When you're serious about entertainment, you don't want to settle for the standard features. You want more storage, more options, and more convenience. But most consumer electronics come with built-in limitations that can prevent you from getting maximum use out of them.
We have some tricks for getting around such technology road blocks. These five hacks will let you take greater control over your entertainment experience. Not satisfied with the puny hard drive in your TiVo or Xbox 360? We'll tell you how to upgrade your device's storage on the cheap. Tired of sitting through commercials with your lousy Comcast cable box? We have the code that lets you skip right past them. We'll show you how to play DVD movies and iTunes purchases on any media player, too.
Add a Cheap External TiVo Hard Drive
Difficulty: Moderate; Time: 2 hours
When TiVo hard drives get full, they begin erasing old shows that you might still want to watch. To fight this problem, add an external hard drive. TiVo will sell you an external drive for the TiVo HD and TiVo Series3; but by doing it yourself, you can get twice the storage for the same cost.
Note: This hack will void your warranty, and since the hardware connects online, you will probably get a frowny face written on your account. But TiVo doesn't go out of its way to punish users who try this hack. The process is time-consuming but not too difficult.
If you have an unmodified TiVo Series3, all you have to do is connect an eSATA drive. Power off the TiVo, plug everything in, and power up the DVR and the drive. To enable the drive, simply go to the TiVo's Settings, Remote, CableCARD and Devices, External Storage menu.
Many TiVo HD hackers suggest that you buy an A/V-marketed drive, which is designed for video performance, constant use, and (often) quieter operation. These typically cost a little more than standard PC hard drives, so consider whether that premium offsets possible lost shows and the time you might have to expend in replacing the drive again should it eventually fail. (I decided to use a 500GB drive I had on hand that isn't marketed for A/V use.) You'll also need a 3.5-inch eSATA drive enclosure, preferably one with a built-in fan and a power switch that stays locked in the on position.
First, turn off and unplug the TiVo HD. Use a Torx-10 screwdriver to remove the six screws on the back of the DVR's case, and remove the top cover. Always keep your fingers well away from the capacitors on the back left, near where the unit's power cord connects. These can carry a dangerous electrical charge, even when the TiVo is unplugged.
Disconnect the SATA data-and-power cable from the internal hard drive. With a Torx-10 screwdriver, remove the four screws that hold the drive cage to the case. (The screws near the front bezel are difficult to reach.) Lift the cage out of the box.
I recommend that you back up the original drive to another SATA drive. Connect both drives to a PC, and run WinMFS as an administrator by launching it with a right-click and choosing Run as administrator. Be sure to select the TiVo-formatted drive as 'A' and '1', and click Tools, Mfscopy. Select the destination drive in the following screen with the drop-down menu so that only Source A and Destination A are chosen. Be patient; the software takes about an hour to complete the backup process, and at times it may appear as though it has stalled or crashed.
Turn off your computer, and replace the old backup drive with your new SATA drive. Run WinMFS as an administrator again. After clicking File, Select Drive, choose the original drive as 'A'. The software will identify it as TiVo-formatted. Click the check box for the 'B' drive, and choose the new hard drive. Verify that its size matches your expectation. Click Select, and choose Tools, Mfsadd. Reinstall the original ('A') drive inside the TiVo, and then install the new ('B') drive in the external case.
With everything powered off, connect the external drive; afterward, turn on the TiVo and the drive. The TiVo should boot to its home screen after about 5 minutes. You'll have to keep the external drive powered up and connected from this point forward--if you remove it, you'll lose any new recordings made since the upgrade, just as you would with an official TiVo upgrade.
Skip Ads Easily With a Standard Cable Remote Control
Difficulty: Easy; Time: 5 minutes
Many Motorola-made DVRs that cable-TV providers supply are unable to skip ads by jumping ahead 30 seconds. But you can remap the remote control to add this feature. I got it working with a Comcast remote, and it will likely work with your cable company's remote, too.
Press the Cable button at the top of the remote. Hold the Setup button until the Cable button flashes twice. Enter 994 on the keypad. The Cable button will flash twice again. Push the Setup button once. Enter 00173. Finally, push the button that you want to use as the 30-second skip; I chose the A button since I don't use it for anything else. The Cable button will flash twice.
To restore the original functionality to that key, follow the first steps described above, but after entering 994, push the remapped key twice. The Cable button will blink twice if your input has been accepted.
Add Capacity to a 20GB Xbox 360
Difficulty: Hard; Time: 90 minutes
Microsoft expects you to pay close to $200 to upgrade your Xbox 360's hard drive from 20GB to 120GB. That's about $150 more than a 120GB SATA drive actually costs. But with this slightly tricky hack, you can save a bundle while boosting your game console's storage capacity to hold more music, video, and other media files.
You'll need a DOS installation on a writable flash thumb drive for this hack. (The utility doesn't work under Windows, and you'll also be disconnecting your PC's hard drive.) First, grab a spare USB thumb drive and copy the HP Drive Key Boot Utility to it. The utility is designed for HP flash drives, but it works on other types of flash drives, too. Also download and mount a DOS image file.
In Windows Vista, right-click the HP utility and run it as an administrator. Select the thumb drive, choose the FAT structure, click the Create a DOS startup disk check box, and pick the DOS files when prompted. Then download the DOS Xbox utility, HDDHackr, and copy it to the root level of the thumb drive.
This hack is designed to work with a specific drive, the 120GB Western Digital Scorpio, model number WDGWD1200BEVS. You'll be replacing the drive's native firmware with Xbox-recognized firmware. You can track down the firmware online by doing a search for "hddss.bin 120 Xbox 360." Place the hddss.bin file in the root of your DOS thumb drive.
With your PC turned off, unplug any other SATA devices and then connect the new Scorpio drive to one of the SATA cables and to a power lead. Afterward, boot from your DOS thumb drive (specify a boot drive in your PC's BIOS, if necessary). At the DOS command line, type run hddhackr -f and press Enter. You'll be prompted to make a backup of the original drive firmware; do so.
Continue with the process to flash the firmware on the new hard drive. After a few seconds, you'll be prompted to restart the computer. Once you have done so, run the "hddhackr -f" command again, and it should report that the hard drive has been formatted for the Xbox 360.
Use Torx screwdrivers to remove the 20GB hard drive from your Xbox 360 and to remove the drive from its case. Swap the formatted Western Digital drive into the case, put it back together, and start the console. Follow the prompt under System, Memory to format the new drive; after formatting is complete, the drive will be ready for use.
Play iTunes Purchases on Any Music Player
Difficulty: Moderate; Time: 30 minutes
Here's how to make music you bought via iTunes play on any media player. Like the other hack on this page, this DRM-stripping trick could get you into legal hot water, but it also gives you control over songs that you rightfully own.
I recommend using myFairTunes to set iTunes downloads free. You'll also need to use an older version of iTunes (and yes, give up some features), because this utility strips tracks of their copy protection, and Apple regularly updates iTunes software so hackers can't remove the DRM. Search online for "Old iTunes 7.4.1 download" and "myFairTunes7 download" to find the two applications.
If you're already running iTunes, choose Store, Deauthorize Computer, and then close the program. Temporarily rename the iTunes folder something simple like 'iTunes Recent'. Uninstall iTunes, and then restart the PC.
Install iTunes 7.4.1 and myFairTunes7. Next, install Visual C++ SP1 and .Net Framework 2.0. Restart your PC, and launch iTunes. Import your DRM-loaded songs, and play one of them. Enter your iTunes Music Store account information when prompted to do so.
Launch myFairTunes7. Click the check boxes for Preserve RAW AAC Stream and Enable "No Sound" Fast Dump. If you'd like to create MP3 files instead of using the original AAC files, click that box. With the songs selected, click Start Conversion. The software will take about 15 seconds per song to remove the DRM.
Go back to iTunes and drag all of the converted files from iTunes into a new folder in your desktop. The songs should now be playable on any audio device.
Rip DVDs to a Media Player
Difficulty: Moderate; Time: 1 hour
DVDs are too big to fit into your portable media player, but that doesn't mean you need to pay again to watch a movie on it. A multitude of tools can strip out the DRM that is built into the discs, and other utilities will let you compress movies for portable use.
You can find free tools such as DVD Decryptor to rip the DVD, but most have been abandoned for years and might not work on recently released movies. If those don't work, you can use the $49 AnyDVD. After installing the software, insert a DVD and right-click on the logo in your system tray. Choose Rip Video DVD to Harddisk and give the program about half an hour, depending on your PC's power, to process the media.
Afterward the video can be processed in any program that reads the .vob and .ifo files used on DVDs. Again, you can find free tools, such as Videora iPod Converter, and they tend to work better than the free utilities for stripping out DRM. For its simplicity, however, you might want to use the $40 Roxio Crunch. Open the software, and choose File, Add Movie. Select the various files you transferred, and click OK. Choose a compression level from the Format drop-down menu, click Save As, and begin the processing. When it's complete, just transfer the movie to your media player.