Roku is back with its top-of-the-line Ultra, and while the changes are minor this year, they're worth noting.
The 2017 refresh of the Roku product line saw a heavier focus on the smaller devices such as the launch of the Roku Stick+, but the one area where the company realized the device needed to remain larger was with the Ultra. What it also realized was last year's $129.99 price may have been a bit too much, and now you won't see anything above $99.99.
Is it worth the price? We're about to find out.
HDR and speed
Roku has been playing the 4K game for two years now, and it didn't wait too long to add HDR support that is the current industry buzzword with support appearing last year. With support up to 60fps, the Roku Ultra can easily take center stage in your home entertainment center for years to come.
While the Ultra retained its USB support – the only model from the company to continue to support external media – it did lose its optical audio output. The Ultra still does quite a bit, but that is definitely a mark against it this time around.
With the USB port, you can play your own media thankfully with support for a variety of formats. For video it supports H.264/AVC (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV), H.265/HEVC (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV); VP9 (.MKV) and for audio you'll find 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). If you want to show off your photos, you can display JPG, PNG and GIF, but alas, no animated GIFs.
The Remote as Product Seller
Last year I noted in my review that that 2014 and 2015 models had both battery cover issues resorting to me having to keep them on with rubber bands. I can thankfully report this didn't happen with the 2016 model, but if you dropped it at all the cover would fly off and the batteries spill out.
The remote has again been redesigned for 2017, and it feels even better and more substantial than last year's version. With that weight also comes the new ability to control your television's power and volume. Finally, thanks to advances in HDMI you can stop digging for the television remote to control the most basic of TV functions.
Button wise, the remote has also received a bit of a makeover. They're now chunkier and are easier to identify under your thumb without looking. This is easily the best remote Roku has included to date, and all of the changes are very welcome.
The only drawback is the gaming buttons still exist. While I'm sure there are some people who play games on their Roku, with the Ultra being the only model for two years running to include them, you have to imagine the market is fairly small. For your average user, they are going to feel like a waste of real estate.
The speed just keeps improving
Roku continues to use a quad-core processor, and the speed gains are noticeable this year. You just fly through navigating the apps on your Roku, and when you have over 150 channels installed as I do – such as the TechnoBuffalo Roku channel – it's very welcome.
A microSD is still required if you have a significant number of channels, and that is a tad annoying. Every year memory prices continue to decline, but yet Roku still relies on you to expand the memory on top of the player's price. It's a small annoyance, but an annoyance all the same.
To Buy or Not to Buy
Suggesting whether or not you should purchase the Roku Ultra is a tough call while also being oddly easy. It is essentially the exact same advice I gave last year.
- Have a Roku, but no 4K TV – You can definitely wait until such time as you do have one of those sets.
- First Roku, but no 4K TV – I would still recommend picking up the Roku Ultra as you will be future proofing yourself for when you may pick up one down the road.
- 4K TV, but no set-top box/want to switch to Roku – The Roku has been the best in class of streaming devices for years now, and the Roku Ultra only improves things that much more.
In short, it is really going to be based on what equipment you already own or plan to purchase in the near future. About the only people we don't recommend it for is someone who has a Roku already and no 4K TV. Except for that sub-category of consumers, the Roku Ultra is a great device to have so that you can enjoy all of the streaming options out there in the world.
At the new $99.99 price point, it's an easy recommendation unless you have a fairly recent Roku. There is just not enough reason here to upgrade. If you're looking to jump into Roku, then go for it.
Disclaimer: Roku sent us a review unit of the Roku Ultra. We used it as our primary streaming device for a week before beginning this review.
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