-Fast & intuitive GUI
-Terrific Ultra HD + HDR picture quality
-Dolby Atmos (via DD+) Surround Sound Bitstreaming
-Awesome remote with headphone jack & voice search
-Works seamlessly with Harmony Universal Remotes (and Roku's own app)
-Shows up on Google Cast, but doesn't always work
-No Dolby Vision
-Optical out might be redundant in an HDMI world
Roku, in my humblest opinion, offers the finest streaming solutions available today. Founded by DVR inventor, Anthony Wood, Roku has a growing customer base -- one that streamed 4 billion hours of content in the first half of 2016 -- thanks to an extremely clean operating system baked into affordable and cutting-edge products. Plus, compared to the Apple, Amazon, Google, Sony, and Microsoft ecosystems, Roku products feel more content-first as opposed to storefronts that just so happen to stream video and audio.
Roku was kind enough to send us their flagship streamer, the Roku Ultra. Before we dive into the review, let's breakdown Roku's current lineup of streaming players, all of which work with their included remotes OR the optional Roku App -- with Voice Search -- for iOS and Android devices.
Roku Streaming Stick ($49.99 MSRP). Compact and portable, the Streaming Stick features a quad-core processor, Full 1080p HD video, a point-anywhere RF remote, 802.11 b/g/n dual-band MIMO Wi-Fi, and a USB power cable that you can connect to the back of the TV wherever you are. Roku says this model's perfect for people who travel a lot.
Roku Express ($29.99 MSRP). The Express features Full HD 1080p video and is 75% smaller with twice the processing power as the previous generation Roku 1. Like the Streaming Stick, audio passthrough requires HDMI. Unlike the Streaming Stick, the Express features 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi (not dual band) as well as an IR remote that requires line-of-site to work.
Roku Express+ ($39.99 MSRP). A Walmart Exclusive, the Express+ is effectively a Roku Express with a composite a/v output for older TVs.
Roku Premiere ($79.99 MSRP). The Premiere takes the standard IR remote and HDMI audio passthrough from the Express models and upgrades the unit to 4K Ultra HD resolution (up to 60fps), HDCP 2.2 compatibility, 802.11ac MIMO dual-band Wi-Fi, and adds a Night listening mode, which compresses dynamic range so you can hear more at lower volumes.
4K UHD + HDR
Roku Premiere+ ($99.99 MSRP). The Premiere+ adds support for HDR10, a point-anywhere RF remote with a built-in headphone jack for private/quiet binge-listening, a 10/100 Base-T Ethernet port alongside the 802.11ac MIMO dual-band Wi-Fi, and a MicroSD port for cashing. Also, even though we're back to a more advanced remote, this streamer retains an IR Receiver to work with line-of-site universal remotes.
Roku Ultra ($129.99 MSRP). The best of the best, the Ultra includes everything from the Premiere+ and adds: a remote finder button, A/B gaming buttons on the point-anywhere RF remote, an optical digital output, a Dolby Digital Plus decoder, and a USB port for connecting external hard drives and thumb drives. Roku says this is the one for the home theatre and media enthusiast.
-Up to 4K/60p Ultra HD (3840 × 2160) on 4K UHD TVs
-Up to 1080/60p HD (1920 x 1080) on HD TVs
-4K Video Upscaling on UHD TVs
-HD Video Upscaling on HD TVs
-Dolby Audio over HDMI® and optical
-Night listening mode
-microSD card slot
-802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless
-10/100 Base-T Ethernet
-Point-anywhere RF remote with voice search, headphone jack, and gaming buttons
-Remote finder function
-IR receiver on the streamer box
-Power consumption: <4.5W (typical) when streaming
-Power input:12V – 1A power adapter
-USB port for local playback of the following media formats:
-Video: H.264/AVC (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV), H.265/HEVC (.MKV, .MP4, .MOV); VP9 (.MKV)
-Audio: 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)
-Image: JPG, PNG, GIF (non-animated)
-Roku Ultra streaming player
-Advanced point-anywhere remote
-Headphones for private listening
-Two AA batteries
The Roku Ultra is a slender streaming box with a matte-black top surface outlining a glossy Roku logo. The Ultra's sides, with rounded corners, are a high-gloss black. And, of course, there's a purple cloth Roku tag. The Ultra is approximately 50% wider than my older Roku 3, but less than a quarter the size of most cable boxes and Blu-ray players. Around back, you'll find the Ethernet, USB, microSD, HDMI, optical, and power ports.
The included point-anywhere RF remote is also matte-black with purple directional buttons, pre-configured channel buttons (Netflix, Sling, Hulu, & Showtime), and A and B gaming buttons. On one side there's the headphone jack; on the opposite you'll find headphone volume controls. Black and purple in-ear headphones are included, but they're just okay so feel free to use your favorite pair.
Overall, the Roku Ultra materials look good and feel sturdy enough to survive frequent use. It's not fancy, but functional and slick. Also worth noting: my infant daughter has been playing with our Roku 3's old remote (I use a Logitech Harmony Elite setup) for a good six months and she has yet to destroy it. That might not mean much to childless readers, but it means these remotes are extremely durable. Also, this newer iteration's matte finish is far less susceptible to fingerprints.
Grab an HDMI cable (not included with the Ultra), connect the Ultra to your display or AV Receiver, plug in the Ultra, insert the batteries into the point-anywhere remote, and follow the instructions. There's a firmware update, you log into your Wi-Fi or wired network, you activate the Ultra via your Roku account (necessary to have for channel store purchases like games, etc). Most of the apps, however, are free, but require separate subscriptions or accounts.
You can add new channels via the Channel Store OR your Roku Account. To rearrange channels, simply highlight one, press the asterisk button on the remote, select Move Channel, and drag it where you want (it's a lot like moving an app in iOS). At the end of the day, despite the slog of entering case-sensitive passwords to your streaming channels, the Ultra is up and running within ten to fifteen minutes. Well done.
Day to day life with the Roku Ultra is a breeze. Roku players never power down so it's always ready to go. The GUI is clean and you can swap in different looks. App performance is incredibly quick, with most apps loading in under three seconds and content ready to go moments later. App performance depends on the app-developers themselves (for example, the current Amazon app has this quirky bug where it takes two tries to select a show or the first time), but are universally improved on the Ultra versus other platforms.
The Ultra includes remote Voice Search, as does iOS and Android versions of the Roku app. On either, press and hold the MAGNIFYING GLASS button and speak the name of a movie, actor, director, etc. The Roku then populates a list of potential matches, followed by a list of available content, followed by where you can stream it and for what price. The Roku app also features screen mirroring so you can play any of your smartphone's music, movies, or still images via the Roku.
To use the point-anywhere remote's headphone jack, simply plug in any 3.5mm headphone -- symbol appears on screen along with volume level. Unplug it for sound to return to your audio system or display.
While ease-of-use certainly embellishes overall experience, the most important quality in a streamer is delivering high quality, error-free video and audio. Again, this is partly app dependent, so I focused on Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, HBO GO, KCET (a local PBS), 4K SHOWCASE, and VUDU, which are all wonderful in different ways. Seriously, once you stream 4K Ultra HD, it's really hard to watch broadcast/satellite/cable TV because it's SO much cleaner, clearer, and error free.
HDR is the killer app baked into Ultra High Definition. In this case, HDR actually means support for HDR10, an open-format HDR format that uses static metadata to encode content with a wider dynamic range capable of darker and brighter content with a more lifelike color gamut. Sadly, Dolby Vision, is not supported, but worry not... assuming you have the broadband speeds capable of streaming Ultra HD + HDR content -- from what I've read this is 25Mbps and above -- you're going to love the Roku Ultra. Especially when paired with an exceptional display like the LG E6 OLED.
Amazon and Netflix already have a bunch of HDR content, much of it original programming with some movies thrown in for good measure. The first seasons of 'Red Oaks' and 'Mad Dogs' are vivid and boldly colorful, while 'The Grand Tour' may just be the most gorgeous docu-reality series ever filmed. From the original 'Top Gear' hosts, comes a vehicle adventure show that looks like it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. And I mean that in the sincerest, most complimentary way. On the Netflix side of things, the Marvel shows all look great with excellent black levels.
[NOTE: unfortunately, I was unable to test YouTube or GooglePlay's HDR content in time for this review.]
Even without HDR, 4K marks a dramatic uptick in fine details for all sorts of content. 'House of Cards', 'The Get Down', 'Stranger Things', and 'Breaking Bad' are all excellent examples. Further, while VUDU has announced HDR10 support (in addition to Dolby Vision), it hasn't rolled out yet. Still, the VUDU UHD titles look terrific in standard dynamic range, with many offering Dolby Atmos sound mixes! Some titles, say 'Pacific Rim', NEED HDR10 ASAP -- it's probably the best HDR demo material today -- but others, like 'Live.Die.Repeat', only have so-so HDR while its VUDU-exclusive Dolby Atmos soundmix is hashtag-awesome. I honestly can't believe the streaming version of Atmos is Dolby Digital Plus based; it sounds way too good for compressed audio.
Overall, 4K streaming is a much more impressive leap -- especially with HDR -- over streaming HD than Ultra HD Blu-ray is versus Blu-ray. Also, alongside Google Cast and LG's WebOS 3.0, the Roku Ultra offers one of the finest ways to enjoy streaming Ultra HD + HDR content.
Technically Roku media streamers are not Google Cast devices (akin to the Mi Box or the VIZIO P-Series). Yet, oddly enough, Roku plays show up as a Casting option inside may iOS and Android apps. I'm not sure why this happens, but it's interesting because you can use this function to navigate YouTube directly from your phone. Find a video, tap the Cast icon, select "Roku Ultra" and the Ultra' YouTube app will fire up. Unlike true Cast devices, your video doesn't immediately play, requiring another tap. From there, you can select videos from your smartphone OR via your Roku remote using the onscreen app.
Unfortunately, the Cast feature does't work on other services like Netflix (at least on the ones I tried). Apps load, but nothing plays. The Roku Ultra is already an excellent device, and is unlikely to become a full Cast device, but if it ever did, this streamer would add another Michelin star to an already capable device.
With the point-anywhere remote tipped into a horizontal orientation, it resembles an original Nintendo NES control. In the channel store, there's a GAMES section with 121 "game channels", some of which offer free trials, with prices starting at 99 cents. I played one level of Tetris and it was quite fun. The graphics were clean and the game worked without a hiccup.
Fast, quick, consistent, and capable of delivering a high-end home cinema experience for those with 4K Ultra HD HDR displays and speedy broadband, the Roku Ultra is the best streaming set-top box available in 2016. It takes everything Roku has been doing well for years and improves it. Add in Dolby Vision support and the seamlessness of Google Casting, and it would be perfect. Maybe next year.
The only question is whether or not the Ultra is right for your needs...
The Premiere+ is an extremely capable streamer, but the Ultra adds a remote finder button, A/B gaming buttons on the point-anywhere RF remote, an optical digital output, a Dolby Digital Plus decoder, and a USB port for connecting external hard drives and thumb drives. The optical out and DD+ decoding are redundant in my opinion, but the USB port and remote-finder could be worthwhile to some users. Then again, most UHD HDR displays have USB ports AND you could always use Plex to stream in-house media libraries.
As such, the Roku Ultra -- available HERE at Amazon.com and currently on sale through 12/17 -- is for anyone who needs an optical out, USB port, or an affordable little gaming devices, while the Roku Premiere+ -- available HERE at Amazon.com -- is a more affordable option for those who only want the cinema-quality picture and sound.
Either way, though, you can't go wrong with either. Highly Recommended.