Roku Ultra Streaming Player
AT A GLANCE
Excellent 4K HDR picture and sound quality
Optical audio output for full Dolby Digital Plus surround sound
Agnostic voice search finds movies/TV shows on most streaming channels
Playback control for music and slideshows is awkward
Doesn’t play Dolby Atmos from Vudu
Roku has once again upped the streaming game by including HDR and more in its highly recommendable Ultra 4K media player.
Continuing to up their game, Roku has introduced new products that add HDR (high dynamic range) to 4K streaming while maintaining their anyone-can-use-it simple menu structure. A slew of new models range from the Express player to a new top-of-the-line player, the Ultra. While both the Premiere+ and the Ultra support 4K and HDR (the standard 4K Premiere lacks HDR), the Ultra has a few more features for those who insist on the best picture and sound, and more. It’s proof of how far the streaming player has come from the low-quality picture of its first generation.
Once you establish a Roku account, channels will quickly transfer to the Ultra during setup. After I signed in on my iPhone’s web browser, it took less than 10 minutes to load 127 channels. During the sign-in process, Roku suggested various channels to add, such as Showtime, the Weather Channel, MLB, and NHL. Surprisingly, the next screen provided a one-tap link to my Amazon account for Amazon Instant Video. Most other subscription channels offered a code that could be input on their websites for activation, to avoid using the dreaded onscreen keyboard for logins.
Actually, I never had to use the onscreen keyboard anyway, since the Roku Mobile App for iPhone (and Android) uses the phone’s keyboard instead. More than just a remote control, the app can access the Roku channel store to add new channels, and it can cast media from the phone.
The app also includes a “Play on Roku” function to immediately show photos via the Ultra. In addition to your phone’s gallery, it can access anything you’ve stored in other photo apps, such as Instagram, Hydra, PicsArt, Snapseed, and Sony’s PlayMemories Mobile. With a tap, I added music to the slideshow by choosing one of my iTunes play- lists. While it was easy to start the slideshow, I had to switch screens between controlling the music and controlling the slideshow.
The Roku app adds voice search and private listening through headphones connected to your phone, but the Ultra’s remote control has its own built-in microphone and headphone jack. Four direct channel buttons on the remote—Netflix, Sling TV, Hulu, and Showtime—help create a complete streaming experience. (Lest Roku be accused of playing favorites, the remote for the Premiere+ model has an HBO Now button instead of Showtime.) Like the now discontinued Roku 4, the Ultra has a remote finder button atop the unit to make the remote beep, for those times when it slips between the sofa cushions.
Voice search on the remote finds channels as well as movies and TV shows by title, favorite actor, and so on. Unlike other streaming devices that favor the company’s own streaming app—think Apple TV and iTunes, or Fire TV and Amazon Instant Video—the Roku search is agnostic and includes results from dozens of channels. Searching for the TV show Once Upon a Time, I got results on seven different channels, from Hulu to Fandango to ABC. With a few exceptions, the voice search understood me.
Roku’s Follow feature debuted in 2015 to help keep track of TV shows and movie titles when they become available to stream. As I write this, the most recent season of The Amazing Race has yet to premiere online, but rather than checking for it every week, I’ll be notified. Each time an episode is added to Hulu, a network channel, or some other outlet, I’ll receive an alert in the Roku app and on the Ultra’s “My Feed” screen.
While the app and the platform work with all the new Roku models, the Ultra has a few additional hardware features for best performance. To help users who don’t have a fast wireless router or simply demand the best network connection, Roku brought back an Ethernet port for better streaming reliability (10/100 Base T, also on the Premiere+ model). And the Ultra has 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi if you do have a compatible router.
Furthermore, the Ultra is capable of Dolby Digital Plus; the player’s optical audio output can connect directly to an A/V receiver to accommodate full digital surround sound. When I hooked it up, the sound quality from Vudu HDX was clearly superior to that from Netflix, Amazon, and others. Likewise, the 4K video on Vudu was superior. The Huntsman: Winter’s War looked far better on Vudu than on other channels.
The Ultra has brought the high-quality performance of 4K HDR to the Roku platform. No other streaming player has the search capabilities, robust remote app, and ease of casting photos and music. It’s true that Follow, agnostic search, and Play on Roku are available on all current Roku models, but if you’ve stocked your home theater with a 4K HDR TV, the Ultra is your best choice.