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Apple TV is slick, but still can’t solve streaming chaos

Steve Jobs introduced the first Apple TV in 2007. The latest version has voice control and plenty of storage.
Steve Jobs introduced the first Apple TV in 2007. The latest version has voice control and plenty of storage.REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn/REUTERS

In 2007, when the late Steve Jobs introduced Apple Inc.'s first television streaming device, he called it "a hobby." Sure enough, Apple TV felt as incomplete as a weekend home-improvement project. Eight years later comes a new version of Apple TV, and for all its enhancements, you can still smell the sawdust.

The digital entertainment industry is one giant renovation project these days. The traditional TV networks, the cable channels, Internet broadcasters like Netflix and Amazon.com, and hardware makers like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Roku each have their own strategies to keep us tuning in. As a result, viewing options have never been more plentiful, or more bewildering.

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That's especially true since Internet-only TV became so appealing. Netflix showed the way with excellent series like "House of Cards." Now CBS is creating an Internet-only "Star Trek" TV series. Jon Stewart of "Daily Show" fame will create Internet content for cable channel HBO. Amazon.com will launch "The Man in the High Castle," an Internet-only miniseries about Nazi-occupied America. And Google Inc.'s YouTube now operates a subscription service, YouTube Red, that will launch some original shows next year.

Each Internet-based service requires a separate subscription. And each has a different user interface, so the right way to tune in a show varies from one to another. Throw in the complexity of a standard cable system, and TV viewing becomes so complex, we might be better off with a good book.

Apple TV was supposed to rescue us, by creating a single, simple interface for all our favorite movies and TV shows. It hasn't happened — not nearly. And that's not Apple's fault. The Internet video companies want their own pathways to our eyeballs and wallets. They remember how Apple dominated online music, and traditional record companies sacrificed billions in revenue. Not this time. The video guys will retain control of distribution, and if that means inconveniencing the customers, so be it. Still, Apple TV offers features to ease the hassle.

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The new Apple TV costs $149 for a version with 32 gigabytes of memory, or $199 for 64 gigabytes. Along with a lot of memory, it's got a much peppier processor chip than earlier models, and a new operating system called tvOS, which will let software developers write sophisticated new apps for the device, just as they do for iPhones and iPads.

These apps include decent-quality video games, like those you'd play on your phone. You can play them with the new Apple TV's much-improved remote control, a sleek rectangle of aluminum and glass with a miniature touch screen for navigating virtual battlefields..

The remote also features the Siri speech control system so you can search for videos with your voice. Want to watch a specific film, like "Interstellar?" Or a movie genre, like sci-fi? Or just movies featuring Matt Damon? Just press the microphone button and ask. Siri can search Apple's own iTunes video inventory, as well as Internet video from Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Showtime. And if you miss a bit of dialog, ask Siri, "what did he say?" and the video instantly skips backwards a few seconds.

If you use iTunes to manage your music collection, you can use the Home Sharing feature to pump audio through the TV. And through Apple's iCloud service, the TV becomes a giant picture frame for your photos.

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But here are some odd failings. The new Apple TV doesn't support 4K video resolution, even though research firm Strategy Analytics says 10 percent of US homes will have one of these ultra-high-resolution sets by next year. Rival boxes from Amazon and Roku are 4K-ready — why not Apple?

And Siri disappoints, just as it often does on my iPhone. For instance, I could search for TV shows featuring "Madam Secretary" star Tea Leoni or movies with her, but not both at once. I couldn't run Siri searches on YouTube at all. Nor could Siri find specific songs in my music collection. And why couldn't I use it for non-TV questions, like "what's the weather in Chicago?"

And while most of the big-time Internet video services are here, there's no app for the Amazon network. That means "The Man in the High Castle" and other Amazon video content is out of reach for Apple TV users.

Apple TV is certainly the best fit for households full of iPads, iPhones, and Macs, but it's not decisively better than rival boxes from Roku, Google, or Amazon. And none of them make video viewing the simple pleasure it ought to be. Apple TV is no longer a hobby, but when it comes to Internet streaming, it's still amateur hour.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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