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Dancing in the dark with the new, improved Apple TV

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Last year's Apple TVs were a lot of things. Streaming boxes. Keynote-watching tools. Must-haves for Airbnb hosts. Most importantly, though, they were Trojan horses for Apple's content, means for Cupertino to worm its way into the heart of your living room. While the Apple TVs of the past were more or less content to take on the Rokus of the world, today's newer, faster, more capable model is gearing up to battle your Xbox. And you know what? It's got a pretty good shot.

The Apple TV itself doesn't look much different than before, but the remote sure does. It's still a waifish, silver sliver of a thing, except now it has a matte black top end that acts as a trackpad for swiping through all your stuff. The folks in Cupertino have been on a serious "do things better, faster" kick lately and this trackpad really does help -- punching out names and titles with a d-pad is so 10 years ago. The flip side is it sometimes feels as though it's moving a little too quickly, like it wants to be half a step ahead of where you are at the moment. And the icing on top of this squat, squarish black cake? You can use the remote to fiddle with the volume, no matter what game or app you're currently playing. Just got your tuchus handed to you? One click and you can shut off your TV, too. Despite a shift to tvOS -- a platform that more or less borrows its foundation from iOS -- the interface hasn't really changed all that much. Guess there's a limit to the amount of change Apple wanted to throw at us.

We knew coming into this that Siri would be listening in via a tiny microphone lodged in the remote. What we didn't know was how capable it could be. When the demo room was quiet, Siri very aptly found videos featuring Sofia Vergara when asked and chewed on questions like, "What'd he say?" before rewinding the video about 10 seconds so I could catch up. Turns out Siri can even tap into data sources like Rotten Tomatoes if you refuse to watch anything below a certain quality threshold.

Thing is, when people gathered around the screen started to murmur to each other the way they do at parties, Siri started to bungle requests here and there. You'll also have to be pretty specific when you ask it to launch apps -- I saw another reporter try to launch MLB's newfangled streaming app by calling it a very similar, but still technically incorrect name and Siri did the digital equivalent of shrugging its shoulders. It's tough to make comparisons based off of maybe 20 minutes of seeing the new Apple TV in action, but it does seem a little better at interpreting questions than Android TV. Then again, Apple's being a little more careful about the sources Siri can pull its answers from -- it's just Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime and iTunes.

Just like all those pre-show rumors suggested, Apple was keen to play up the TV's improved gaming chops. Demos like Crossy Road onstage didn't exactly do Apple's squarish puck justice -- it was bright and fun, but not enough to get people who actually like games rethinking what they need in their living rooms. Games like the new Guitar Hero Live, which Apple was demoing in a back room, might do the trick. With the help of a Bluetooth-connected plastic guitar controller, one spokesperson very nearly jammed out playing an easy song. Other games will require you to waggle your remote at them, though Apple -- ever the cool cat -- didn't indulge in much of that in front of us.

Meanwhile, developers like Airbnb and Gilt (I'm still scratching my head at that one) have put together pretty Apple TV apps too, and there's no question that the folks in Cupertino are doing a little backdoor wooing to flesh out the TV's software selection. As they should be. The thoughtful, fundamental changes to how we interact with the Apple TV are one thing -- it's the developers who will ultimately determine whether this black box is worth $149. Here's hoping one lands on our desks for a full-blown review very soon.

Get all the news from today's iPhone event right here.

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