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Bigger drives for TV recorders

Disk drive makers Maxtor and Seagate are touting plans to add external hard drives to digital video recorders, which consumers can now max out "pretty fast," says one analyst.

Hard drive makers are thinking out of the box when it comes to digital video recorders.

Maxtor and Seagate Technology have plans to add external hard drives to DVRs in a bid to give consumers more storage capacity and ease potential headaches for cable and satellite network companies.

DVRs have built-in hard drives that allow television viewers to record shows and pause live programming. The products, which are becoming increasingly popular, have storage capacities that can range from 40GB to 160GB. That translates to the ability to record roughly 40 to 160 hours of standard-definition TV programs.

Stephen Baker, an analyst at research firm The NPD Group, said external hard drives should appeal to consumers hungry for more storage room. "You can run out of hard drive space pretty fast," he said. "It's a great idea."

Currently, some customers with DVR devices have to submit their box to an upgrade service to get more capacity, while others have no option, said David Barron, Maxtor's director of digital entertainment products.

He suggested that external drives will be even more attractive to DVR owners, when high-definition broadcasts become common. Those take up seven to eight times as much space as standard-definition broadcasts, he said. Current "capacity points are going to leave a customer wanting more," Barron said.

Maxtor and Seagate also say external hard drives can allow cable and satellite companies to lengthen the life of DVR boxes, which often are leased to consumers. With the ability to tack on storage capacity with a hard drive, network operators could have less need for expensive service calls, a Seagate representative said.

According to market research company In-Stat/MDR, the number of DVRs shipped worldwide grew from 1.3 million in 2002 to 3.7 million last year. Shipments will reach 8.3 million this year, according to In-Stat, partly because of a push by satellite broadcasters to promote the devices.

Plans to link stand-alone hard drives to DVRs come as the recorders are becoming more powerful, with the ability to record or broadcast more streams of information.

Scientific-Atlanta, a maker of set-top boxes, has said it is interested in the possibility of adding an external hard drive to boost storage capacity for DVRs.

Maxtor and Seagate officials said it is not technically demanding to integrate an external hard drive with a DVR. Additional software is needed by the DVR box, which theoretically could download the code from a service provider. The DVR and hard drive also must be able to connect physically. Likely interface technologies are Universal Serial Bus (USB), IEEE 1394 (FireWire) and Serial ATA.

Many DVRs in the market already have one of these connection ports, making it conceivable that owners will be able to add hard drives to their recorders with minimal effort. "It should be a very seamless thing for consumers," Barron said.

Maxtor announced this week that a DVR expansion drive it called "QuickView Expander" will be available for shipping in the third quarter of this year. The 160GB drive will initially be built with Serial ATA technology, and Maxtor will then work on a USB 2.0 interface, Barron said.

Seagate, meanwhile, plans next week to announce a program to help cable TV and satellite service providers offer external drives for DVRs. Besides offering to work with cable, satellite and set-top box companies on the technology for linking hard drives to recorders, Seagate is also willing to handle shipping duties as well as customer support out of its own call centers.

The outsourcing services are aimed at allowing network operators to save money on initial start-up costs and to move fast, said Rob Pait, Seagate's director of global consumer electronics marketing.

DVD recorders represent a competing alternative to hard drives when it comes to relieving DVR capacity crunches. It's already possible to buy a DVR with a built-in DVD recorder. But Pait suggested that hard drives would be more convenient for consumers, given possible troubles such as losing DVDs. "When you have 200GB of storage attached to your DVR, you never have to go looking for the DVD," he said.