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Time Warner's iPad app is worth the effort

It may take a few hours on the phone with customer service to get it working, but the new TV-streaming app from Time Warner is surprisingly useful.

Time Warner Cable's new iPad app (originally detailed here) requires users to jump through several hoops of varying difficulty just to log in for the first time. In this case, at least, that persistence can pay off, as the end result is a streaming-video product that may be a new killer app for the iPad and eventually other tablets.

The difficult setup process stems from this: We're entering an era of stratification, or even fragmentation, of multimedia IPTV services and apps. It may have started with Web sites (such as restricting what online video streams viewers could see depending on what country their IP addresses came from; now it's moved on to a series of tablet apps that play high-end content, but only if you're connecting through the right ISP.

Like ESPN on the Xbox 360 or the brand-new WatchESPN app for iOS, or the similar Optimum cable TV app, the TWCable TV app lets you tune in to a premium selection of cable TV content, as long as you're connecting through an approved ISP and, in the case of Time Warner, through an approved cable modem (the one connected with your user account).

As a Time Warner customer for at least a decade (although I was unsuccessfully hoping for some new options, such as Fios, when I moved recently), I didn't expect to have too much trouble getting the app to work. Unfortunately, signing in requires more than connecting through the Internet access point of an eligible subscriber (although, if you think about it, that hardware lockout is really all that's needed). I was asked to log in to the app with my Time Warner Cable username and password.

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If you're a TWCNYC (as my local Time Warner Cable subsidiary is called) customer and you pay your bill online, you might think you already have a username and password. You would, in the Kafkaesque world of cable companies, be incorrect. You actually have a separate username and password for a payment system called PayXpress that stands apart from any other user account.

And, as a TWCNYC Internet access subscriber, you also have (but have probably never used) your included e-mail account, which is usually (for back when the service was called Road Runner). It's not a big deal that you've never heard of, or used, that account, because that's not the one you need, either.

What the iPad app is asking for is a third set of credentials. If you're not sure what your Time Warner username and password are, you're not alone. I created my user account many years ago and haven't touched it since. To try and figure it out, I went to the Web site and found the log-in prompt under a tab that was labeled "MyServices."

After going through several prompts to attempt to retrieve or reset my username and password, using different e-mail addresses and combinations, I ended up locked out of my account. The next step should be familiar to anyone who has ever had problems with cable or Internet connections: calling the cable company's customer service line.

I'll spare you the gory details of that experience, but the hour-long highlights included at least four transfers, one mysterious "disconnection," having to recount my phone number, street address, or other identifying information a half-dozen times to both human operators and automated gatekeepers, and speaking to several barely decipherable operators who sounded like they were calling from somewhere under the Hudson river (hopefully they weren't using Time Warner's Internet telephone service).

The standard response from all the humans I encountered was that they themselves didn't really understand the difference between the three different types of Time Warner cable user accounts one might have, or had never heard of the iPad app. In one case, I was told that resetting the username and password on my user account was simply impossible (she eventually agreed to transfer me to someone else--that's where I was mysteriously hung up on). I did eventually get all that sorted out, although the net effect was to make me long for the simplified life of a cord-cutter.

Once I had my reset username and password, logging in to the Time Warner iPad app was easy, and as I was connecting through my Time Warner cable modem, I didn't run into any problems connecting to the service. The app's reviews on the iOS App Store, however, include many complaints from users who claim to have met all the requirements and still can't get the app to work, so your mileage may vary.

A few days after I got the app working, Time Warner was forced to pull some of the channels based on complaints from the channel owners. Vanishing channels included Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, FX, MTV, National Geographic, Nickelodeon, Spike, and VH1. Within a day, however, Time Warner added a new round of channels, including the biggest one missing from the initial lineup, for New Yorkers at least, NY1 News (the 24-hour news channel is directly owned and operated by Time Warner, so its original absence was puzzling). On April 7, additional channels, including Oxygen and Lifetime, were added.

At first the app was an amusing novelty. With the addition of the local NY1 channel (and a similar local channel in the Austin market), the iPad app is suddenly shockingly useful, especially for keeping an eye on local news and weather while in the kitchen every morning. For the rest of the country, the national news channels (including CNN, CNBC, and MSNBC) will have to suffice, but if you're a New Yorker with an iPad and Time Warner cable, this is now really a killer app.

A final thought: several of my colleagues have marveled at how crisp and smooth the streaming video is through the Time Warner app. I was puzzled as well, as other streaming-video apps, from Netflix to the Sling player, can frequently be choppy. My unscientific theory is that if Time Warner is both serving up the content streams and also responsible for the actual Internet pipe that comes into your home, it's in a better position than anyone to make sure everything runs smoothly.

I'd love to hear, via the comments section below, if you've had any good or bad experiences with the Time Warner Cable iPad app or other IPTV apps, or if new features such as this would be enough to lure you cable-cutters out there back into the fold.