Echostar ordered to disable PVRs

News has just hit the wire that TiVo has won a permanent injunction against Echostar, and the judge has ordered that Echostar disbale all PVR functionality in all PVRs in the field within 30 days. As you may know, I’m a Bell ExpressVu subscriber in Canada. Bell’s equipment is manufactured by Echostar. I called Bell this morning to see if Bell was affected by this lawsuit. The tech droid I got hadn’t heard of the lawsuit. He was unable to find any corporate position on it, but told me not to worry. I’m still trying to get an official Bell position.

The potential impact of this is chilling. I highly doubt that Echostar is going to want to shut it’s customers off, so I suspect that we’ll see some sort of licensing deal between Echostar and TiVo. Unfortunately, those costs will just be handed down to us customers, who already paid for a PVR that was more than a glorified Beta Test for the first nine months of it’s existence.

Console Port on ExpressVu 9200

Yesterday, I talked about looking for a console port on the Bell ExpressVu 9200 (aka Dish 942) receiver. After completely disassembling the unit, I discovered a 5-pin pad on the motherboard labelled ‘UART’ located underneath the power supply. Interesting! I soldered a header plug and brought the cable outside the chassis.

The pin assignment appears to be as follows:

  • 1. +3.3v
  • 2. RxD
  • 3. TxD
  • 4. ???
  • 5. GND

Looking at TxD with a scope shows that it starts at 0v, and after avout 3 seconds jumps up to 3.3v. It stays at 3.3v and doesn’t appear to change at all. I hooked up a MX3232 (3.3v version of a MAX232) to convert the signals to RS232 levels.

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to coax the serial port to life. I tried sending carriage returns at different baud rates. I’ve still got to try sending a break signal. Also, pin 4 might be some sort of CTS signal that might need to be asserted. Still lots to try!

Bell ExpressVu 9200 Talks to Other Receivers?

Regular readers will remember my recent attemt to hold Bell accountable to the GPL. As a quick update, I’ve received a couple of telephone calls assuring me that they are working to get the code posted to their website. As of this writing, there’s still nothing posted. Bell told me that they would be posting the same code that Dish released. I’m suspicious that this code isn’t the latest version that Bell and Dish are using. To verify that, I’m going to have to look at the actual code installed inside the 9200. Bell certainly doesn’t make it easy to get at the binaries. My first attemt involves looking for a serial console port. I’ll leave my serial port adventures for another post, but during my explorations of the insides of the 9200, I discovered something very interesting!

As I was disassembling the unit and removing the power supply, I noticed a cable from the motherboard to the supply labelled ‘Home Plug’. It’s a 5-wire cable, with a color code very similar to USB. The cable terminated in what looks like some sort of matching transformer made by Delta Electronics. Looking at their website showed that the 9200 indeed has the hardware to communicate via the Homeplug protocol.  Googling shows a press release coming out talking about the feature, promising the ability to distribute satellite radio throughout the house, and having receivers talk to each other and only one needing a telephone line.

After an initial flurry of press releases, I was unable to find anything recent about this ‘feature’. It certainly appears that the receivers have the ability to talk to each other. Will Dish and Bell use this to enforce multiple receivers on one account having to be in the same physical building? It’s interesting that neither the user manual nor the website mention anything about these receivers using your home wiring to talk to each other.

Determining whether Dish and Bell are actually using this feature yet will have to wait until I obtain some HomePlug hardware to see what’s going on.

Bell Doing the Right Thing

As a followup to my recent posting about Bell violating the GPL, I received a followup call from Mark at Bell. He said that the issue had been sent up to their legal department, and the decision has been made to publish the GPL’d code on the Bell website. mark told me that it would be the same code as published on the Dish site, and that it should appear within a week. As soon as I spot it on the site, I’ll post a link.

I am a bit suspicious that they’re going to post the same code as posted on the Dish site, because I believe that since the original Dish posting, there has been additional work performed on GPL’d areas, such as the SATA drivers. Once released, I’ll do a diff to see if it’s indeed the same code base. The best way to tell if Dish and Bell are being above board is to extract an image from the 9200 and compare strings with the released source code to see if there are any obvious differences.

Bell Violating the GPL?

I had heard a rumor that the Bell 9200 PVR used a Linux kernel. I haven’t been able to confirm that rumor. However, I have found confirmation that the Dish 942 is Linux based. I believe that the 942 and 9200 are basically the same hardware.

Dish has done the right thing and released portions of their source code because they’re using software that is licensed under the GPL. Their disclosure, although difficult to find, is here:

I’m going to give Bell a call and see if they will release the source code to me as mandated in the GPL. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Update 2006/05/25

I called Bell after posting this entry, and was passed on to Sharaz (LXY 6009835), a second level technician who seemed to understand the concept of the GPL. He was unable to locate any reference to it on the Bell site or in their Intranet. He assured me that he would look into it and call me back.

Two days later, I haven’t heard from Sharaz, so I called back. This time I got Mark (LJZ – he refused to provide his employee number. I’m not sure of Bell’s policy, but this is the first time that I have been refused this information from a Bell employee). Mark seemed to take an interest in my question. He sounded like a bit of a Linux nut himself. Hi appeared to be using an Instant Message client to talk to the development staff, but the response he got back was “What’s a GPL?”. Based on that answer, he decided that an email to the corporate side of things might be in order. He’s assured me that he will get back to me by Monday with a status report.

If I don’t hear back on Monday, I’m going to take the GNU project’s advice and advise the copyright holders of this apparent voilation.

I’ve found some interesting links discussing Dish and GPL violations in general:

Slashdot article about Dish releasing the code

Newsforge article about dealing with GPL violations

Harald Welte’s blog discussing GPL violations

ZDnet article about GPL violations

Harald Welte’s website dedicated to GPL violations

Bell 9200 Reaches New Lows

As I blogged earlier, there are continuing problems with the Bell ExpressVu 9200 PVR. This morning, I woke up to the only problem on the growing list that I had not personally experienced yet. Error 0521. It means that the hard drive is corrupted. I lost all of my recorded shows (which, because of the stuttering problem, were almost unwatchable) and all of my event timers (which, because of the lack of name-based recording, were at the mercy of the networks shuffling around show times). I called Bell, and spent several minutes re-explaining all of the issues with the 9200 PVR, to which they agreed. They are shipping me a replacement unit which should be here in 3 to 7 days. I seriously doubt that the replacement is going to fix anything at all. Infact, I believe that the replacement shipping is merely a stalling tactic to try to delay another week or so until they can finally get all of the bugs out of the fabled software update.  I’m not the only one with problems with the 9200. I think Bell has a major PR problem on their hands, and they had better do something to fix it quick.

As a quick recap, here’s the list of 9200 problems that are known:

  • Stuttering playback of recordings
  • Green pixelization which doesn’t go away until unplugged
  • Name based recording missing
  • Caller ID not working
  • Error 0521 causing all hard drive content to be lost
  • Interactive TV features not working

Disassembling the 9200 PVR

Never one to shy away from voiding a warranty, I decided to take the plunge and pull apart my malfunctioning 9200 PVR to see if I could figure out if the hard drive had any sort of AAM (Advanced Acoustic Management) enabled.

Opening the case was easy enough. It consists of removing four screws holding the top cover on. The cover on my unit was a little tight, and needed some gentle persuasion. Once the cover is off, you’ll notice a small silver sticker on the hard drive bracket. This makes it impossible to remove the hard drive without breaking the sticker and voiding the warranty. Luckily, drive removal was unnecessary because I was able to remove the SATA cable and power cable from the drive, and plug in cables leading to my desktop PC.

Once hooked up to the PC, I was able to recognize the drive in the BIOS. It comes up as a ‘MAXTOR SABRE’ drive. At this point, I tried several utilities to see if I could detect and adjust any AAM setting on the drive. I tried several DOS-based utilities (the Hitachi utility is supposed to work with many manufacturers’ drives, but didn’t work in my case). The only utility I was able to make work was a utility called Doc’s AAM Utility. Unfortunately, this utility is in German, and my German is non-existent. It appears that the drive was recognized, but that AAM was not supported on the drive. As of yet, I’ve been unable to confirm or deny whether AAM is a feature of this drive.

It’s late, so I decided to put the PVR back together and call it a day.


Bell 9200 PVR Sucks

have been a PVR fan for quite some time. My first exposure was a TiVO series 1 on DirecTV, and then when Bell ExpressVu came out with their 5100, I immediately grabbed one. The difference between the 5100 and a TiVO series 1 is quite stunning – no name based recording or season’s passes. In spite of the shortcomings, I happily used the 5100 for a couple of years, until the hard drive started getting more and more flakey.

What a perfect opportunity to check out ExpressVu’s latest offering – the 9200. This beast offers HD, dual tuners, 180 hours of recording time, and name based recording! At least, that’s what all the advertising said. In reality, there’s no name based recording. After much hype advertising the feature as coming soon for the last six months or so, they have quietly dropped all mention of it on their website.

The second problem is that my unit ‘stutters’ when playing back recorded shows. Not just some of the time – it stutters about every two mintues or so continuously! It makes watching recorded shows unbearable. I thought I must have got a defective unit. I did some searching on the web to see if this was a known issue. Boy was I surprised. I found some good threads over at with people experiencing the exact same issue. In fact, these people had researched the problem enough to pinpoint the problem to a particular brand of hard drive.

This morning, I called Bell ExpressVu to ask them about the problems I was experiencing. After initially denying any knowledge, they conceded that there was a known problem with the software, and that a fix was going to come out to address the problem. They were unable to provide me with an estimated date for the fix, and they seemed to think that the stuttering was okay and wouldn’t affect my enjoyment of Bell ExpressVu. They were also unable to provide a delivery date for the promised name-based recording feature. I’m not happy with their explanation, and I’m not happy that I’m not able to watch recorded shows with this unit. I’ve escalated the problem to a manager (yeah, right) who will call me back within 48 hours. I’ll let you know what they say.

Update: 2006-04-17 20:37

Discussions on the boards seem to suggest that the 9200s that exibit problems have Maxtor hard drives in them. My son suggested that perhaps Maxtor’s ‘Acoustic Management’ feature might be enabled on the drive, which would definitely affect performance, and might be the cause of the stuttering. I might just have to break down and void the warranty to pull the drive out to verify if this is actually the case. I’ll post an update if I pull it apart.