Roku Ultra (2019) review: Fast, flexible, fun

The new Roku Ultra takes what we love about Roku and makes it better and faster

Roku Ultra (2019) review: Fast, flexible, fun

“The new Roku Ultra makes what we've always loved about Roku better and faster.”
  • Fast performance
  • Easily customizable buttons
  • Helpful content Zones
  • Low price
  • No Dolby Vision HDR
  • Spotty Dolby Atmos support

Roku’s Ultra streaming media player is the company’s flagship. It’s been updated for 2019 with new software, faster performance, and the ability to customize the remote control. These changes make it the best Roku yet. There’s still room for improvement, but the Ultra is a top-notch choice for media streaming.

One (and) two small changes

On the outside, the new Roku Ultra is virtually identical to its predecessor. The familiar rounded-square shape continues, as does the USB port for personal media, and the microSD card slot for expanded channel storage. Sitting atop the player is the handy remote-finder button, something we think more streaming media players should offer.

Unlike programmable macro buttons on other remote controls, the Roku’s buttons are a cinch to customize

Speaking of the remote, this is where you’ll find the one visible change for 2019. Along with the usual Roku layout of buttons — still one of the best in the business — you’ll find two new buttons, simply labeled 1 and 2. These are the new customizable shortcut buttons.

Unlike programmable macro buttons on other remote controls, the Roku’s buttons are a cinch to customize. Simply press the mic button to speak a voice command, then press and hold either the 1 or 2 buttons until you hear a confirmation beep. Your voice command has been memorized and can be recalled with just a press.

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I love how simple it is, but the lack of a visible indication of what the new shortcut buttons do makes it a lot less friendly for anyone who wasn’t in the room when you programmed them. Don’t be surprised if someone else in the family decides your obsession with Martin Scorcese movies doesn’t deserve the shortcut button treatment.

The Roku Ultra comes with a pair of JBL-branded wired earbuds for use with the Roku remote’s built-in headphone jack, or on your mobile device using the free Roku app. Sound quality is on par with Apple EarPods, which isn’t great, but is adequate for most TV shows and movies. Private listening is a genius feature, and I’m sure it has saved more than one relationship since it debuted.

No waiting

I’ve been using Roku devices for several generations. While I’ve never thought of them as particularly slow, the new Roku Ultra is much faster than previous Rokus. The initial setup is fast and efficient, especially if you already have a Roku account. If you don’t, it’s easy to create one.

Speed improvements can be felt throughout … channels launch almost instantly, search results appear in a flash

My favorite part, however, is the end. The Ultra screens a welcome video that takes you through all of the device’s key features in less than a minute. It’s fun, and means you can ignore the quick setup guide. Just like the remote finder feature, all streaming video gadgets should have a similar welcome video. It’s a no-brainer. The new Tips & Tricks channel contains many more just like it, each dedicated to a specific Roku feature.

The performance boost can be felt throughout the interface. Channels launch instantly, search results appear in a flash, and when the Featured Free section finds a movie in an app you don’t yet have loaded, seconds later, it’s there and you’re streaming.

Some of this can be attributed to the new 9.2 version of Roku OS, which is optimized for speed, but new Roku Ultra’s faster processor deserves plenty of credit.

Super software

Roku OS 9.2 brings with it great enhancements, like the 4K Spotlight channel, which filters movies by whether or not they’re available in Ultra HD resolution. There’s also a new Zones feature which helps you get more out of searching for content. Start typing your search (or use your voice) and you’ll see relevant Zones appear in the results. Depending on what you’re looking for, these could include topics like superheroes, mysteries, thrillers, or even movie-specific suggestions, like Harry Potter.

roku ultra 2019 review zones grid

Zones behave like sub-categories, giving you a chance to see more theme-related content.  These will be familiar if you’ve ever used Netflix. They’re helpful as a way to browse content, but for some reason Roku doesn’t promote them from the main navigation menu. The only way to find them is to search for “zones.” It feels like a missed opportunity.

You can now use your voice to do more things on Roku, like set sleep timers, search for personal media content, and get Roku to find a movie for you based on a famous line of dialog. It’s a bit silly to ask, “Who said ‘I’ll be back’?” but given that the Roku database has thousands of such one-liners, you’ll be tempted to see what comes up.

Still missing in action

As Roku’s top-of-the-line media streamer, you would expect the Roku Ultra to offer nothing less than the best streaming experience. It does — for the most part. It’s still missing support for Dolby Vision, and while that wasn’t a big deal in 2017 when the Ultra had its last major update, it’s more concerning today.

Without getting into the HDR weeds (we have a full Dolby Vision explainer if you want to go deep), there’s two basic kinds of HDR: Static and Dynamic. Dynamic HDR is better, and Dolby Vision is currently the most popular dynamic HDR format. Netflix uses it, Amazon Prime Video uses it, and when Apple TV+ and Disney+ launch, they will use it too. Many popular brands of Ultra HD 4K TVs are Dolby Vision compatible, and so are many of Roku’s streaming device competitors. Even some Roku TVs support Dolby Vision.  So, why doesn’t Roku’s best player support it?

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Roku hasn’t said, so I’ll hazard a guess: Cost. Dolby Labs charges companies like Roku to include Dolby Vision support via licensing fees and hardware requirements. Perhaps Roku isn’t interested in raising the price of the $100 Ultra to cover the extra fees. Whatever the case is, there’s no escaping the fact that you can enjoy Dolby Vision (and HDR10+) on a $50 Amazon Fire TV Streaming Stick 4K, or a $70 Chromecast Ultra. These devices lack many of the Roku Ultra’s features, but they’ll win in image quality when connected to an HDR television.

The Ultra also suffers spotty availability of Dolby Atmos. The Ultra can pass-through Dolby Atmos when it receives it, but not every channel provides Atmos in the first place. Netflix, for instance, which delivers Dolby Atmos on select titles to the Apple TV 4K, does not provide it to the Ultra (or indeed, to any Roku device).  When we asked Roku’s representative to provide a list of channels that support Dolby Atmos on the Ultra, only Amazon Prime Video and Vudu were offered as examples.

Our Take

The new Roku Ultra takes what we’ve always loved about Roku and makes it better and faster. Roku’s OS 9.2 software takes full advantage of the Ultra’s speed, offering up new ways to find the content you want — from what remains the largest selection of streaming sources of any platform. You may not remember what you programmed the customizable remote buttons to do, but changing their actions is as easy as talking. We wish the Ultra had Dolby Vision support and more ways to get Dolby Atmos content, but all things considered, it’s still $100 well spent.

Is there a better alternative?

For the Ultra’s $100 price tag, there isn’t a media streamer out there that combines its impressive speed, selection of content, and universal search. However, if you prioritize audio and video quality above all else, the Apple TV 4K provides Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and others — for $80 more. If budget is your biggest concern, Roku’s own $60 Streaming Stick+ will give you a healthy number of the Ultra’s features at significant savings.

Still not sure what to buy? Check out our round-up of our favorite streaming devices.

How long will it last?

The Roku Ultra hardware should last as long as you need it to, provided you don’t abuse the box or its remote control. We’re guessing you’ll be tempted to upgrade by new features and new hardware, long before the Ultra stops working.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The new Roku Ultra delivers superb value in a media streamer.

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