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At Apple, what's old is new again

With the new iPad Pro tablet and Apple TV streaming-video box, the company is playing catch-up to rival products already on the market.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook shows off the iPad Pro at the company's event Wednesday in San Francisco. © Xinhua/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Apple has introduced a new tablet, streaming-video box and smartphones that all seem rather familiar. That's because its rivals have offered many of these products' features for years.

On Wednesday, the consumer electronics giant unveiled its largest tablet yet, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro , along with an optional $169 keyboard and $99 stylus called the Apple Pencil. The company updated its Apple TV streaming-media device, adding a remote control that lets TV watchers find their favorite programs using voice commands via Siri digital-assistant software. Apple also introduced its newest smartphones, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, which sport faster processors and better camera tech but few other major changes beyond last year's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

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"While they may look familiar, we have changed everything about these new iPhones," CEO Tim Cook said during a two-hour presentation in San Francisco that was capped off with a live performance by rock band OneRepublic. He described the new Apple TV as a "simple and provocative" device that will change the way people watch television and called the iPad Pro the "clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing."

But was the news really all that?

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs ushered in the modern smartphone category with the iPhone in 2007, but the company hasn't dramatically changed the device's basic design and functionality over the years. This hasn't mattered so far, as millions of consumers have sought out Apple's devices and as Apple has introduced the phone in major markets like China. But as the company attempts to reduce its reliance on the iPhone, which today accounts for about two-thirds of its total sales, Apple is increasingly looking at what rivals, such as Microsoft, have done.

"Apple continues to face this challenge of its own making," IDC analyst John Jackson said. "Apple blew the doors off with the [original] iPhone. If that drives business now, can they sustain it? I think the answer is still unclear."

The iPhone 6S comes in a new rose-gold option and incorporates 3D Touch to recognize different levels of pressure on the touchscreen. It also has new camera tech, including a better front-facing camera for selfies and a "Live Photos" feature that captures three seconds of motion before and after a picture is taken to display a sort of short video of the photo.

Even so, analyst reception to the new iPhone was cool. Macquarie analyst Ben Schachter noted that Apple's event overall had "more disappointments than positive surprises." Jefferies analyst Sundeep Bajikar called the iPhone 6S "lackluster" and said he was "underwhelmed" by the new features.

That put the iPad Pro and updated Apple TV at the center of attention at Wednesday's event. Yet those devices include features that have long been available in rival products.

Been there, done that

Take the iPad Pro. Its biggest selling points -- multitasking capabilities, a big screen and an optional stylus and keyboard -- showed up in Microsoft's Surface tablet three years ago and have been offered since that time on other devices that use Microsoft's Windows operating system software.

The main additions to Apple TV, meanwhile, include voice navigation (already found in Amazon's Fire TV and other streaming-media devices), the ability to search across streaming-media services like Netflix and Hulu (also a feature of streaming-media boxes like Nvidia's Shield Android TV) and an app store (another feature available in rival products).

Apple's iPad Pro sports a 12.9-inch screen and supports an optional keyboard and stylus. James Martin/CNET

"The new Apple TV is an evolutionary, not revolutionary, update," analysts at research firm IHS said. "While this is a significant step up for Apple TV from its last model iteration, many of the features are already state-of-the-market -- TiVo and others have universal search; Roku, Fire TV, LG, Android TV and others have voice search; gaming is on other platforms as well."

This isn't the first time that Cupertino, California-based Apple has played catch-up. The company wasn't the first to introduce a digital audio player, smartphone or tablet. But all three products, the iPod in 2001, iPhone in 2007 and iPad in 2010, managed to revolutionize the market thanks to Apple's elegant design and easy-to-use software.

But in the past year, Apple seems to be playing even more catch-up than before. Competitors offered wearable devices years before this year's Apple Watch , and Samsung offered smartphones with screens larger than 4 inches well before last year's iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus made their debut with 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays, respectively. Those introductions ended up being smart moves for Apple, which managed to become the world's biggest smartwatch vendor in the first three months in the market. Cook noted Wednesday that the iPhone 6 has become Apple's most popular smartphone yet.

By taking a cue from Microsoft, Amazon and others, Apple could also benefit from the new iPad Pro and updated Apple TV. The tablet's bigger screen (12.9 inches versus its older sibling's 9.7 inches) may attract more business users, a key target for Apple as it tries to revive iPad sales. Meanwhile, Apple TV, which starts at $149, should tempt a new crop of consumers if developers create the apps that Cook said will distinguish the device.

"We believe the future of TV is apps," Cook said.

Even if a little copying pays off for Apple, it still raises the question about how much the company can innovate. It's an issue that has popped up since Cook took over from Jobs in 2010. This week, Apple showed that the concern isn't going away anytime soon.

CNET's Max Taves contributed to this report.