Roku Ultra (2019) review: Ultra convenience extras but not the ultimate high-end streamer
Roku has moved away from traditional set-top boxes in recent years, preferring to release tiny sticks and players for all but its most expensive model. The 2019 Ultra keeps the set-top aesthetic alive and is virtually identical in appearance to the previous version.
At $100, the Roku Ultra is the most expensive player in Roku's lineup, so what does it offer that the $60 Streaming Stick Plus doesn't? Its extra features are mostly remote-orientated, and include a remote finder, a headphone jack and a pair of keys that let you program your own shortcuts. It's also a hair faster at launching apps.
For most buyers those additions aren't worth the extra money over the over the Streaming Stick Plus, which remains our favorite Roku player overall. If you have the Ultra already, the claimed 17 percent speed benefits over the previous generation are not worth the upgrade -- you'll barely notice the difference.
And then there's the non-Roku competition. The Ultra lacks compatibility with Dolby Vision HDR, a format available on most newer mid- and high-end 4K TVs (Samsung excepted) and found on the Apple TV 4K ($180), the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K ($50) and the new Fire TV Cube ($120). On most TVs we've tested, Dolby Vision doesn't provide much, if any, image quality boost over "regular" HDR (also known as HDR10), but many high-end buyers still want it. That's why the Apple TV 4K remains our top choice for those buyers.
Ultimately, the Roku Ultra is stuck between two extremes. The Streaming Stick Plus is pretty much half the price yet almost as good. The Apple TV 4K is more appealing to high-end TV owners who want the most capable streamer, period. The Roku Ultra is a great choice if you're a Roku lover who don't mind paying extra for its convenience features, but otherwise go with one of the many excellent alternatives.
The box that can find the clicker
The Roku Ultra is a little larger than a drink coaster at 4.9 inches square, and with its a roughly textured top it could hold drinks I suppose (also: don't do that). There's an actual a button on that very top which you can use to find misplaced remotes. Press the finder switch and your remote will chirp or play music (you can select from a few audio clips in Roku's menu) until you activate one of its buttons.
The front and sides are a glossy black, but its looks aren't as important because you can place it anywhere -- the remote control isn't reliant on line of sight.
On the back and sides you will find a number of ports including HDMI 2.0a and Ethernet (which may aid people with spotty Wi-Fi). For storage purposes it's worth noting the device includes microSD (which helps bolster the onboard RAM) as well as a USB port for reading media drives via the Roku Media Player app.
'What about that remote?'
From a coffee-table-length away it looks the same as other Roku clickers with its purple-and-black livery. But up close you'll see the subtle difference -- there are two programmable shortcut buttons underneath the playback buttons, labeled "1" and "2." (And before you ask, none of the four app-based shortcut keys can be modified; the remote pictured above is stuck with Netflix, ESPN Plus, Hulu and Sling TV for example).
The Ultra's remote lets you save pretty much any voice command on one of those two shortcut buttons. It worked very well. I performed a voice search, then saved it by long-pressing the button; pressing it again brings up the same search result, time after time. With a news term like "impeachment," it served up relevant clips (though not channels or programs). I said "Disney Now" and it launched the channel. Roku says any voice command can become a shortcut.
Otherwise it's a standard Roku voice remote. It's really good at searches for streaming services, actors, movies or even famous quotes. The voice search works well although, as always with Roku, it defaults back to the home-screen search -- even when you search for a program within a particular app. And of course, don't expect it to answer general questions, provide a weather report, control smart home devices or do any of the other myriad tasks you get with a true voice assistant like Alexa (available on Fire TV), Google Assistant (Android TV) or Siri (Apple TV).
At the moment the remote is only available with the Ultra, but we look forward to the day it's available on its own.
The player comes with a set of "premium JBL headphones", but let's be honest: you're going to lose those earbuds down the back of your couch before you even open the box. If and when you do, know that the remote can power another pair of cans pretty well. I used a set of Beyerdynamic DT 770 Studios that were lying around, and it drove them to satisfying levels. Video was also pleasingly in sync with the remote's audio.
This is a 4K-resolution-toting stick with support for High Dynamic Range content, so it will handle HDR10 from streaming from services like Netflix , Amazon Prime and Vudu. Meanwhile, both Apple TV 4K and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K offer Dolby Vision.
On the audio side, the Roku will output Dolby Atmos via the HDMI port, but unfortunately it doesn't support Atmos on Netflix. You'll need an Apple TV 4K, an Xbox One or your Atmos-capable TV's built-in Netflix app for that.
The need for speed
Based on our tests, the Roku Ultra is indeed zippier than the previous version, but unless you run them side by side the difference will be hard to notice. The reason? The previous Ultra is already pretty fast -- for example, I clocked it at a loading time of 3 seconds on Netflix. So given that, I put the two boxes plus the Streaming Stick Plus through three different and common loading tests to see how they'd compare.
Loading times compared
|Streaming Stick Plus
Roku claimed that the new Ultra is 17 percent faster than the old model, and this mostly bears out -- 14 percent difference when loading YouTube and 30 percent when loading Netflix. But, put into context, the difference between two and three seconds isn't really worth going out and spending another $100 for. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the Streaming Stick Plus and the old Ultra turned in similar times.
I watched a number of different programs and found that image quality, while dependent on the source, was very good. On an LG C9 OLED, the opening scenes of Lost in Space brought back some golden, lens flare memories of the Star Trek remake. In a good way. Whether it was sci-fi or the low-budget, in-your face Between Two Ferns: The Movie, the Roku managed to extract the right amount of detail, color and contrast. Sure, there was some noticeable banding on a couple of shots from Zach Galifianakis' road movie, which I didn't see when watching on a 1080p plasma and a Roku Premiere . It's likely a source issue, and if you want reference quality buy a good 4K Blu-ray player instead. Streaming over the internet is by necessity a compressed medium.