Meet the New Apple TV, a Lot Like the Old Apple TV

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As expected, Apple debuted a new version of its hockey puck-sized Apple TV media player at its press show today, trumpeting new features like 1080p video playback and iCloud support. But anyone hoping for features like Siri voice recognition or a truly iOS-like interface were left wanting as Apple CEO Tim Cook raced through the new Apple TV presentation before turning to the main event: Apple’s new higher-definition iPad.

The most important Apple TV update is the addition of 1080p support…for those with true 1080p television sets, anyway. There’s even a new chip under the hood to ensure playback’s smooth, reportedly the A5 (an upgrade from the last model’s A4 processor). Not everything’s available in 1080p, of course, but what is should theoretically load and start playing fast enough — Apple’s demo movie during the press show took just 10 seconds to buffer and begin. 1080p support also puts Apple in an elite support club alongside the PlayStation 3 and Roku 2. The Xbox 360, by comparison, currently tops out at 720p when streaming Netflix video (though it does support 1080p through Microsoft’s native Zune player).

(MORE: Apple Announces New iPad with ‘Retina’ Display, Same Old Name)

Apple’s also chatting up iCloud movie and TV show support, where you can purchase a show through iTunes Store, then watch it “instantly” on your TV. But as anyone who owns the last version of the Apple TV (like me) knows, that’s long been a supported feature (as has sharing photos from your computer, iPhone or iPad). One apparently new iTunes Match-related wrinkle: You can now play your entire music library from iCloud, even if you’ve imported songs from CDs. I want to test that to see how well it works, but if it’s as simple as it sounds, I’ll offer one cautiously enthusiastic “bravo,” speaking as someone whose entire library is CD-based, with not a single track purchased from iTunes.

The new interface is tougher to gauge, since no one’s tried it yet and all we have are screens like the one above — an apparent baby step toward iOS’s flexible icons. But then iOS is designed for navigation-by-finger, not the slender silver remote Apple ships with Apple TV. I’ll probably have to buy one (I have a true 1080p TV) and play with it to be sure, but my guess is the new interface will benefit from stripping out some (or all) of the current version’s drop-down menus.

(MORE: PHOTOS: Apple Announces New iPad)

If Cupertino’s overlooked anything major, it’s the lack of voice recognition support. Microsoft’s long since rolled that out for its Kinect Xbox 360 peripheral (to much acclaim), and Apple’s had Siri on the iPhone 4S since last October, to say nothing of the scaled back, non-named voice recognition they’ve just folded into their new iPad. Why Cupertino’s surrendering this important space to competitors when it already has proven technology working on a vastly more sophisticated device like the iPhone 4S is anyone’s guess.

If you already have an Apple TV, I’m not (yet) seeing a reason to drop $99 on the new model, but if you’ve been waiting impatiently for true 1080p support or you just don’t have an Apple TV yet, you can pick up the new version on March 16.

MORE: How Apple Could Reinvent TV

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