What are your options for a dying DVR?

Earl Bonovich

You hear the hard drive in your DVR make funny noises. You might have gotten a message on the screen. What to do? Maybe you’ve replaced hard drives on computers before. You just know that it would be easy to replace this hard drive. I hear you, and I’ve been there.

Or, you think the hard drive is good but the rest of the DVR seems a bit dodgy. Maybe the HDMI connection keeps dropping out. Maybe it won’t connect to the internet. It could be that it’s just old and slow.

Either way, you’re looking at some changes. But, what are your options for keeping the programming you have?

A few things you should know

First of all, you’re not allowed to open the case. Your customer agreement prohibits tampering with any leased equipment. So if you had it in mind to replace the hard drive, you couldn’t do it without risking being charged for the full retail price of the device.

Second, if you were thinking of taking your existing hard drive and reusing it in another DVR, I’m sad to tell you that won’t work for you either. The recordings on the device are keyed to that DVR and that DVR only. I can tell you, I have been aware of a global effort going on the last 12 years to try to migrate recordings from one DVR to another, and I have not heard of anyone who has been able to do it. The closest anyone has come has been using Linux to migrate content from one drive to another and put it back in the same DVR. This doesn’t do anything to help you really.

Finally, let’s say if you decide to crack open the case. Suppose you get the proper security bits and you figure out how to do it. (By the way, this can be an absolute pain with anything made since 2010.) After all that, you’re not going to find anything user serviceable inside. There are some old stories of people replacing blown capacitors or whatnot, but unless you’re some sort of super soldering whiz, it’s not going to work. You’re just going to make things worse.

What are the “legitimate” options?

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of really great options here for the serious DIYer. The ability to return the DVR and get another one is really designed for the “average user.” You have to remember, most of AT&T’s 25 million customers are “average users.” It’s no fun to be out on the fringes but it’s a fact, as a DIYer that’s where you need to be.

All of this can be frustrating if you’re the sort of person who thinks of a DVR as an “archive” device, in other words someplace to store programs forever and ever. It’s not really, it’s a “timeshifting” device. It’s designed to let you watch programs and then delete them when you’re done. The whole system, sadly, isn’t designed around the idea of keeping programming indefinitely. Don’t blame AT&T, it’s really the content providers themselves.

Closing the “keep” loophole

Ever since the “Betamax decision,” content providers as a whole have been looking for a way to stop you from keeping recordings indefinitely. For those who don’t want to spend a lot of time at that linked article, here are the basics: Movie and TV studios really hated VCRs when they came out. At that time, you could record things off your TV, keep them forever, and even make copies for friends. This was hugely threatening.

The first thing they tried to do believe it or not was make VCRs illegal. The Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that recording something for your own use and keeping it indefinitely, on equipment you own, was not illegal, period.

Ever since then, studios have looked for ways to keep you from holding onto that content. They put expiration dates on your on-demand programming. They changed the cable connections so you couldn’t record the raw signal. They made it largely impossible to record streaming content without fancy (possibly illegal) equipment.

Whenever it’s been possible to do so, content providers have routinely made it harder for you to keep your content.  I’m sad to say that there isn’t much you can do about it. The encryption that’s put in place by AT&T is there, because those movie and TV studios wouldn’t agree to putting their programming on DIRECTV without it. That encryption stops you from moving your hard drive, it stops you from accessing the digital data on the drive and playing it back, and it stops you from sharing what you recorded or moving it to permanent storage.

The bottom line

I know, it stinks. But unfortunately the only legitimate thing to do with an old, dying DVR is replace it. The best you can to is to hope the content you’re seeking is still available… somewhere else.

If you’re looking to upgrade your DVR or you’re looking for other options, check out SolidSignal.com for the best in satellite TV or streaming.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.