TiVo-lution

 Q: A bunch of my friends are obsessed with their TiVo video recorders, to the point where they're virtual shut-ins. What makes those little boxes so addictive? Aren't they just souped-up VCRs?

TiVo devotees are, indeed, a rabid lot. Many swear they'd perish without their $300 to $450 "digital video recorders," which store hours of programming on hard disks rather than cumbersome, snag-prone tapes. But convenience is only part of the allure. Thousands of TiVo geeks get stoked on hacking their boxes, adding features like extra storage space or on-screen caller ID. You needn't be a programming whiz to get started, but you will need some big cojones—even the tiniest of miscues can turn your TiVo into a very expensive paperweight.

Aside from digitally recording TV fare, TiVos offer a range of clever options, all for a $12.95-per-month service fee. Like Pauly Shore? Your TiVo can automatically scour every channel for future showings of BioDome and record them without prompting. Need to take an urgent bathroom break just when Hollywood Squares is getting good? You can pause the action for up to 30 minutes, thanks to TiVo's live TV buffer. The buffer also lets you fast-forward through commercials, forever banishing the Verizon "Can you hear me now? Good" guy to the purgatory where he so rightfully belongs.

illustration: Josh McKible

That's not enough to satisfy TiVo geeks, however, who delight in poking around their boxes' circuit-laden innards. You can glean the latest tricks by perusing the "Underground" section of Tivocommunity.com, or scrolling through the TiVo FAQ at tivo.samba.org; look for exploits authored by such legendary TiVo hackers as "Tiger," "Dylan," and "Jafa." The most popular hack is adding a second hard drive, which ups the device's storage capacity by as much as 182 hours. It involves cracking open the casing and navigating scary-looking transistors, so check your technophobic impulses at the door.

Another cool hack is outfitting your TiVo with a Web server so you can access it from a networked computer. Jeff Keegan, who archives his tricks at Keegan.org, even figured out how to program his TiVo from a PalmPilot, a bit of wizardry that came in handy last fall at a New England Patriots game. After his dad missed some key plays while buying grub, Keegan used his Palm to instruct a TiVo to record the 11 o'clock news. Dad got to see the highlights the next day, and Keegan was in geek heaven.

A few rogue programs will transfer TiVo data to a PC, where it can then be burned onto a compact disc. Lots of hardcore hackers frown on these tools, since they can be used to abet movie pirates. TiVo, the company, has been pretty cool with the hackers so far—unlike the lawyer-happy ogres at Sony, Microsoft, and other tech Goliaths—so the underground doesn't want to muck things up.

TiVo hacking can be a hoot, but keep in mind that it's not child's play. Opening your TiVo voids the warranty, so tech support will merely laugh if you plead for a replacement after some fiddling gone awry. Also be aware that the power supply is unshielded, meaning you can get fried if your screwdriver slips.

There's another potential dark side to TiVo that hackers seldom mention. Every night the box uses a built-in modem to phone corporate headquarters and obtain a list of the next day's programming. According to a disquieting study by the Denver-based Privacy Foundation (privacyfoundation.org), TiVo also transmits a detailed list of shows you watched. Though the company claims to strip all personal identifiers, it wouldn't take much effort for them to blow the lid off your Elimidate habit. TiVo manuals include the troubling hedge, "Our privacy policy may change over time," which strikes Mr. Roboto as a roundabout way of saying, "If we start to tank, we're gonna sell your info to every credit-card company in Delaware."

True TiVo nuts, like your sun-starved pals, don't care a whit about the privacy fracas. As long as their boxes don't get zonked by some errant tinkering, they're at peace with the universe. As the TiVo FAQ so eloquently notes, "Life with TiVo is great, but life with a dead TiVo is not!"


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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