One large drive is enough for most people.

Now, I mentioned that features like networking and multi-room viewing are included in the software, but not enabled. Well, you CAN enable them, with a few patches here and there…plus you can add all sorts of extra features, like a web server, intelligent padding, etc.

If you are not aware of them, there are two forums to read: Tivo Community Forum – DIRECTV Receiver with TiVo, for the general forum about these units, and Tivo Community Forum – TiVo Underground for hacking TiVos in general.

In particular, there are two main threads to pay attention to. Enhance Your Hacked Tivo With This Script is a script and set of programs to add all the features to your TiVo, and Hacking your Series 2 DTivo just got a WHOLE lot easier… is a boot CD to make the job simpler. If you are a true Linux hacker, you probably don’t need the second one, but it is a convenience.

Using these two, I now have three TiVos with a combined 5 tuners (one is bad in the original – a seemingly common problem with the HDVR2 model, the first “Series 2” to come out), which I can access over the internet (via proxy for security), schedule recordings, delete, whatever. I can also watch programs recorded on any one of them from any of the others. The only thing that still isn’t supported is the Tivo2Go features (download to computer/iPod, etc.), as that was a later release. But if you do your research, you can get around that.

One caution: The enhancement scripts will render any existing recordings unreadable, so do this on an empty system.

Now, I could have done this some time ago, except I had a separate issue – networking. My house design is such that stringing Cat5 cables is not an easy job, so even though I could do this I didn’t really have a way to connect it all together. When I played online with my Playstation 2, I ran a cable across the floor.

There are wireless USB adapters, but only Wireless-B adapters work with the hacked DirecTV units, because of an older kernel lacking drivers. Wireless-B is too slow to be able to use multi-room viewing in real-time. Wireless-G is just fast enough to do real-time in most cases with a little extra to give you a buffer. A wired adapter with a Wireless-G “Gaming Adapter” would work, but they are kind of expensive, and only works for one device. I had TWO TiVos in one location, and a TiVo and PS2 in another. I needed a multi-port wireless bridge!

No one seemed to be selling one currently, but there are some alternate firmwares that run on some models like the Linksys WRT54 series that can also be used in bridge mode. So I did my research and decided on DD-WRT, which had all the features I wanted, including SNMP! (I use Cacti to graph stats).

Now I needed three of these things (two for bridges and one to replace my old Linksys router). There are several models of the Linksys out there – they started off as a Linux-based kernel, but the latest models have less memory and use VxWorks instead, so they can’t do as much. However, the “GL” models are essentially updated versions of the original ones, still Linux-based. This would allow all the features I wanted to run. I bought two of these off for $50 after rebate, and had my sister get a third (limit 2 for the rebate). I promptly updated the firmware on all of them with DD-WRT (very carefully – you can easily “brick” these if you don’t do it right), and all three worked great. Because they are essentially Linux, you get iptables for fancy firewall needs, all sorts of Dynamic DNS support (still trying to figure out how to make it talk to my GnuDIP2 system though), QoS, SNMP and more. And it still has a web interface for the lazy.

So, I dropped the two in bridge mode where the TiVos are, and replaced the router (a simple, drop-in replacement – worked great!), and now have a fully-networked 5-tuner TV system.

Alas, it will all get replaced sometime soon…

Update 3/8: Y2k7, a.k.a. the DST Debacle, looms this weekend. Leave it to DirecTV and TiVo to leave it until the last minute to fix it. Now, I’ve hacked my TiVos so that they won’t install an upgrade automatically, but I should at least receive it via satellite, then I have to jump through hoops to install it. None of my units have yet received the update via the satellite stream, and as far as can be told, its not being sent any more.

What would happen? As far as known, the only things affected are the display of guide data (they will appear one hour off), and manual recordings will need to be adjusted by an hour. Everything else should function normally.

Fortunately someone has managed to extract the 6.2a slices from the system and made them available, and I’ve used those to update my oldest unit, and all seems well. Two more to go, but they are more critical…