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Mossberg: The Apple TV Gets Smart

It’s not a “grand vision” for fixing television, but it’s a better streaming box.

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.

It seems like we’ve been waiting for years for Apple to reinvent the TV. While the secretive company never detailed its plans, CEO Tim Cook told me "there is a very grand vision of this," during an onstage interview back in May 2013. But nothing grand emerged.

We know that, in recent years, the company has pursued an effort to create its own TV service to compete with cable, one presumably to be delivered via a spiffy new device. But that effort has failed, at least for now.

Meanwhile, Apple’s device for streaming video, music and pictures to a TV, Apple TV, has languished. It hasn’t been upgraded in years, while competitors like Roku and Amazon and Google have introduced new streamers. And it has remained unconnected to Apple’s flourishing iOS platform, which powers the iPhone and the iPad.

No longer. While Apple isn’t reinventing TV or even making a whole TV, as some had speculated, it is taking a product leap in streaming set-top boxes with a new Apple TV, which will start shipping at the end of this week.

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I’ve been testing this new model, and I like it. It’s much faster and easier to navigate. But it feels very much like a first effort at a new approach. Some of its new features, like voice control, are catchups. And some seem too limited.

There are two big features that make the new Apple TV an important device, even at the high starting price of $149, up from $69 for the prior model, which will remain available. (The $149 model has 32 gigabytes of memory. A 64GB model costs $199.)

A Citizen of iOS

First, Apple TV is finally a citizen in Apple’s huge app ecosystem. It now runs a version of iOS, called tvOS, and has its own app store. At launch, Apple claims it will have hundreds of apps, ranging from standard video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, to games, to TV adaptations of popular iPhone and iPad apps like Gilt, Zillow and Airbnb. Down the road, it’s easy to imagine Apple TV leveraging iOS to offer far more choices than the current content leader, Roku, which boasts over 2,500 channels.

In effect, Apple TV has become a sort of iPhone or iPad for the TV, a platform for apps usable across a room. By making the box another vessel for its giant assortment of third-party apps and home-grown services, Apple is putting itself in a position to host programming the networks and studios are increasingly streaming, as well as new kinds of TV content.

A Cool Remote

Second, Apple TV has a great new remote that includes a slick, accurate glass touchpad, much like the one on Mac laptops, and a version of Siri that, in my tests, worked surprisingly well almost every time to find TV shows and movies. The remote now can control the volume of your TV, with no setup in most cases. And with an obscure setting on some newer TVs, it can even turn them on and off and change to the right input. (This latter benefit worked for me for a day or two, then stopped working.)

The remote now also has a home button, but no physical controls for fast-forward or rewind. You just slide your finger over the trackpad to do these things.

Siri Comes to TV

Siri works to search not only in Apple’s own iTunes service, but in Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Showtime, and displays results across multiple networks — er, apps.

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For instance, when I said "Season four of ‘The West Wing,’" it offered me the right season of the venerable TV series from both iTunes and Netflix. It also showed me the list of episodes, with descriptions, and the cast. And Siri is smart. If you can’t recall the name of the classic movie "When Harry Met Sally," but can remember its stars, you can say "show me movies with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan." Siri can also do follow-up questions. I asked for movie mysteries, and it showed me a ton. Then I said "only the good ones," and it edited the list down based on critics’ ratings. It also correctly dug up TV shows based on questions like "Show me the finale of ‘Breaking Bad.’"

You can also ask a narrow set of non-TV questions that Siri answers on Apple’s other devices, like the weather, or sports scores, or stock prices. And Siri can control playback, responding instantly to spoken commands like "skip ahead three minutes" or "pause."

My very favorite Siri feature is how it helps when you’ve missed a few words in a show, or didn’t understand some of the dialogue. You can say "what did he say?" or "what did she say?" and Apple TV will rewind 15 seconds and play that part again, this time with captions.

While Apple TV is the last of the leading streaming boxes to have voice search (even Comcast’s X1 cable boxes have voice search), I tested it against the voice searches in the Roku 4 and the Amazon Fire TV and found it superior. Now, all it needs is to cross-search among many more apps, especially YouTube.

Drawbacks and Missing Features

But there are some drawbacks and one big missing feature in this new Apple TV: 4K, the highest new TV video standard. Unlike on the new $130 Roku 4, or the latest $100 Amazon Fire TV, Apple chose not to build in 4K.

To me personally, this is no big deal, at least today. On the 43-inch 4K Vizio TV I used for testing, 4K videos looked no different at eight feet on the Roku and Amazon boxes than on the new Apple one. And there’s hardly any 4K video available, even where it’s offered, on services like Netflix and YouTube. But the lack of 4K may make the new Apple TV a nonstarter for videophiles, people with huge 4K TVs, or anyone who expects it to become common in the next few years.

Much more annoying, to me, was the inability to restore apps and settings from your old Apple TV. Channels you liked and have used before have to be fetched again from the app store. And, for those that require signing in, you have to do it all over again. Apple TV may now be an iOS device, but it’s the only one that doesn’t let you restore. Apple counters that this is because it’s the first Apple TV with iOS, so there’s no backup from which to restore, and hints that it’s working on this for the future.

Another disappointment: Siri search doesn’t work in the App Store, which will soon become incredibly hard to navigate, just like on the iPhone. Even worse, the keyboard you need to use to search for apps (or for content in services not enabled for Siri, or for signing into services) is awful, actually worse than the old one. It’s maddening.

I did find one redeeming feature, by accident, but it only applies to sign-ins, not searches. The keyboard remembers the email addresses you’ve entered as user IDs and lists them for you to spare you some typing.

(Apple does help you with setting up the box, if not its apps. You can just hold an iPhone running the latest iOS version near the Apple TV and it will fetch your iCloud and Wi-Fi settings over Bluetooth.)

And, as good as Siri has become, it feels limited on this device. It needs to work on all or most of the apps, not a few. It doesn’t even work in the Apple Music app. And it’s odd that it can’t handle all the queries that it can on an iPhone, or speak to you.

I don’t know when, if ever, Apple will reinvent TV. But this isn’t the moment. I can say that, if I were buying a streaming box right now, this is the one I’d buy, if only for the promise of lots of apps.

By making the set-top box a part of its giant app and services ecosystem, the company is moving Apple TV into a future that’s much broader and bigger than Roku’s or Amazon’s. And that makes the case. In effect, while it may not have reinvented all of TV, Apple has reinvented the streaming set-top box.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.