Roku went back to the drawing board this year for its device updates and ended up with its largest product line yet. At the top of the food chain sits the Roku Ultra, and it's here to set a new standard in streaming devices.
The 2016 refresh of the Roku product line features something for everyone with one model – the Roku Express+ – even coming with RCA cables so that it is compatible with older televisions. With a starting price of just $29.99 this year, the Roku family moves all the way up to $129.99 this year with the Roku Ultra. Is it worth the extra cost?
We're about to find out.
4K adds a few non-essential niceties
Last year saw Roku finally introduce 4K streaming to its product line with the Roku 4. That trend continues this year with the new Roku Ultra continuing that support while also adding 60fps 4K support as well as HDR. It appears that the new top tier Roku each year will be where we find all the latest and greatest advances in streaming quality.
The changes this year, however, don't stop there. The Roku Ultra also added in a optical audio output for use with soundbars while also, thankfully, finding a way to shrink the device a whooping 40 percent from last year's model. Part of the size last year had to do with a cooling fan that was included, but Roku has found a way to do away with the fan completely leading us to a much smaller device this year.
The Roku Ultra is also now the only model to come a USB port for playing your own media. 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 improved
The last few Roku generations have had the same basic remote. This year the form factor hasn't changed much, but the material it's made from, as well as the button layout, have seen some improvements.
I have no clue why, but the last two years of Roku remotes have seen my battery covers break their tabs and I then have to keep them on with a rubberband at some point. This year's Roku Ultra remote feels far more substantial to me and seems to be made from a higher grade of plastic. I won't know for a few months about the battery cover, but my initial feeling is that issue won't be repeating this time around.
One of the highlights this year, and one I wasn't even aware I wanted, was the "OK" button has been shifted. On the Roku 4 it was placed below the directional pad, and this year it is in the center of the crosshairs. It is a far more logical location, although the first few times you go to use it muscle memory will take you to the old location which is now the search button. There may have been some swearing in those first few hours as I was re-arranging my channel layout, but you quickly grow accustom to it after that.
The Ultra is the only remote this year to retain the built-in gaming buttons. This does lead to the remote layout feeling a tiny bit crowded. Gaming is something I've never done on the Roku, and if it has been removed from all of the other remotes, is it something that really needs to stay around at all? Here it feels a bit tacked on to an otherwise excellently redesigned remote.
Roku continues to use a quad-core processor, and while speed gains aren't as noticeable on this model as they were last year, it still feels even a bit speedier than before. As someone with over 140 channels loaded on his Roku, getting from the top to the bottom can be a chore at times, but now I just seem to fly down the columns as I hunt for the desired content.
The one odd thing that I still find lacking with Roku is the need for a microSD card if you use a large number of channels. The speed is greatly hindered when you go to a channel you haven't been to in a while for whatever reason – waiting for a new episode or season to start for instance – and finding the app has to be reloaded because you've run out of memory. This can be taken care of with the addition of a microSD card, but with the falling prices of memory, it just seems odd that it is incumbent on the user to make sure the device has enough storage space for what are essentially such small files.
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 with an extra caveat.
- 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.
All this being said, all that advice given, if you really don't care about gaming buttons or having a USB port to play your own media, then you can get away with picking up the Roku Premiere+ which retails for $99.99, a full $30 less. You'll still enjoy the majority of the best features and save yourself some money in the process.
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.
UPDATE: Please note a previous version of this review indicated that the Roku Premiere+ did not have HDR. It does include that feature.
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