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The Roku Ultra’s second generation is here, which means that your Roku 4 is officially OLD AND EMBARRASSING. But should you shell out for another Roku, make do with last year’s model, or jump ship to a different device entirely? I would tell you now, but then you wouldn’t read this Roku Ultra review. Come on, let’s go on this journey together.

Roku Ultra Review

Disclosure

Roku sent its lineup our way for free so that we could review it. As always, we're disclosing this. We don't profit from our review copies or use them to promote the site. This won't affect the objectivity of our review.

Device

Here is a photo of the brand-new Roku Ultra:

Roku Ultra (2016)

No, just kidding, that's last year's model. Here's this year's:

Roku Ultra (2017)

Yeah, lookin' pretty similar. Roku tells me this one is slightly more powerful, and the optical audio port is gone, but other than that there are only two things that have really changed here: the remote control and the price. Let's tackle those one at a time.

The remote, which was upgraded nearly across the board in the new Roku line (the Roku Express and Express+ were left out), now features a power button that turns your Roku remote into a universal remote. More on that in a bit. It also has a headphone jack for private listening; shortcut buttons for some services (including Netflix); and two buttons (“A” and “B”) for “gaming,” which is something that I don't think anyone actually does with Roku, but hey, the buttons there if you need 'em.

As for the price, it's $99.99, but that's a matter for our second-to-last section, so hold your horses. No, come on, don't scroll, I worked hard on this.

User Experience

Roku has a bit of a large-print cheerful aesthetic that works well in some places but that will probably not appeal to RISD graduates as much as Apple TV's does. But don't let that fool you: Roku's platform is well-designed from a user perspective. It is the Norman Rockwell to Apple TV's Mark Rothko: just as simple, much more cheerful, and more likely to be understood and appreciated by your grandparents.

Roku home screen
The Roku home screen

Unpleasant and untroubling as it is, Roku's OS is also largely unchanged. For newcomers, though, here's a brief overview: your home screen on Roku is essentially just a grid of apps (Roku calls them “channels”), which you can reorder if you'd like. You can use the side navigation to do things like rent movies and download more apps (sorry, “channels”), but a quick click of the remote's home button always bring you back to that simple app grid. This makes Roku relatively agnostic towards which services you use. While Fire TV pushes Amazon content and relegates your apps to the fifth of six tabs, Roku surfaces your apps to the Home screen and saves its shameless shilling for less important tabs (well, and the remote shortcut buttons, which I assume came about through some money changing hands). Roku's voice search is fairly agnostic, too, and while it can't order a pizza, it can help you find something to watch.

Speaking of the remote, it's universal now. Roku can detect the TV you're using and program the remote for you, eliminating the ¢€œpunch in the code¢€ step that cost you five minutes and your grandparents years of their lives. Once working, the universal remote is a beautiful thing. It is, however, missing an input button. That helps it to avoid confusing your parents, but it also means that OTA users, video gamers, and (dare we say it) cord-havers will still have to keep their regular remote within easy reach. And, naturally, even Roku-only users will occasionally want to dig up their regular remote to change the picture and whatnot.

Roku's universal remote is a step in the right direction, even if lacks a feature or two. The rest of the user experience is pretty much where it always was. But Roku's UI remains significantly ahead of the competition's, and at a time when just about every device on the market streams pretty well, that's a huge advantage.

Streaming Quality

Oh, yeah, speaking of which: the Roku Ultra streams pretty well. It was good last generation, and it's good now. As you'd expect from its status as Roku's top device, the Ultra is the best streamer in its family. It streamed about as well as the Fire TV on Wi-Fi, and its ability to connect via Ethernet (the new Fire TV, unlike the previous generation, needs an adapter – sold separately – to pull that off) means that it's capable of being even more reliable. The Roku Ultra is 4K- and HDR-capable. It's all good news in this section, folks.

Price

We have arrived at the second-gen Roku Ultra's raison d'etre! Thank you for reading every work of this review so far and not just scrolling down here. The Ultra is the least-improved of Roku's second-gen lineup, but its price has dropped to an appealing $99.99. That's more than the new Fire TV ($69.99) and Chromecast Ultra ($69), but less than the last generation's price ($129.99) and much less than the Apple TV 4K (one healthy kidney and the soul of your first-born child).

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Verdict

The Streaming Stick+ has a lot going for it, not the least of which is Roku's great user experience. For families looking to choose content on the big screen (rather than on Dad's phone or Mom's tablet), it's a better choice than the similarly priced and similarly 4K-enabled Chromecast Ultra. It's harder to say if it tops the Fire TV, but I think it does – while the Fire TV feels more powerful, the user experience drawbacks I outlined in my review make me comfortable picking the Streaming Stick+ at this price point.

Relative to its own lineup, the Streaming Stick+ is in a great spot. The Ultra and Streaming Stick+ seem to be the sweet spots in this lineup. We're near the 4K tipping point, so even if you don't yet own a 4K TV, you might want to shell out the extra $20 to go with the Streaming Stick+ over the Streaming Stick. And while I can well understand opting for the Ultra and its perks (including a wired connection), I can also understand saving some cash and going with this model, which is the best option at a price point that is rapidly becoming the most important in the streaming market.

15 thoughts on “Roku Ultra Review

  1. Avatar Robin says:

    Great review. And you are VERY funny.

  2. Avatar Jean Morel says:

    Hi,

    As a grandparent, I am not really offended by some of your remarks, since you do explain some things in a simple manner. In my research, I wanted to know about this “new” technology, and I now have a better idea of what Roku does. I will now read your articles on how to get TV channels for free, or at least find out if is really possible to get free access to TV without having to pay the cable company for a bunch of useless channels I never use. Thank you!

  3. Avatar Dan says:

    Just got a streaming stick on cyber Monday and I love it. I want to get a roku for my main tv as I’m getting rid of cable. I don’t have a 4K tv, but probably will upgrade in the next year or two. Only difference I notice btw the ultra and streaming stick + is the Ethernet connection. Anything else I’m missing? I leaning towards the stick + to save a little money

    1. Avatar Stephen Lovely says:

      The Roku Ultra has a headphone jack (headphones included) for private listening. It also has SD and USB ports for external storage (not really necessary for most users). Wired internet connections are always faster than their Wi-Fi counterparts, so the Ethernet jack is definitely nice to have, but the Streaming Stick+ has a great Wi-Fi antenna and is a great value. It’s hard to go wrong with either, if you ask me!

  4. Avatar Dave says:

    I would prefer reading more of your writing to watching more TV.

  5. Avatar Judy says:

    Is the Roku Ultra compatible with Vizio 4k Capable TV?

    1. Avatar Stephen Lovely says:

      Yep, that should work just fine! A Roku Ultra can plug into any TV with an HDMI input (and all TVs have those, unless they’re pretty ancient). And the Roku Ultra is 4K-capable, so a 4K TV like that Vizio you mentioned would be a good choice.

  6. Avatar Judy says:

    Can I add Live TV to Roku Ultra Easily ?

    1. Avatar Ron White says:

      Does it do 4K HDR DOLBY VISION yet ?

  7. Avatar James oneal says:

    I have a Roku ultra will not operate more than an hour without overheating issue it is almost useless

  8. Avatar Joe says:

    Why don’t they post the year of the device on the box? I see several Roku ultras on amazon at wide ranging prices. which one is the newest? Why should I have to guess?

  9. Avatar Jim says:

    Hi Stephen, this is good review. Thank you for your time. Can you please comment on the addition of Airplay 2 to select 4K streaming device, which was announced on September 28? Does this mean I can screen mirror my iPhone onto my non-smart TV thru Roku Ultra?Even some HDCP and DRM video (e.g. those on Amazon Prime Video) should be able to play on Roku Ultra, right? Many thanks again.

    1. Avatar Stephen Lovely says:

      That’s how it would work with any device with Airplay 2, but I don’t think Roku has yet confirmed which “select 4K devices” are getting AirPlay 2. I know that some of Roku’s smart TVs are getting it, but it’s not clear to me whether or not it’s coming to the Roku Ultra (and which model years will be supported if it does). Hopefully, we’ll learn more soon! If Roku does confirm Airplay 2 on the Roku Ultra, then I believe it should work just as you’re describing.

  10. Avatar Tristan says:

    This generation supports Dolby Vision for the first time ever in a Roku streaming device. If you are going to review a product you should at least put in some effort. No mention of it supporting Dolby Atmos, which just like the previous version it does support.

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