Olympic-size DVR storage – an update

Following up on this post from earlier this month, about the trials and tribulations in adding external storage to my DirecTV HD-DVR. I’ve returned the Buffalo DriveStation unit back to Fry’s. We used it with moderate success to buffer two weeks of Olympic events, but the DVR was markedly less stable and there were noticeable gray-screen delays when deleting saved programs or browsing the list. That, combined with DirecTV’s lack of support for the eSATA port and anything their customers might want to attach to it, made the decision to return it a pretty easy one.

What would DirecTV have to change in order for me to use external storage on the DVR?

  1. Supporting the port in hardware, by which I mean acknowledging its existence; recommending specific drives and performing compatibility testing.
  2. Supporting it in software, by which I mean not having to reboot the DVR to use external storage; using external storage as additional space for the internal drive and not, as is presently the case, an either-or situation that doesn’t transfer saved programs or Prioritizer entres.

For now, I’ll stick with the internal drive. The Olympics were really the only situation, aside from our recent three-week vacation, in which we risked running out of space on the internal drive, so I don’t anticipate needing more any time soon. If I do, and DirecTV still isn’t supporting eSATA, I’ll probably investigate an internal upgrade.

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Olympic-size DVR storage

With the Olympics coming up — starting tomorrow! — and now that we can watch them in HD, and NBC’s promise of over 1,000 hours of programming, well, I took a look at the storage capacity on my DirecTV HR21-700 HD+DVR. It has an internal 320GB drive, which translates into around 37 hours of HD programming. Obviously that would not be enough to buffer the events we want to watch. The HR21 (and its predecessor, the HR20) have an eSATA port which can be used to add external storage, but it’s not actually supported by DirecTV. It’s there, and if you can get it to work then great, but they aren’t going to help. Luckily the various online communities (notably DBSTalk.com) have stepped up with lots of information and helpful tips, and after a bit of research I decided to give this a try. My main requirement was one terabyte of available storage, and I was also not looking to spend a lot of money. Finally, it had to be something I could buy locally — unfortunately I started this mini-project too late to try to buy it online.

I started with a Western Digital My Book Home Edition ($279.99 list, $199.99 at Fry’s). It was the most attractive and least expensive of the available options. Unfortunately, and if I’d read all of the eSATA threads on DBSTalk.com I’d have known this, the My Book series are for some reason not compatible with DVRs. Specifically on the HR21, booting with the unit attached gets to the second screen of the six-screen boot process and then goes into an infinite reboot.

Next, I tried a Seagate FreeAgent Pro ($259.99 list, $237.49 with a white sticker at Fry’s). I went with this one when the WD didn’t work because I was looking for another “known” brand name. Unfortunately, again, not supported. On the HR21, booting with this unit attached gets to the third of six boot screens and then hangs.

After returning the Seagate unit, I found a Buffalo DriveStation Combo 4 ($229.99 at Fry’s, around the same on PriceGrabber). This is the least attractive of the three–it looks like nothing more than a Radio Shack project box–but its form factor is such that it can be tucked into the stereo cabinet out of sight. I unplugged the DVR, connected the eSATA unit and powered the DVR back on. And it worked! The DVR got through all six boot screens and came up normally. As expected, there were no saved recordings or Prioritizer entries–they don’t move over from the primary drive–so the available space reads as “100%”. 1TB should give me around 110-120 hours of HD recording.

The one remaining sticking point is that existing saved programs and Prioritizer entries are not copied to the external drive, but remain intact and inaccessible on the primary internal drive as long as the external drive is connected; and the only way to switch between internal and external drives is to completely power off the DVR and connect/disconnect the external drive before powering the DVR back on. It should be possible to simply copy the contents of the internal drive to the external bit-for-bit and in fact at least one third-party DirecTV upgrade vendor offers a copy service for an extra $59 when buying a new drive. If they can do it, I’m sure I can do it, but doing it would involve delicately easing the DirecTV DVR out of the stack and opening it up and I’m not sure I want to go that far right now.

So, to summarize:

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