Pimp my cable box

December 5th, 2008 — Wordman

My cable provider supplies a digital video recorder (DVR) that records high definition. It’s not a very good one, with possibly the ugliest user interface ever (from an application called SARA), but it’s adequate and gets the job done. Or did, until the DVR started to run out of disk space. It turns out that this particular cable box/DVR (a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD) has an external serial advanced technology attachment (eSATA) port on it. I happened to have some SATA drives left over from upgrading my RAID, so I thought I’d try to plug one of these in. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge.

The first task was to put the drive into something that supported the eSATA interface, which means getting a drive enclosure for the bare drive I had. I wanted this to be as versatile as possible, so I managed to find the OWC Mercury Elite-AL Quad Interface, which supports eSATA, USB2 and both flavors of FireWire. This case is quiet and solid, made largely from large pieces of aluminum. Mounting was easy, and I tested the drive on my Mac with no problem.

I also discovered a bit of a bonus: my MacPro has some spare SATA plugs on the motherboard, and the same company that sells the case sells a cheap doohickey that plugs into these ports, and exposes them as eSATA ports on the back of the machine. Simple, inexpensive and useful.

Anyway, connecting this drive into the cable box didn’t work. It turns out that the DVR is very finicky about both the drive and the enclosure that it talks to. Since its all standard interfaces, this is both stupid and irritating, but it seems to only accept certain combinations. My drives were Maxtor drives and didn’t seem to work. Possibly they are less standard than usual.

By this time, we were really running out of space, and I got a bit obsessed about gaining extra storage for the damn thing. I wound up finding a solution made specifically for the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD, with a money back guarantee if it didn’t work. This meant getting a whole new drive, so wasn’t the most cost effective thing to do. Still, I can use the Mercury Quad for other things, so it’s not a total loss. It was also an excuse to get a larger drive than that one I had.

From opening the box, it took all of five minutes to get this drive working with my cable box. Very simple, really quiet, works great, and roughly quadrupled our DVR recording ability. So, pretty happy with it, though a bit beyond the original budget. I have yet to try to unmount the drive and read it with a computer. From what I read, this doesn’t really work that well.

This summer, we also totally upgraded our main TV area, adding a Playstation 3 and flatscreen TV (which necessitated a new receiver that could handle HDMI, and lots of it). After connecting it all, and resurrecting some old hardware to make the 802.11n connection a bit more reliable, our setup now looks like this:

Network diagram