Time Warner Cable, Roku App Falls Short of Expectations

Roku Time Warner Cable
Oliver Munday

The Consumer Electronics Show was chock-full of notices desperate to convey a sense that the future has arrived. But when Time Warner Cable and Roku made a joint announcement at this time last year about its TWC TV app, it seemed a rare example of an innovation worthy of its own hype.

TWC TV frees a TW Cable subscriber of the need for a second cable set-top box on an additional TV. Instead, the entire linear channel lineup and a full suite of VOD content can be accessed via an app that wirelessly streams through a $98 Roku 3 device.

But one year after its introduction, a trial run with TWC TV left me feeling this was less an example of the future come early than an exercise in unfulfilled potential.

It does make for a heady moment when you can literally sweep away the cobwebs that have gathered on your bedroom TV’s cable box and replace it with a dainty little purple pillbox-sized device. The sense of liberation that comes from disconnecting the white umbilical cord coming out of the wall brought to mind the moment in “The Matrix” when Keanu Reeves yanks the plug out of the back of his head.

To see the TV package as we’ve all come to know it be replicated with impressive technical aplomb by Roku is to question TW Cable’s sanity: Why is the company essentially disrupting itself? But the economics of losing an $11 monthly rental fee for a secondary cable box is more than made up for by avoiding the cost associated with maintaining those cobweb-collectors in the first place.

Spend some time actually using TWC TV, however, and you come to find that what looks like self-disruption really is nothing of the sort. What TW Cable is really doing at this juncture is allowing Roku owners to have an inferior viewing experience by letting go of some of the essential trappings of the traditional subscription that you don’t miss until they’re gone.

Take for example the fact that the Roku remote control, which to its credit has blessedly few buttons, doesn’t allow for selecting a specific channel. No choice can be made without scrolling through a channel guide; pity the viewer who wants to make their way from ABC Family to VH1. The scroll moves pretty fast, but when there are hundreds of channels to get through, the simple input of a number is instantly appreciated.

If only that were all that was missing. DVR access isn’t yet available. There’s also no channel grid in the Roku experience, which prevents viewers from finding out what’s on later. An even older relic of the TV of yore, closed captioning — which no person who has to watch a channel on mute next to a sleeping significant other should be without — hasn’t made it to Roku.

Were it any one of these faults by itself, TWC TV would likely still be hooked up in my bedroom. But taken all together, it was enough to have me reconnecting the cable box in a matter of weeks.

Dismiss all this as nitpicking a missing set of features that may well be added to TWC in the coming months, though it is worth noting that the app hasn’t changed much over its first year in action. And while there’s been plenty of speculation as to what other set-top replacements would be next to provide a similar product, no pay TV service or hardware provider came to market in 2013 with anything similar.

Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking that this is where pay TV is going: ceding the role of hardware provider to device manufacturers better suited to improve upon a user interface that’s been lackluster for decades. That’s fine, but if another disrupter like Apple TV or Xbox One thinks that coming to market with an ersatz version of what older technology delivers is going to suffice, they’re sorely mistaken.

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  1. I use this app, though reading what you wrote somehow I feel like I’m using a different app all together. Point of agreement, no DVR. Yes it would be nice if you intended to use this as your primary cable box, but that’s sort of the point. This isn’t your primary cable box, it’s for a second TV. You’ll never see the feature, Roku doesn’t have that hardware, isn’t meant to work that way.

    Points of disagreement – Selecting channels. How did you end up on a linear channel selector? At least on the version installed on my Roku XD channels are grouped by channel type. Furthermore you talk about not being able to see what’s on later in the day. Did you actually try hovering over a channel by selecting right arrow? It pulls up a full listing of what is upcoming. No CC? I’ll give you half credit, it’s awkward because TWC doesn’t provide the control on/off directly in app. It is however available from the Roku main settings. Turn it on from Roku main settings and it is now active. Compare this to the standard TWC Box and it’s quite honestly little different so I really can’t knock them for keeping with a bad design.

    Overall I would actually rate the TWC Roku app better than the default TWC UI.

  2. Guy Moore says:

    Andrew,
    You are right this app is not done well. If you want to just jump to a channel number you can’t. You have to search for what is on that channel to get to it unless you want to scroll through 100s of channels one channel at a time. You can search for channel number, call letters like CBS, NBC, ABC… Lets say you want to turn to the news that starts at 6 and it’s 5:30… you cant! You would have to find whatever is on that channel before the news or scroll forever to find the channel in the guide. The app frequently fails to authenticate and refuses to recognize you TWC name and password as being valid so you can’t watch it. Then there is the frequent P705 errors. Also another common error message saying that “The program you have requested is only available when you are accessing this video service in your home, using a cable modem authorized by Time Warner Cable” Of course I have a valid cable box. On top of that now they are switching to all digital killing the signal to TVs that don’t have a converter. converters are free now but will cost within a year!
    This whole thing makes me want to cut the cord!

  3. John says:

    I want to watch a certain channel. If I connect directly around the cable box, the audio is blocked or is in Spanish. if I use their Roku app,(I had a subscription to the channel) the app won’t display the channel. Its totally frustrating, I pay $200 per month for this crap. Thanks to the FCC taking off the air programming away from us there is no options. Then again, I can’t get the channels i want and pay for. Rip off

  4. davidf95 says:

    The problem is the inability to scroll through channels. If you have a person in your home that is mentally impaired and cannot read, the Roku becomes useless. As it required a reading ability. Many mentally impaired individuals can recognize numbers but cannot read. The TWC set top box allows quick channel changing by “numbers” or “scrolling” through channels.

  5. David Lindahl says:

    I don’t think this reviewer has actually used a Roku box with the Time Warner app, or he did not know how to access the features. It does indeed have closed captioning. Just press the * button and turn it on. It has had this feature for at least a year. The full channel guide IS also available. If you press the left arrow, you get navigation by category to what is on right now, but you can also get to the Guide right for the twc app start screen. The guide lets you scroll right, to see what is playing in the future, exactly like the cable box, but better because you can easily limit by category. My cable-box DVR is also accessible via the roku interface, but i dont need that because on demand is fully integrated into channel guide on the twc app, and you can look for shows in the separate menu from the twc home screen for on demand. Or you can search twc programming from outside the app in the roku searchh (across all roku apps). I live in Kansas City. Perhaps we have more features. I know that we have local channels on roku here, but last I checked, Rochester NY time warner does not pipe local channels to roku.

  6. Matt Rings says:

    Was hoping we could travel and bring our TWC with us on the road…sounds like that isn’t possible with the Roku app.

  7. lakerstyle says:

    I love using Roku on watch TWC. True it won’t replace a cable box but it great that I use it outside in my backyard hooked up to my projector. My biggest gripe is that there is no local programming (i.e CBS, FOX, ABC or NBC). The interface really isn’t that much different than using the TWC website or TWC app on your tablet.

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