Using external SATA / eSATA hard drive with Scientific Atlanta EXPLORER 8300 and 8300HD DVRs from COX

The hard drive that worked was the Toshiba PH3100U-1EXB 1 terabyte external hard drive (available right now at Fry’s Electronics for $99!) The one that did not work was a two terabyte dual drive raid external hard drive of a different brand.

A friend has a Scientific Atlanta EXPLORER 8300 DVR rented from COX Communications in Arizona. It has a fairly small amount of storage (about 74 GB, according to the info – see below), and has an external connector labeled “SATA”. I Googled it, and it looks like some people have had success adding an external hard drive. However, details as to which drives worked and didn’t work are hard to come by. I couldn’t find anything on Scientific Atlanta’s website (apparently now part of Cisco), and when I called COX, the tech said to call Scientific Atlanta myself, since COX doesn’t support adding an external hard drive and didn’t know how to do it (an uncharacteristically poor customer support experience for COX, which has usually had excellent customer support in my experience).

I went to Fry’s electronics, and they said I needed some sort of “media extender”, which they didn’t have. They said that using an eSATA drive was hit and miss. So I missed and then I hit. I wanted to report my experience to save others the trouble.

I am not customer support for either COX or Scientific Atlanta/CISCO. I don’t know if this will work for others, and I don’t know what other combinations might work. I take absolutely no responsibility for any damage you may do by repeating my experience. There is at least some chance that you will lose any recordings you have, so if that is a concern, be sure to watch and/or copy them elsewhere (although I lost no recordings). However, if you find other combinations that work, with this or other DVR’s, please post your findings in the comments below.

First, and most important, check to see whether you have an eSATA or a SATA connector. In my case, it was an eSATA connector labeled “SATA”. Look online for pictures of the difference. The SATA connectors have an “elbow” inside that the eSATA does not have. You can use a digital camera to take a detailed close-up if needed.

Second, you will need an external hard drive with an eSATA connector (most only have USB or perhaps Firewire connectors). You also need to purchase the cable to connect the eSATA connector on your drive to the eSATA connector on the 8300. Different eSATA cables have different connectors, so be sure to get the right one.

To connect the drive, first turn the 8300 off, then unplug it for at least 15 seconds. Be sure both the drive and the 8300 are unplugged, and connect the eSATA cable between them. Leave the drive unplugged, but plug the 8300 back in. It will go through its boot sequence, then the panel on the front of the 8300 will go black. You then have to wait for it to get a signal from the cable company, and the time will then come on the screen. That may take five or ten minutes.

Once the 8300 has the time showing, turn on the 8300 and the TV so you are watching TV through the 8300. Now, plug in the drive, and if needed, turn on the switch so the light on the drive comes on. Now comes the moment of truth.

The first time I did this, I got a message on the TV that the drive or cable were working improperly. I had to press a button on the remote to dismiss the message, and was informed that the external storage will not be working. You should check the cable, but in my case, after several tries, I always got the same message. Unplug everything and disconnect your drive. Fortunately, Fry’s Electronics has a great return policy!

The second time I did this, success! When I turned on the drive, I got a message that the drive would have to be formatted, and I would lose all information on the drive, including any saved recordings. I pressed the button to proceed. There was no indication that anything was happening, and the 8300 continued to work as normal. I left it running for about 40 minutes, to give plenty of time for formatting, although I don’t really know how long formatting takes. After 40 minutes, still no indication of progress, and the 8300 indicated that its storage was as full as it has ever been.

So after 40 minutes, I unplugged the 8300 again for 15 seconds, and plugged it back in to reboot the 8300. After it came back up, I turned it on with the remote. I left for a while, and when I came back the 8300 would only play PBS, and attempts to change the channel or bring up the list of saved programs did not work. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so after a little while I unplugged the 8300 again, disconnected the external drive, and plugged the 8300 back in again. I then saw a message about advanced functions temporarily not working even with the external drive disconnected, and again I could only watch PBS. Therefore, I unplugged the 8300 again, again connected the eSATA cable to the external drive, plugged in the external drive, and plugged in the 8300, and just left it alone for a while. About an hour later, I went back, turned on the 8300 with the remote, and the 8300 was working normally, except that the available space had increased dramatically (95% full went to 6% full)! All of the saved programs were still there, but there was a lot more empty space.

Next time, once the external drive was formatted, I would unplug the 8300 for 15 seconds, leave the external drive plugged in, and then plug the 8300 back in, and leave it alone for an hour.

Update for the 8300HD: I tried the same thing for a 8300HD unit. I unplugged the 8300HD for 15 seconds, connected the external drive (a different specimen of the same model), plugged in only the 8300HD (not the drive) until the time showed on the 8300HD, used the remote to turn on the 8300HD so I was viewing the 8300HD’s signal through the TV, then plugged in the drive and pushed the on button on the drive. The light on the drive came on, and I got the dialog asking me whether to “Format this external storage device to work with this DVR?”. I pressed the “A” key for “Yes, Format”. The dialog disappeared, and there was little or no indication that anything was happening. After about five minutes of nothing, including no flashing of the light on the drive, I again unplugged the 8300HD for 15 seconds, and plugged it back in. After the time showed on the 8300HD, I turned on the 8300HD with the remote, and got a message box that said: “The external storage device connected works with this DVR. NOTE: To safely unplug this device, first unplug power from the DVR, then wait 10 seconds before disconnecting.” After about 10 seconds, that message box disappeared, and the DVR worked normally, but had a lot more empty space! So, on the 8300HD, the whole process only took about 15 minutes.

Update for the Explorer 8240HD The original 8300 was replaced with an 8240HD, for high definition. The hard drive that was used with the 8300 originally was disconnected after unplugging the 8300 for 15 seconds. It was moved to the new 8240HD, and hooked up with the same result as with the 8300HD above. Note that, since the hard drive does not come on until its button is pushed, if there is a power failure, someone will have to push the on button for the hard drive for it to work again. I tested to see what happens if the button is not pushed until after the 8240HD turned on, and the only notable effect was that there was less space available on the 8240HD. When the drive was turned on, I again got the message the the external storage works with this DVR. The 8240HD has a 148 GB disk installed, and I added 931 GB (according to the info page) with the new disk.

The old 8300 appears to be confused about how much space is available now, showing a screen indicating that there is still as much space as there was before. Many of the recorded shows are still in the list, but as expected, trying to play them does not work, but rather the DVR goes right to the “Press the list button to see your recordings” screen.

Reviewing postings on the Internet, I would be careful to be sure that the 8300 is unplugged prior to allowing the external drive to lose power or be disconnected, for fear of data corruption and/or loss of all your recordings. Also, the recordings on the drive are reportedly encrypted with a key that is specific to the serial number of your 8300, so if the drive is moved to another box, you will not be able to view the recordings there.

To see info about your 8300, including info about the attached internal and external drives and what interfaces have been enabled by COX, use the keys on the front of the 8300. Press and hold the “SELECT” button until the little flashing mail icon comes on, then release the “SELECT” button and press the “INFO” button. Page forward and back with the Volume + and Volume – buttons. Press the “EXIT” button when you are done.

If you have success with other DVR’s and/or drives or have other experiences, please let me know in the comments!