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Q. Can I use a TiVo with my Time Warner Cable service?

A. This seemingly simple question had a complicated answer.

Time Warner Cable employs a compression system called Switched Digital Video that adds a layer of complexity to CableCard modules already required by third-party hardware like TiVo digital video recorders.

A TWC FAQ calls the compression system "an exciting bandwidth-management breakthrough." It sends some channels to your TV when you request them — sort of the way streaming video works online, but without the usual waiting or buffering. It's usually reserved for less-popular channels that aren't likely to see continuous viewing by a large chunk of a cable service's customers.

If you rent a cable box, this change should be invisible. But a TiVo can't do this switching by itself, even after you pop in the CableCard that helps it log into the cable service, so you need to plug a small tuner box between the DVR and the wall cable outlet.

Fortunately, this doesn't cost extra at Time Warner, although the CableCard will run $2.50 a month. That's also the case at other cable operators that use SDV, including Charter, Cox and Optimum. (Comcast, the largest cable firm in the U.S., opted not to use the technology after running a couple of tests.)

But one smaller cable service, Bright House Networks, tacked on a $3.80 monthly fee for some time. The practice did not please subscribers who were already paying $2.95 a month for a CableCard; see, for example, this angry letter to the Federal Communications Commission from one Tampa resident.

Bright House publicist Lorelie Johnson said the firm stopped charging for SDV adapters in early 2012.

The finer points of SDV often go unexplained or under-explained at cable sites. Tech-support notes at Time Warner and Bright House, for example, say nothing about the tuner being free and don't mention compatibility with the Roamio line of DVRs TiVo introduced last summer. A page at Optimum's site does clarify that it doesn't charge for the adapter and even outlines what channels come via SDV, but its list of compatible DVRs doesn't appear to have been updated since 2011.

A TiVo explainer notes another potential issue with viewing SDV-delivered channels: After a few hours, you may be asked to press a button on the remote to confirm that you're still viewing the channel. If you ignore that, the channel may "switch away" as the cable operator automatically releases the bandwidth it had been occupying.

That shouldn't happen with TiVo recordings, which the TiVo protects by automatically signaling to the cable service that the channel is in use.

TIP: TIVO BOXES CAN TUNE IN COMCAST VOD, SOON IN ALL COMCAST MARKETS

One traditional complaint about using CableCards in a device like a TiVo has been the fact that they can't get a cable service's video-on-demand offerings. (One exception: TiVo boxes customized and rented by such cable operators as RCN.) But the two most recent generations of TiVo DVR, the Premiere and Roamio series, can play Comcast VOD in addition to all of the Internet video sources they and earlier models can receive.

Comcast began offering this option in 2011 but then stalled out for a while in just 21 markets. The Philadelphia firm, however, then resumed that work in December, and Comcast now expects to finish rolling out VOD support across its entire footprint within the next couple of weeks.

Cox users may also get this option before long — though long after TiVo's 2010 announcement that both companies would work to make it happen. A December report in the trade publication Multichannel News said that Atlanta firm was getting ready to bring VOD to TiVo boxes; a story earlier this month confirmed that this work was underway.

Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob atrob@robpegoraro.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.

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