Apple TV matures into a more useful product

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Apple TV matures into a more useful product

It turns out that Apple’s streaming-TV box - named Apple TV - isn’t just for streaming anymore. Its latest incarnation, which ships this week, offers on the big screen just about anything you could previously only do on an iPhone or iPad.

Whether that’s good may depend on whether you really want to buy shoes, browse home listings or read comic books on your TV. The new Apple TV looks to be a capable device for those purposes, although it’s not flawless. Its streaming-TV features also trump those of its predecessor.

The new Apple TV will set you back $149, or $199 for a version with extra storage. Apple will still sell the old version for $69. Neither requires an iPhone or iPad, although either device can simplify the Apple TV setup process.

Apple TV has been a dependable streamer, but until now its repertoire was limited to a few dozen services. Sure, these included Netflix, Hulu and HBO. But Apple didn’t let you add other channels - say, competitive videogame play from Twitch.tv - on your own.

That’s all changed. The new Apple TV features an iPhone-like app store that lets you choose your own streaming services. And it’s no longer pushy about steering you to iTunes and other Apple services. You can easily customize the home screen with your favorites.

Video quality on the new Apple TV maxes out at full high definition, known technically as 1080p. That should be plenty for most people. Video enthusiasts may complain that it doesn’t support a higher-quality video standard called ultra-high definition or 4K, as several other streaming boxes do. But there aren’t many 4K TVs or much programming for them available yet.

The Apple TV remote doesn’t have a headphone jack, which other streaming devices like the Roku 3 and 4 and the Nvidia Shield offer to spare your family and roommates late at night. It can be tricky doing chores with a remote dangling from your headphone cords. What Apple TV offers instead is support for Bluetooth wireless headphones - sold separately, of course, by Apple and others.

It’s not yet clear whether you’ll be able to stream video from Amazon and Google Play. Both companies have competing video stores, and one sticking point could be the cut Apple takes on in-app digital sales. Other major services, including Google’s YouTube, are expected on the Apple TV.

The new Apple TV enables voice searches using the Siri virtual assistant. Request “Seinfeld” or Jennifer Lawrence, and Apple TV will look through catalogs for iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, HBO and Showtime, with more to come. You can even ask for “good documentaries to watch.”

Apple still needs to persuade developers to make more apps that really exploit the larger, and often shared, TV screen. Many of the apps now available are limited to one user profile or account, making them difficult for others to use.

It would also be nice for Apple TV to work better with payment services. You can easily buy videos and games with your iTunes account, but non-digital products are another story. Airbnb, for instance, will let you “favorite’’ places to stay, but you’ll need a phone or computer to book a room. It’s not exactly the relaxed, couch-potato experience you expect from TV.

Generally speaking, though, the new Apple TV has taken an important first step into a broader world. Plenty of devices do video and games well. With a new range of non-streaming apps, Apple has an opportunity to do much more than that.

AP

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