After years of sticking customers with clunky, ugly remote controls, television providers are suddenly infatuated with Apple's iPad. Cable companies, telcos, and satellite services are invading the iOS App Store with their creations, letting users take control of their televisions with touchscreens either from the couch or from afar.
But not all iPad TV apps are created equal. Some have limited or nonexistent DVR capabilities. Others lack the full range of commands found on a traditional remote control. And when it comes to watching TV shows on the iPad itself, television providers are standing on shaky ground. Time Warner Cable, for instance, is taking three networks to court over the right to stream shows to tablets, and Verizon, which previewed an iPad app with live TV last August, eventually released an app without the live-streaming feature.
The nature of the subscription-TV business means you can't take your pick of any iPad TV app, but you may have a choice between cable, satellite, or telco. So let's take a closer look at all of these apps (click the chart above to view it full-size), and find out how they compare.
Cox Mobile Connect
Cox Mobile Connect, compatible with Cox Advanced TV and Cox Digital Telephone services, lets users view television listings, schedule a DVR, and change channels with a little virtual remote. Next to the competition this app is pretty ugly, and the only standout feature is the ability to hear and manage voice messages if you're also a Cox telephone subscriber, but it gets the job done for a few basic tasks.
Dish Remote Access
The Dish Remote Access app is the only one here that can stream DVR content and live television. It's also the only app that allows access outside the home over Wi-Fi or 3G. But neither feature is available without a Slingloaded DVR at home. In that sense, Dish's app mirrors the functionality of Slingplayer Mobile, an app that costs Slingbox owners $30.
Without a Slingloaded DVR, Dish app users can still control their televisions with a full-featured virtual remote, view TV listings, and schedule a DVR and manage existing recordings, making this app a solid remote-control replacement.
DirecTV App for iPad
What the DirecTV iPad app lacks in features, it makes up for with a slick interface. Users can't watch TV on the tablet or manage existing recordings, but they can schedule the DVR, select channels to watch, and use a virtual remote control. The app also includes preset channel categories and a customizable list of favorite channels, all of which appear as vertical panels running across the screen. DirecTV's app has a customizable sports section for keeping track of favorite teams and jumping between games, perfect for premium sports packages with lots of games happening at once.
Verizon FiOS Mobile
Last August, Verizon showed off an iPad app that would let users watch live TV on their tablets--but when the app arrived in December, the streaming feature was nowhere to be found, and Verizon had nothing to say about it. What's left of Verizon FiOS Mobile is an app that lets users jump to channels, schedule a DVR, and operate a virtual remote. It's a serviceable app, but it's also a letdown after last summer's promises.
Optimum for iPad
Cablevision's Optimum for iPad app has the best streaming options that don't require a DVR. Users can watch any channel to which they subscribe directly on the tablet (so long as they are behind their Optimum modem), and they can select from a list of on-demand content. The only thing missing is streaming from a DVR.
The Optimum app includes DVR scheduling and management, as well as the ability to set a list of favorite channels for the on-app TV guide, but so far it has no virtual remote control.
TiVo, of course, is not a television provider, but it's worth considering here because it's an upgrade option available from some cable companies, allowing you to replace your set-top box. Cable services such as Comcast, Cox, and RCN all offer TiVo as an upgrade. Of course, cable customers can also choose to replace their existing cable box with a TiVo DVR and CableCards.
The TiVo iPad app does not offer live or on-demand streaming, although TiVo reportedly has been asking customers how they would feel about such features. For now the app is just another DVR manager and channel selector, providing a virtual remote, favorite channels, and the ability to comment about movies and shows on Facebook or Twitter. Welcome to the social sphere, TiVo, but let's see live streaming soon.
The Time Warner Cable iPad app is a drama queen. First, it made a splash by offering a bunch of TV channels for live streaming. It stole headlines again when several channels were removed on the request of disgruntled networks. Now, Time Warner Cable is taking those networks to court, seeking a decision on whether its existing carrier agreements allow for live streaming.
Hanging on to those channels is important for Time Warner Cable, because the TWCable TV iPad app serves no purpose aside from streaming live TV. The app offers no on-demand content, no DVR functions, no channel guide, and no virtual remote. The drama distracts from the fact that, aside from providing an extra screen for watching live TV, this app is kind of lame.
AT&T U-Verse Mobile
Although AT&T allows U-Verse subscribers to watch live TV on the iPhone, that feature is not available on the iPad due to "contractual obligations." Instead, the U-Verse iPad app serves as a DVR manager and programming guide, with the ability to create a list of favorite shows and channels. The lack of a virtual remote or any other ability to control television playback holds this app back from greatness.
Lucky iPhone users can manage a DVR and even download (via Wi-Fi) TV shows from a "mobile library" for playback on the iPhone.
Comcast Xfinity TV
The Comcast Xfinity iPad app is unique in that it offers only on-demand videos for streaming, including material from premium channels such as HBO, Showtime, and Starz. It provides neither live TV nor DVR playback on the tablet. Set-top box controls are a standard mix of TV listings, DVR scheduling, and channel changing, but you'll find no virtual remote just yet.
This app will work only on Wi-Fi networks (Comcast recommends using a "strong" Wi-Fi signal) on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. An Android version of the app is also available; the only notable difference, according to Comcast's official description, is that the Android version does not require Wi-Fi for on-demand viewing and can work on 3G Internet connections.