4K/HDR and Dolby Vision
Fast, with wired internet
More expensive than streaming sticks
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have questions—and concerns. The Ultra is clearly Roku’s best device, but it is missing some features from years past. And while Roku continues to improve its software, it isn’t as flashy as what you get from Apple, Amazon, or Google.
There’s a certain charm in that—this is, after all, a relatively small independent company thoroughly bamboozling the giants of streaming—but a few visual upgrades wouldn’t hurt. Just about the only thing that truly threatens the Roku Ultra in our eyes is how good the more affordable streaming sticks have gotten. Is the Ultra still the best for you? Or will something like the cheaper Roku Streaming Stick+ fit the bill just as well?
About the Roku Ultra
Here are the specs on the Roku Ultra:
Resolution: 4K, up to 2160p at 60fps (3830 x 2160)
HDR: Dolby Vision, HDR10, HLG
Ports: HDMI 2.0b, Ethernet 10/100, USB 3.0
Networking: 802.11ac dual-band, MIMO wireless, ethernet
Audio: Digital stereo over HDMI, DTS Digital Surround pass through over HDMI, Dolby Atmos decode via HDMI, local playback over USB, Bluetooth
Remote: Voice remote with personal shortcuts, TV power/volume/mute, headphone jack for wireless listening
Smart Assistants: Works with Alexa, Google Assistant, Roku voice search
Video Codecs: H.264/AVC (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV); H.265/HEVC (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV); VP9.2 (.MKV); AV1 (.MP4, .MKV)
Audio Codecs: AAC (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV); MP3 (.MP3, .MKV); WMA (.ASF, .WMA, .MKV); FLAC (.FLAC, .MKV); PCM (.WAV, .MKV, .MP4, .MOV); AC3/EAC3 (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV, .AC3); DTS (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV); ALAC (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV, .M4A); HEAAC (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV, .AAC); AC-4 with Atmos (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV, .AC4 ); DD+ (EAC3) with Atmos (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV)
Size: 4.9 in x 1.0 in, 5.0 in (W x H x D)
Weight: 5.9 ounces
Roku’s lineup has been a real head-scratcher over the years. Explaining all the changes would only confuse you, but imagine if Toyota just went and swapped its Camry and Tacoma model names for no damn reason. That’s basically what Roku has been up to.
Luckily, the 2020 lineup is pretty simple: The Express is the barebones model that doesn’t support 4K or HDR. The Premiere and the Streaming Stick+ both do, and they’re very similar except the Stick plugs right into your TV’s HDMI port and has a nicer remote. The Ultra is the top dog, with all the best features Roku offers.
What We Like
The Ultra offers a best-in-class remote and user interface
For my money, the Roku remote is still the best around, and it’s stunning that Amazon, Apple, and Google haven’t tried harder to replicate it. It feels great in your hand, it can control power and volume on most TV sets, it has extremely helpful app shortcut buttons (including programmable ones), and it works wirelessly so your Roku can be hidden in a closet or TV stand and still work fine.
The remote also includes a headphone jack for easy wireless listening. Though many new TVs support Bluetooth for wireless audio, it’s still a bit of a pain to set up. If you just occasionally want to watch a show at night without bothering your partner, kids, or roommates, it’s a clutch feature.
The remote also features voice search, which works well enough (more on this in a bit). There are two things a streaming device needs to get right: the interface and the remote, and Roku’s remote simply leaves the Apple TV, Fire TV, and Chromecast with Google TV in the dust.
The app-first interface is still the easiest to use
Unlike Amazon, Google, and Apple, the interface on Roku devices is fundamentally centered around apps instead of content. Though Roku promotes its own free (ad-supported) Roku Channel heavily, when you turn on the Roku Ultra the main menu shows you a list of your favorite apps; every competitor immediately presents shows you may want to watch.
While there are times I like being shown a movie or show right off the bat, most of the time when I turn on a streaming device I already have an app or show in mind that I want to get to. I don’t want to wade through three menus of content recommendations before I get to Netflix, I just want to go there. Roku still lets me do that, both through the remote and the interface, faster than the competition.
It’s also the easiest for less tech-savvy people to use. If I tell my dad about a great show on Netflix, he may struggle to actually find it with something like the Apple TV, or get frustrated seeing a show that is on a service he doesn’t actually subscribe to. With Roku, you just go to the Netflix logo (or hit the button), and you’re halfway home.
The price is excellent for what you get—though find a sale if you can
Streaming is all about 4K and HDR these days, and if you’re buying a new TV it’s just about impossible to find one that isn’t 4K- and HDR-ready. The streaming device options have caught up, and as a result the Ultra is far from the only way to get 4K and HDR content to your devices.
That certainly makes the price (about $100 MSRP) a bit tougher to swallow, though we expect it to go on sale often. It’s still way better than the nearly $180 Apple TV 4K, but about twice Roku’s own superb Roku Streaming Stick+.
To Roku’s credit, it seems to understand that as the Stick+ and Premiere models get better, it’s undercutting its own flagship streamer. Roku’s response has been to add functionality to the Ultra without increasing the price. Though we’d like to see the old optical audio port make a comeback, the Ultra does offer Dolby Vision HDR, a useful “find my remote” feature, Bluetooth audio streaming, wired internet, and a superior remote.
If you just want a basic 4K/HDR streamer, the Streaming Stick+ will likely serve your needs just fine, but for your main TV the Ultra’s extra features are worth it.
What We Don’t Like
The interface is showing its age
I haven’t spoken to any developers directly, but I have seen some noise that Roku’s back-end software development is a bit of a pain. The interface has seen some nice quality of life and aesthetic improvements in the last two years or so, but the app designs aren’t always a complete match for what you get on other platforms.
I generally find Roku apps to be stable, fast, and functional, but things like the voice search results and voice-powered password entry work better on other platforms, in my experience.
A few apps are missing in action
Roku is a relatively small, independent company in a brutal business. Its three most direct competitors include: the richest company in the world, the biggest retailer in the world, and the most powerful data-harvesting search company in the world. And Roku is winning! Good for them.
It does mean that Roku is caught up in a number of skirmishes that can range from their entire product lineup disappearing from Amazon for weeks at a time, to more impactful things like major apps not appearing on the platform. Roku has actually done a good job navigating these issues, such that it supports every major streaming player, but there are a few recent exceptions, most notably HBO Max.
It’s never clear who is responsible for this junk, but it does mean users lose out occasionally. Certainly, Roku's major competitors aren’t immune from the same issues (Amazon's Fire TV devices also lack an HBO Max app), but if you want to watch HBO Max on your Roku Ultra you may need to wait a while or use some screen casting workarounds until there’s a native app.
The cheaper streaming sticks out there are nearly as good
This has less to do with the Ultra than with the competition, but it’s fierce out there. Roku’s own Streaming Stick+ offers 4K, HDR (but not Dolby Vision), access to all the same software as the Roku Ultra, and a similar remote for $50. Even if you really want the Ultra’s nicer remote, you can just buy one separately.
For most people, the Streaming Stick+ is going to be enough. And even if it doesn’t quite suit your fancy, there’s the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and the Google Chromecast with Google TV. They’re all about the same price (or cheaper on sale), and for the vast majority of the content you're going to stream they'll perform basically the same.
I'd still rather have the Ultra in the long run, but for twice the price the argument is getting tougher to make.
Should You Buy It?
Absolutely—it's the best streaming device available right now
Outside of some edge cases, the best streaming device for most people is the Roku Ultra. That's not a surprise—Roku has owned this segment for several years—but it's still impressive. The Ultra is fast, easy to use, it supports 4K and HDR, and, outside of a few exceptions, it has every major streaming service (including Apple TV).
Of course, you can say all the same things about the Roku Streaming Stick+, and it costs just $50. The Ultra still commands a premium over the cheaper streaming sticks, but at this point, the extra cost mostly lands you creature comforts: Bluetooth, Dolby Vision HDR, a nicer remote with a headphone jack, a "lost remote" button, wired internet, and USB storage.
Other than Dolby Vision (which requires a compatible TV), there isn't any single feature there that is worth $50. Combined? I think it's worth the upgrade, though you can get most of those features in the new Roku Streambar also, which is basically an Ultra built into a pretty good soundbar.
All that aside, this is the best streaming option. Though Roku needs to sort out its issues with HBO Max, it otherwise ticks every box I've got for a streaming device. The competition is getting close, but there's still nothing better than the Roku Ultra.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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