UK TiVo Upgrading

The TiVo, in my mind, is one of the best media inventions – basically ever. It’s been around for quite a number of years now, starting life as what’s now seen as a simple PVR (personal video recorder). The biggest selling point when it first launched was the ability to pause live TV, and when it launched in the UK it was decidedly ahead of it’s time – it launched at around £500, plus subscription, and people didn’t really understand what the point was.

The exclusive distributor in the UK was Sky – and of course they quite happily ripped off the product when Thomson decided to stop making it, in the form of Sky+. In the US, meanwhile, where there’s somewhat less of a TV monopoly, TiVo have continued to innovate. The software is available in standalone units for both standard and HD TV and also embedded in satellite and cable providers’ boxes as a premium option. It also now integrates with the (again US-only) Amazon Unbox movie download service, and can stream a variety of other sources of media from your own home network and assorted internet download sites.

So this takes me to the subject in hand. I bought one of the last TiVos from a store in London, an ex-demonstration unit. I absolutely loved it, and for a long time resisted the urge to swap my Sky and TiVo combination for a Sky+ unit – the functionality of the TiVo is so much better implemented, with a clean and easy to use interface that masks a wealth of functionality in comparison to the continual disappointment of Sky+. I’ve recently sold my TiVo for the ease of a one-box solution, however I kept a variety of links for the upgrades I’d made to my TiVo and thought it might be worthwhile listing them for someone to find via Google.

Hard Drive

The TiVo came with a 40Gb hard drive, which allows for around 20 hours or so of recording on ‘best quality’ mode. It’s a standard 3.5″ IDE hard drive, and the TiVo itself runs Linux, so it’s a relatively easy thing to do to add a new drive. You’ll need a PC with a CD/DVD drive, from which you boot an image CD that lets you modify the hard drives, and ideally a spare FAT-formatted drive for a backup. There are a variety of guides for this, but the best I’ve found are:

Steve Conrad’s Upgrade Diary – A UK TiVo user’s upgrade experience
MFSLive – The best download source for boot images and TiVo drive tools, as well as a (non-UK) upgrade guide
ljay’s guide – Another UK guide

An upgrade to a 300Gb drive (very cheap these days) will give you over 100 hours of recording space

Ultra-Mega-High-Quality recordings

Next up, now that you’ve got a whole heap of disk space you might want to improve the quality of the recordings. The TiVo has a number of recording modes – Basic/Medium, at 352×576 resolution, High at 480×576 and Best at 544×576 are the ‘normal’ ones available. There is also a hidden extra mode, mode 0, at 720×576. The easiest guide for doing this is again at Ljay’s site. This can cause the odd adverse effect – particularly some flickering lines at the bottom of your picture. The background to the Mode 0 upgrade is on the TiVo Community forum.

Web Upgrade

TiVo Central will sell you for under £70 a network and cache-card combined. The network card plugs into a slot on the motherboard of your TiVo and allows you to access it over your network… Moreover it allows you to avoid the nightly phone connection, instead downloading TV listings over the internet.

There’s an actively developed web server, which lets you remotely schedule recordings of TV. By means of port-forwarding, this means you can access your TiVo from anywhere and set, change or delete recordings or Season Passes. The web server is called, cunningly enough TiVoWebPlus – being an evolution of the TiVoWeb project.

TiVoWeb is pretty advanced – as well as setting recordings, you can also control the TiVo – remotely accessing all of the functionality of the TiVo’s menus and also getting at the innards. There are a vast array of scripts you can download, allowing you to receive daily emails (or RSS feeds) of the programmes that have been recorded or that are scheduled, or to add dynamic padding so shows are less likely clash whilst still ensuring you don’t miss the start or end of a show.

You can also update the channel logos seen on the TiVo – there are logo packs, and scripts for doing this.

There are scripts that allow you to validate the data in the channel guide and improve it, too.

Finally, for those with good TVs, there are scripts that allow you to modify the graphics for the TiVo’s on-screen menus to avoid flickering.

Hopefully this is useful to someone who’s recently acquired a TiVo and would like to play with it… At least to tide them over until one day TiVo comes back to the UK.

Where'd the posts go?

So not that anyone’s reading this, but previously my del.icio.us links were posted each day. This has the positive effect of making the blog actually look like it has a decent number of postings, but the downside that you can’t see the few real posts in amongst all those links.

I’ve instead found a cool plugin called SimpleLife, which you can see on this page. It aggregates my del.icio.us links, Flickr photos and the music I’ve been listening to, from my Last.fm profile.

I’m going to have to write some real content to keep this page looking busy.

Banking on Security

Online

In October 2007, I moved house. As part of my move, I went to see a mortgage advisor who scoured the marketplace and found us the best deal for an offset mortgage – working in the city, with seasonal bonuses, it’s nice to have this money offset against the mortgage and be free to over/underpay when I want. The deal that we chose was with Intelligent Finance.

Of course, to use an offset mortgage with a current and savings account, you want to be able to regularly use the online banking. The banking facilities are shockingly bad (the subject of another article, perhaps), so much so that I decided to keep my main current account with the highly recommended First Direct. This has suited me fine so far, but a week or so ago, I was running a little short in my current account and wanted to move some money back from IF.

IF have some nice functionality for ensuring security. I have a PIN, which is used if I call the helpdesk, and for setting up my online password, which I use to login regularly. If I call the helpdesk without the PIN, they can discuss features of my account after authenticating me via other challenge/response questions, but no changes transactions can be made. If I request a new PIN, both online and phone banking are blocked until I receive it in the post and use it.

On the website, when I attempt to set up a new payment destination, IF use a two-channel method to verify I am who I say I am – I receive an SMS to my registered mobile with a validation code that I have to enter… Great, except I don’t seem to be able to receive them!

In person

Meanwhile, a friend of mine lost their wallet last week. He was out, had a few drinks, and realised it had disappeared. After a series of drunken late-night calls to assorted banks, all his cards were safely cancelled and new issues requested, with only the inconvenience and £10 really lost.

He found an old cash-card for his bank at home, and took this to a cash machine without paying much attention to the card. The machine rejected his card – on looking at it, he discovered it had expired over a year ago! He promptly went into the branch and queued to chat to a friendly lady at the counter… Luckily it hasn’t become a trendy wine bar.

On recounting the story of how he’d lost his wallet, she took the card, opened up his account on her screen and exclaimed at the bountiful contents – he’s just been paid his bonus. She then asked, without any questions at all, how much cash he would like.

Secure?

It just goes to show – banks can choose to use all the latest technological security methods to protect our details, whether it be 2FA or chip & pin, but if all it takes is a sob story and a long-expired card to get an account’s balance and a wad of cash, what good is the technology?

Surveillance, Privacy and Liberty

Britain has been known for some time to be decidedly interested in surveillance, in the name of security. It’s an oft-quoted comment that Britain is a ‘surveillance society’. That said, in part because of technology, and the ‘war on terrorism’, there seems to have been a noticeable shift in the amount of surveillance, and how it is being used – both by the government and private organisations.

Clearly there is some good to come of the 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain – I was astounded at the speed which the London bombers of July 2005 were traced. It wasn’t long after the event that the bombers had been traced back across London, to the place they had boarded a train, no doubt speeding the investigation.

Some people clearly have concerns about how the technology is used, however.

More than just the increasing use of cameras for passive monitoring, there are much more active techniques for observing people and taking action. Under a new police initiative, cameras will use automatic numberplate recognition to check for ‘vehicles of interest’, following which motorists will have their fingerprints checked against the Police National Computer. The stated aim is to ensure identies can easily be verified at the roadside, to avoid people giving false details. Fingerprints are stored in this computer system when people are charged with a crime – though clearly it would be much easier if everyone’s details were stored, rather than existing criminals. The police also suggest the technology could be extended for real-time searching of the “Facial Images National Database”.

One presumes these fingerprints might come from the biometrics gathered for identity cards, our nice, ‘secure‘ e-passports or the IRIS airport scanning system.

It seems to be a significant shift that’s occurred recently where it’s freely admitted by many of the involved organisations that this sort of data will be gathered on everyone, rather than those guilty of a crime. When automatic facial or numberplate recognition, or even behaviour patterns, are used to monitor potential criminals rather than those guilty of something, even those who suggest ‘if you’re not guilty you’ve nothing to hide‘ might start to worry.

As evidence that there is increasing acceptance of surveillance, I noticed barely a raised eyebrow when mentioning the Pay-as-you-Drive car insurance promotion by Norwich Union to people, wherein you are given a GPS tracking device and billed according to your driving pattern and risk profile. Given they know where you’re going and how fast you’re moving – might they report to anyone (or just adjust your premiums) if you’re speeding?

Doing the right thing

So, I’ve made it to a blog posting at last.

Of late, I’ve had a growing feeling of wanting to do ‘good’ things. Having devoted over five years of working hard at jobs which overwhelmingly corporate, I’ve managed to do pretty well for myself. I’ve progressed pretty well in my career, towards achieving some personal goals, and financially too.

I took a new job in the summer, and whilst still being with an investment bank, I have been less busy and less stressed, giving me time to put more thought and effort into those ‘good things’. The first thing I did was to sign up to give some money each month to charity. By doing this through the Give As You Earn scheme (via my salary), firstly it goes before it’s even arrived making it less painful, but also it’s tax efficient. I have a percentage of my salary in my head that I plan to give, which will obviously increase as time goes on. I have an account with the Charities Aid Foundation. The money I give each month gets put into this account, and I set up standing orders to leave this account to my nominated charities… Or so goes the theory.

I got as far as setting up the account, and then stumbled. Who should I give money to? What’s the most effective way to donate? Comic Relief has a model of giving money at local, national and global levels. I’d quite like to follow this – but it’s difficult to know who to choose.

I believe strongly in freedom and fairness, and in lifting third world countries from poverty. But all my grandparents died of cancer. There are some charities which I almost want to avoid they feel almost a stereotypical cliche. I’m an athiest too, and would want to avoid charities that push a particular religion on people as part of their receiving aid. Finally there are hundreds of local charities, but I’d have no idea how to be sure I was picking the right one.

In researching where to give my money, it’s opened my eyes to just how many bad things there are going on in the world. It’s almost paralysing – so much to do, and my proverbial drop in the ocean to hand out. I thought I was doing well, then I read an article (unfortunately I’ve lost the link) that suggested perhaps giving to charity was a bad idea, and that I should spend my money ensuring that I bought green energy and sourced my food organically and from local producers. This would inevitably cost more, but would be good for the environment, not to mention the local producers and my health. Only then should I consider charity with whatever’s left.

I have yet to decide where the money goes. My best guess so far is to choose five or six of the ‘big names’, and keep researching for organisations that deal with issues that I feel most passionate about, and refine the list as time goes on. I can heartily recommend Intelligent Giving, which is a good source of that research. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

on identity, privacy, the environment, and other assorted rants.