Despite some ferocious competition, Roku is still king of the streaming world. Well, at least it was in 2016 when, as a platform, it beat out Apple, Amazon and Google with its line-up of streaming video boxes. So what, then, can the company do this year to win over a new generation of Roku-ites? The answer lies in both 4K and HDR performance.
At its core, the Roku Ultra is a born and bred performance monster, a trait it inherited from its predecessor, the 2015 Roku 4. It’s capable of delivering 4K videos in a blink of an eye, and it doesn’t struggle outputting the bright highlights and dark shadows that HDR has to offer. Roku Ultra’s biggest competitor therefore isn’t anything made by Apple or Amazon – it comes from within the company: the Roku Premiere+ and, to a lesser extent, the Roku 4.
You see, both of these boxes also handle 4K video and the Premiere+ does HDR in the exact same way as the Ultra. So what does the Ultra do differently to warrant its superlative monicker? It has an optical audio out port, a remote finder button, a remote with ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons and includes MicroSD support for a USB port that allows for additional storage.
Are those extra features worth the $30 price difference between the $129 Roku Ultra and $99 Roku Premiere+? That’s a decision we’ll leave up to you.
Regardless of your budgeting preferences, the Roku Ultra is a top-performing streaming video player that has the chips to process 4K HDR in addition to an egalitarian search engine that can help you track down movies and shows wherever they may hide.
You have to hand it to Roku, as a company it’s completely fabricated a design language all its own. This year’s Roku Ultra looks like Roku Premiere, which looks like the Roku 4, which was inspired by the , so and so forth as far back as the original Roku 1 design.
Given that description, you might know what to expect here: The Roku Ultra is a flat, disc-shaped streaming video box that inconspicuously blends in with all your other AV equipment. Compared to the Roku 4 and Premiere+, the Ultra is substantially smaller; it’s only 4.9 x 4.9 x 0.85 inches (L x W x H). Just don’t let its diminutive stature fool you – this is still a super powered machine.
Spin the Roku Ultra around and you’ll find a few scarce – but still extremely important – ports. There’s your HDCP 2.2 HDMI 2.0a port for video out, an optical audio out port, a 12V – 1A power adapter and a MicroSD card slot.
Combine the MicroSD card slot on the back and the USB 2.0 port located on the side of the box and you can add a ton of extra storage to your device – the USB port allows you to enjoy local videos or photos while the SD card slot adds extra memory for more apps.
If this port arrangement sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s the exact same one you’ll find on the Roku 4, port for port. Herein lies the Ultra’s biggest problem: Besides the addition of HDR support, it feels a heck of a lot like the Roku 4. Sure, there are a few minor changes to the remote (the Ultra’s comes with access to Netflix, Hulu, Sling and Showtime while the 4’s does Netflix, Amazon, Rdio and Sling) but it’s more or less the same.
It doesn’t help, of course, that both the Roku 4, Roku Premiere+ and Roku Ultra all share the same content library…
If there’s a more fully featured app store on a set-top box, we’d like to see it. Roku may not have literally everything, but this is as close it’s going to get.
To that end Roku boasts more than 4,500 channels ranging from the streaming mainstays, like Netflix, HBO and Vudu, to the obscure – there’s actually a station called “Firewood Hoarders” – so finding something to watch is rarely a problem.
For US viewers, all the big names are here: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO and Youtube and Crunchyroll, Plex and Pandora and Spotify. You can rent and buy individual movies and TV through Vudu and Fandango, the latter of which is the de facto rental service on the streamer. If you’re in the UK and decide to obtain a Roku Streaming Stick from overseas, check out Sky’s platform (Sky being a shareholder in Roku), Netflix and Demand 5.
Audio apps of note include Rdio, Pandora, Vevo and Spotify. However, unlike PlayStation Music on the , the latter requires a premium subscription in order to get anywhere. This barrier to entry makes Roku one of our least favorite platforms for music streaming, losing major ground to the new front-runner, Google’s .
New this year is the Twitter app that streams content from Twitter’s live channel and includes sports broadcasts, live concerts and video game tournaments. It’s well-worth checking out.
Before we move on to performance, however, we should spend one second talking about the Roku interface. It’s almost unchanged since the beginning and now, several years on into its lifespan, is starting to feel a bit passé.
Don’t get us wrong: the interface has stood the test of time. It’s stalwart, formidable even. It’s easy to use and content certainly doesn’t get lost anywhere. But at some point it wouldn’t hurt to have some visual flair.
It’s tough to say which streaming box is the fastest these days. Whether you’re using Chromecast Ultra, the new Amazon Fire TV or any number of the aforementioned Roku boxes, they’re all going to load videos in roughly the same time. There’s variations in the time it takes to navigate around the interface, certainly, but by and large when it comes to performance we’ve probably hit the peak as far as fast-loading times are concerned.
Now, there are two very important caveats for performance. The first is that, because the Ultra is a 4K HDR streaming device, you actually need to own and use a 4K HDR TV. This sounds silly and yet there will be a number of people who buy an Ultra expecting 4K HDR performance on a 1080p TV. Trust us, it happens.
The second caveat is that you’re going to need a decent router and connection speed. Roku (and practically every other streaming device) recommends speeds of 15 mbps. That’s not a lofty download speed in 2017, but it’s a crucial factor in maintaining lag-free playback.
What happens when you clear the bar on both those requirements? Solid, consistent lag-free 4K HDR streaming – probably some of the clearest we’ve seen on a streaming box. Quantifying how much better the Ultra is than the Premiere+ or the 4, though, isn’t easy. Even comparing them side-by-side it’s tough to tell which one’s actually doing a better job buffering. Of course the difference in picture quality is more substantial – especially between the non-HDR Roku 4 and the HDR Roku Ultra.
At a more technical level, the Roku Ultra supports H.264/AVC, H.265/HEVC, VP9 video codecs and AAC, MP3, WMA, FLAC, PCM, AC3/EAC3, DTS, ALAC audio codecs. That’s not an exhaustive list of everything out there, obviously, but the most popular codecs are all present and accounted for. The Ultra also supports Google Cast streaming – not a codec per se, but definitely a useful feature when you have a roomful of friends who all want to share their favorite YouTube clip.
The last point worth covering here is the way the Roku Ultra dissipates heat or, rather, doesn’t dissipate it. This was a problem we found on the Roku 4 when we reviewed that a few years ago, and it appears the situation hasn’t improved with the Ultra. Watch a show or two on the Ultra and you’ll feel a noticeable warmth coming off the Ultra. Stream for a few hours and the Ultra will actually be hot to the touch. This isn’t something to worry about in the short term – it’s certainly not hot enough to burn you or set your house ablaze – but it’s definitely disconcerting for the long-term health of the product.
Roku is still an exceptionally egalitarian streaming set-top box. It doesn’t care if you pick Netflix over Amazon, or Vudu over Hulu. It doesn’t want to sell you an Rdio subscription, and it couldn’t care less if you join YouTube Red. All Roku’s new device cares about is getting you to the content you want through the most affordable means possible. It’s entertainment on your terms, the epitome of the cord-cutting movement. But the Roku Ultra is probably the best device Roku has ever made – even if it’s not that much better than the Roku Premiere+.
While there aren’t many downsides about the Roku Ultra there are some that are worth pointing out. There’s no Dolby Vision support as of right now – a problem if you’re heavily invested in Vudu or you own a TV that supports the highest version of HDR – and the Ultra struggles with differentiating itself from its younger brother, the Premiere+. It also has issues with heat dissipation, but these aren’t something that impacts performance.
The Roku Ultra is a premium streaming device – quite possibly the best in existence. It has a few minor issues (see: heat dissipation and lack of Dolby Vision supports) but the biggest problem plaguing Roku’s top box is that it’s very similar performance-wise to both the Roku Premiere+ and to the Roku 4.
If you don’t mind paying a premium for the top-tier hardware, the Ultra is for you. That said, if you’re looking to save a bit without losing out on performance, your money is better spent on the $30-cheaper Premiere+.
By Nick Pino
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