As iPhone 6S launches, a new Apple TV and iPad Pro steal the show

New versions of Apple's streaming-television box and a beefed-up tablet may be just the shot in the arm that the company needs.

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Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
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Apple CEO Tim Cook with the new, larger iPad Pro. James Martin/CNET

Today was supposed to be all about the iPhone 6S .

For its splashy product launches over the last three years, Apple has turned to a variety of tricks and "magical" features such as its Siri voice assistant or a fingerprint sensor. One thing was consistent: The new iPhone was always the headliner.

That changed on Wednesday when Apple debuted a new Apple TV streaming-media box and a larger, more work-friendly iPad Pro . Both offer a striking accompaniment to the typical progression of a slightly better, slightly faster iPhone.

More importantly, both products have arrived as the world's No. 2 smartphone maker is trying to prove that it can sell more than just, well, smartphones. The new Apple TV -- that product's first update in three years -- comes as the company looks to re-establish its leadership in the market for streaming-TV boxes, now filled with heavy-hitters such as Google, Amazon and Roku. Likewise, Apple hopes the iPad Pro will inject a little life into its tablet business, where sales have fallen for six consecutive quarters.

Watch this: iPad Pro sports a giant 12.9-inch screen

It's unclear just how successful these new products will be, unlike the iPhone, which is the undisputed leader in premium smartphones. But that's also what makes them more exciting -- there isn't that sense of inevitability.

The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, also unveiled Wednesday, offer more horsepower, a better camera and a stronger aluminum body, par for the course for an "S" year upgrade, which many view as more pedestrian. This year's big addition is 3D Touch, a pressure-sensitive display that lets you pull up different menus based on how hard you tap the screen.

"Just the fact that iPhone came last versus opening the show today says plenty in my view about where Apple wants to take the business," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar Worldpanel.

But it likely won't be the iPhone 6S or 6S Plus that Apple enthusiasts will be talking about in the coming days as they process all of the announcements.

Getting back into the TV game

After idling for three years, Apple released a redesigned Apple TV streaming-media box.

Watch this: The new Apple TV combines touch, search and gaming in one

The new box, which costs $149 or $199 depending on the storage, comes with more powerful hardware, a redesigned user interface and a revamped remote control featuring a glass touch surface, allowing for quick swipes through menus. It will also have access to Siri, to help you find shows and movies, filter searches based on cast or age rating, pull up subtitles or answer general questions.

More importantly, the new Apple TV represents the direction in which the company believes content viewing will move.

The new Apple TV comes out in late October. James Martin/CNET

"We believe the future of television is apps," Apple CEO Tim Cook said Wednesday, noting that most streaming video is delivered through mobile apps on computers and smartphones. "This transition has already begun."

But the market has radically changed since the arrival of the previous Apple TV box, the all-time leader with 25 million units sold over its lifetime. Roku (10 million units sold as of last year) is a strong player in this area, while Google has made significant inroads with its Chromecast , a $35 stick that plugs into the back of a television for instant access to online videos from the likes of YouTube, Netflix and HBO Now. Amazon has been aggressive, launching both the Fire TV streaming box and the $39 Fire TV Stick .

Apple TV's recent performance has lagged, with US sales slipping to fourth place behind Roku, Chromecast and Fire TV, according to market researcher Parks Associates.

Beyond your typical online channels, Apple pushed games such as Disney Infinity and Galaxy On Fire as another feature for Apple TV and touted the touch-enabled remote control as a controller for these games. It also showed off retail apps.

"A new Apple TV will make fashion from home more compelling," said Gilt Groupe CEO Michelle Peluso.

Just as the original App Store drove the popularity of the iPhone, Apple hopes its new TVOS App Store will spark interest in Apple TV. It said developers can create universal apps that run on iPhone, iPad or Apple TV, and that a game started on one device can finish on another.

Apple uncovers new Apple TV 2015 (photos)

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"The Apple TV has been described as a hobby at Apple for too long, and today the transition to a product worthy to sit alongside Apple's other products begins," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research.

Size sometimes matters

Apple also wants to shake things up in the tablet arena. Tablets, and Apple's iPads in particular, have been stuck in a rut, and the company needed to do more than just offer a thinner, lighter version. So it went bigger instead.

The iPad Pro has 12.9-inch high-resolution Retina display, a new A9X processor that Apple says has "desktop-class" power, a battery that can last 10 hours and a four-speaker audio system. It weighs 1.57 pounds, or just slightly more than the original iPad.

Apple iPad Pro made for tablet power users (pictures)

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"It is chock full of amazing technology and innovation," Cook said.

Apple also unveiled a physical keyboard accessory and a stylus-like "pencil" that allows you to write on the tablet.

The iPad Pro is part of a bigger push by Apple to get its products into the workplace, following business-focused deals with Cisco and IBM. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 , another larger tablet with a plug-in keyboard accessory, has made waves as a sleeker replacement for a traditional work PC. In January, Microsoft declared the Surface a billion-dollar business.

"The big difference is that the iPad will be great as a tablet, but you can also add the keyboard and pencil to get more done," Dawson said. "The Surface has always felt like too much of a compromise to me as a tablet."

The iPad Pro starts at $799 for a 32-gigabyte, Wi-Fi-only version. The Smart Keyboard accessory is $169 and the Pencil is $99.

Don't forget the iPhone

Make no mistake. The new iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus are still critical for Apple. It's easy to see why: Over the last several quarters, the iPhone has accounted for two-thirds of its total revenue.

The new iPhone 6S gets an extra color, rose gold. James Martin/CNET

Apple has remained relatively immune to the broader slowdown in the smartphone market, even as companies such as Samsung and HTC have struggled. But there's a growing sense of phone fatigue, an inability to excite consumers with a sharper display or more powerful camera.

Apple did its best to keep up the excitement for the iPhone 6S, which offers few design changes, laying on the platitudes and insisting that despite its familiar look, the new iPhone 6S is wholly different on the inside.

"The iPhones you're about to see are the most advanced iPhones ever," Cook said. "In fact, they're the most advanced smartphones in the world."

One thing remains unchanged: The iPhone 6S will start at $199, and the 6S Plus at $299, with a two-year contract.

Beyond 3D Touch, Apple bumped up to a 12-megapixel camera and said it worked hard to improve image quality and color. The iPhone 6S will be able to shoot 4K video, a much higher-resolution feed that only works on compatible 4K televisions. A new "Live Photos" feature will capture the moments just before and after a picture is taken, so you can watch a short video version of any photo.

The bells and whistles on the new iPhone 6S may not blow people away, but the phones should sell well enough to provide cover for burgeoning businesses like the new Apple TV and the Apple Watch. There was no new version of the smartwatch, just a software update and word that 10,000 apps are now available.

Click here to see all of today's Apple news.