Thomson Sky+ 160 PVR Disk Upgrade


I was one of the first Sky customers to buy the 160Gb model of their PVR box, manufactured by Thomson instead of their usual suppliers Pace and Amstrad. This model was significantly more expensive than the basic versions at launch, and even now it probably isn't especially good value, but at the time upgrading drives was a far less certain process and as my desire to record things always outstrips my capacity to watch them the additional disk space has been very useful. The unit hasn't been without its problems, thanks to an annoying bug (only recently fixed) that caused severe dropouts in the soundtrack of movies broadcast in Dolby Digital, but I have to admit that haven't experienced any of the various problems with fan and disk noise that have lead to it being widely criticised online.

However, shortly before christmas I started to encounter rather more worrying symptoms, with recordings stuttering on playback and, in some cases, the box hanging completely when certain programs were accessed. These events often seemed to coincide with the tell-tale pinging and clicking sounds that two decades in the IT industry have engrained in my frontal lobes as symptoms of a dying hard disk, and some experimentation showed that that was indeed very likely to be the problem.

Typically, by then the box was a few weeks past the end of its meagre one year warranty period, and as I was typically hovering at around 20% free space anyway, a combined replacement and upgrade seemed to be in order. Some investigation on the forums showed that the basic process was relatively simple, but that nobody there seemed to have tried it on my particular Thompson model so in that sense I was somewhat out on my own...

The disk I used is a Maxtor MaxLine II 250Gb PATA 7200rpm, model number 5A250J0, which is also one of the recommended drives for upgrades to the Amstrad and Pace boxes. The maximum disk space addressable by the firmware used across the whole PVR range seems to be around 270Gb, so anything larger would have to be capped down to that size. These drives aren't particularly common in England, for some reason, but there doesn't seem to be any shortage on eBay (if at something of a premium, thanks to their widely publicised application in Sky+ upgrades!) if you're prepared to import from the US. A 250Gb disk gives around 1 times the capacity of the original drive, which seems to be thoroughly worthwhile, if not such a dramatic increase as an be gained with the other, smaller Sky boxes.

Prior to the upgrade I used the Maxtor AAMSET utility to set the drive's acoustic mode to QUIET, the WVSET utility to confirm that read-after-write verify was already disabled, and set the Master/Slave jumpers on the drive to Cable Select.

Before powering down the Sky box, turn off Instant Rewind in the Sky+ Setup menu, then disconnect the various wires at the back of the unit, unscrew the three black crosshead screws at the rear and remove the top cover - it's an unusually tight fit, and you'll need to spread the sides apart a little so that the flanges clear the base of the casing.

Disconnect the drive carrier from the motherboard at the three locations highlighted in red above - the three pin cooling fan connection, the IDE cable, and the power supply. All the sockets are keyed, so the connections can't be replaced incorrectly, and the plugs should slip out without applying significant force.

Next, remove the two black screws that connect the front panel and the metal frame behind it to the chassis, one on either side, and tilt both components forward a little - there's no need to remove either one, but the metal frame will prevent the disk carrier from being lifted free if this step isn't followed. Note that the power supply components are completely exposed, so be careful with fingers and tools when you're working in this area - that isn't a huge capacitor, but it's probably large enough to cause some rude words if you manage to release any residual charge...

Free the disk carrier by undoing the screws at the six locations highlighted above. The two at the bottom left of the picture join the plastic frame to the metal chassis, and the other four, deeply recessed in wells inside the frame, connect it to the motherboard. Removing and replacing these screws was a touch fiddly, but a magnetic-tipped screwdriver will help. Once the screws are removed the carrier will lift up at the back edge and then slip out from underneath the metal lip at the front of the chassis.

Turning over the carrier reveals the cooling fan, and the power and data connections to the drive. The Molex power plug is the usual tight, annoying fit, but rocking it gently from side to side will help it to slip free. The disk is held to the carrier by four screws, one of which is hidden under a white sticker announcing that you're about to void your warranty - but I guess you knew that already, yes? Unlike the Pace and Amstrad boxes, the Thomson design doesn't use thermal transfer pads between the disk drive and the mounting frame, so just undo the screws, swap the drives over, and reconnect the cables.

While I was in there I took a look at the fan, a 52mm x 15mm device from the Minebea division of Matsushita/Panasonic, rated at around 12cfm / 25dBa. Should I decide to replace it with something a bit more powerful at any point, it may be possible to find an equivalent in the (slightly) more conventional 50mm form factor.

From here on in the upgrade is smooth enough - replacement is the reverse of removal, as the saying has it. Tilt the drive carrier in under the metal lip at the front, then push down at the back, wiggling it a little until it drops into place. Replace the screws, reconnect the fan, power and data cables, then replace the two screws that hold the front panel components to the chassis. Refit the lid, tilting it in at the front while spreading the sides gently apart, and replace the three screws at the back.

Reconnect the signal cables and the power lead, wait for a couple of minutes, and turn the unit on. The next step is to perform a Full System Reset (from the Services menu, press 4 0 1 Select 8) and wait until the unit restarts itself after a few minutes.

Wait another couple of minutes before turning the box on again, and then have a fiddle about to make sure that everything seems to be working. Re-enable "Instant Rewind", re-create any series links if necessary, and J.R. "Bob" Dobbs is your uncle.

The new drive doesn't seem any noisier than the old one (perhaps even less so, actually) and so far it is behaving perfectly. The extra disk space will be of benefit, giving a capacity of around 120 hours depending on the particular compression rates employed, and it's nice to know that I have a shiny new component in there.


January 2006



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