How to Upgrade Your DVR's Hard Drive

Swapping out hard drive
Swapping out a hard drive in a DVR is similar to replacing one in a PC.

The digital video recorder (DVR) has changed the way millions of people watch television. Instead of scheduling an entire evening around a favorite show, DVR owners have their machines automatically record them for later viewing. Most DVRs have a feature that lets you subscribe to shows; you set your DVR once and you never have to worry about missing another episode again, even if it changes times or days of the week.

At its most basic level, a DVR is really just a computer designed for a specific task. And just like any other computer, with the right knowledge and tools, you can switch out components for new hardware.


That's great news for DVR owners. Video files are very large. High-definition video takes up even more space. While 80 or even 180 hours of standard programming -- or up to 20 hours of high-definition television -- may sound like a lot of TV, some DVR owners manage to fill their device's hard drive to capacity. Many DVRs will overwrite old programs in order to make room for new recordings, which means you'll eventually lose the shows you record, or you'll have to stop saving new shows.

What can a DVR owner do to store more programming? One option is to transfer the digital recordings to another format like a DVD. But for many people, one of the big selling points of the DVR is that it doesn't require lots of discs or tapes -- you just need one set-top box. Another option is to upgrade to a new DVR. But new DVRs can be expensive. There's another option: upgrading the DVR's hard drive.

There are many different types of DVRs and not all of them have the same kind of hard drive. Some can only hold a single hard drive, which means you'll have to exchange the old one for a new one. Others can hold more than one hard drive. With these models, you may be able to add a second hard drive without much trouble. And there are a few that make it even simpler to add storage capacity. We'll look at general approaches for all three.

Let's start with the easiest options and work our way to the more challenging projects.


Using Kits or External Hard Drives

External hard drive
If your DVR can connect to an external hard drive, upgrading is as simple as it gets.

Some DVR systems have special ports that allow you to connect an external hard drive to the system. Depending on your DVR, this port may only support certain brands or models of external hard drives. For example, TiVo produces DVR units that are only compatible with external drives that are TiVo-certified. For example, one brand of drive that's compatible with TiVo includes the Western Digital My DVR Expander drives, the largest of which provides a full terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) of storage space. By comparison, the TiVo Series 3 unit has a 250 gigabyte hard drive.

With an external device, you aren't replacing your DVR's native hard drive. You're supplementing the storage space on the device. It's the easiest way to boost your storage capacity.


If your DVR doesn't have a port for external hard drives, you'll have to put forth a little more effort. It's at this point that we should warn you that adding or replacing the hard drive on your DVR could void your warranty. Even more important, you should remember that even if your DVR is unplugged, it's capable of discharging a dangerous amount of electricity if you short out the machine's power supply. Proceed with caution.

Before buying a new hard drive, you should find out what sort of interface your DVR uses to connect the hard drive to the DVR. The different types of hard drive interfaces include:

  • Integrated drive electronics (IDE)
  • Serialized attachment packet (SATA)
  • Parallel attachment packet (PATA)
  • Ultra attachment packet (UATA)

If the interface on your new hard drive and your DVR doesn't match, you can't connect the two components. There are several resources online that will tell you which DVRs use each type of hard drive interface.

Several vendors offer special hard drive kits for DVRs. To swap out a DVR, you'll need to transfer some data to the new unit. This can be intimidating for someone with a limited technical background. For a price, however, you can purchase a hard drive that has all the necessary components pre-installed for you. These kits often come with step-by-step directions on how to swap out (or add) hard drives for that particular DVR.

Depending upon the model of DVR you own, you may also need a few special tools to access the guts of the machine. Check to see if you'll require tools like a TORX screwdriver -- TiVo sets have TORX screws.


Installing a New Hard Drive in Your DVR

First, make sure the hard drive's interface and your DVR match. For instance, if you try to use a SATA hard drive with a PATA interface, you'll find that the plug and ports are incompatible. Second, you should make sure your DVR doesn't have a cap on how much storage you can add. The TiVo Series 1 set has a maximum single hard drive size of 137 gigabytes, though it has the capacity to hold two hard drives so you can double that. Third, you'll want a hard drive that spins at 7,200 revolutions per minute (RPM) or faster.

When you're ready, you'll need to unplug the device and remove the screws that hold the casing of your DVR together. Remember to avoid touching the power supply or you could receive a nasty shock. The hard drive should be easy to spot -- most look like a rectangular case. You may need to remove the hard drive from a special mounting bracket inside the DVR. Next, unscrew the hard drive from the DVR and disconnect the cables connecting the drive to the DVR's circuit board.


With some DVRs, the next step is easy. All you have to do is put your new drive right where the old drive was. You'll need to connect the cables to the drive and replace the screws to hold it in place. Once everything is back where it should be, you can plug in your DVR. It may take several minutes for your DVR to respond as it downloads the software it needs to run. But some DVRs require special software on the hard drive before they'll work. That requires making an image of the old drive.

Making an image of a drive is tricky. You need some experience with the Linux operating system. You'll also need some special cards and cables for your PC so that you can hook up your old and new DVR hard drives to your computer at the same time. You'll need to copy the contents of the old drive to the new drive. This process can vary from one brand of DVR to another and it can take a few hours or even longer. That's why many people opt for an upgrade kit -- it might mean losing your settings and programs, but you can plug the drive into your DVR and it should work just fine.

There are many resources on the Web that can guide you if you really want to tackle the upgrade as a do-it-yourself job. Remember to search for information about your particular DVR -- not every set of instructions will work with your equipment. Good luck!

For more on DVRs, hard drives and related technologies, fast-forward to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Drawbaugh, Ben. "How-To: Upgrade your Series3 Drive." EngadgetHD. Oct. 26, 2006. (May 7, 2009)
  • Felteau, Doug. "How to pick the right TiVO DVR hard drive?" Dec. 22, 2006. (May 7, 2009)
  • Hinsdale TiVO Upgrades. "I Want a Large TiVO with Lots of Recording Time." (May 6, 2009).
  • Penrod, Lee et al. "How to Choose a Hard Drive?" July 21, 2008 (May 6, 2009)
  • The Serial ATA International Organization.
  • "How to Upgrade Your DVR Hard Drive." March 27, 2007. (May 7, 2009)