Hands On: Roku Ultra 2020

Roku's top-of-the-line streamer, the Roku Ultra, has been updated for 2020 with new features that make it competitive with other top streaming players. Until now, the 4K Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, or Chromecast with Google TV have been my go-to streamers for top quality picture and sound. But the new Ultra's features, which include more powerful processing, enhanced Wi-Fi reception, Dolby Vision HDR, and Dolby Atmos sound, make it every bit as good as the others. Plus, it's easy to use. If you want to upgrade your streaming performance, the Roku Ultra may be what you are seeking.

Setup for the Ultra is much the same as it is for any other Roku. If you've previously owned a Roku and have an account, you'll enter that info during initial setup. All of your previously downloaded channels are added to the new Ultra. You are pre-logged-in to some channels; others vary from onscreen logins and online activations to a QR code on Apple TV that connects to your Apple TV account.

Dolby Vision HDR on the Roku Ultra appears to deliver slightly better picture quality than HDR10. I saw improved detail in the blacks without any sacrifice of color saturation in most cases. There is an option to turn on Dolby AC-4 Dialog Enhancement, which did boost sound effects and vocals in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Picture and sound quality aren't the only things that have been enhanced in the new Ultra. Navigation through the menus is quick and responsive thanks to its quad-core processor. Search results appeared almost as soon as I released the microphone button on the remote. When searching for a specific actor, results were broken down into categories. I did a voice search for Brad Pitt movies. The results included Movies, Free to Watch, those "Included with your Subscriptions," Buy/Rent, Subscribe to Watch, then Drama Movies with Brad Pitt, and Thriller Movies with Brad Pitt. A search for Adam Sandler displayed Comedy Movies and Fantasy Movies categories. Choosing an individual movie title from the list displays agnostic results of where to watch, listed by free options, services to which I am subscribed, then according to rental and purchase prices.

The processor also helps channels to load quickly. After clicking on a channel, all content was displayed in under ten seconds (fifteen seconds for those channels that required choosing a profile).

Roku has just about every streaming channel you could want, though the company hasn't yet worked out a deal to stream HBO Max or Twitch. Starting today, all Roku devices, the Ultra included, will join the Roku Soundbar, Streambar, and Roku TVs in having AirPlay capabilities. That means it's now possible to mirror an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to a Roku devices. It's also possible to stream content directly from iOS apps (including HBO Max). I mirrored my iPhone to the Roku Ultra and then chose The Matrix in the HBO Max app, and it played seamlessly with no delay or glitches. Be sure that the Roku OS is at least version 9.41, which is available for installation after November 11th.

The new Roku Ultra Voice remote has direct-access buttons for Netflix, Hulu, Disney +, and Sling. Along with the typical playback and navigation buttons, there are two programmable ones labeled "1" and "2". To program a button, you press the microphone button on the remote and say a voice command, then press one of the programmable buttons to link that command to it. I opted to make one a direct button for Pandora and programmed the other to fast-forward 30 seconds. I also tested programming one of the buttons to search for Comedies.

As with other Roku devices, the Ultra can be voice-controlled using its included remote, Amazon Alexa, or Google Assistant. Once I added it to the Google Assistant app on my phone, it performed basic voice commands like playback controls, launching apps, etc. While it was too much to ask to watch The Voice on Hulu on the Roku Ultra, it would play the show by voice command if I launched the Hulu app first. I ended up having an issue with Amazon Alexa, and am still troubleshooting its communication with Roku.

The new ability to add a Roku device to Apple's HomeKit means you could use Siri on your phone to control the Ultra, use button shortcuts, or power it on or off in HomeKit scenes. I added the Ultra to my Good Night scene to turn off with the lights in the Living Room. If HDMI-CEC is enabled on a TV, powering it off the Roku Ultra will also turn off the TV (and vice versa). While more voice commands will certainly come in the future, the power command is currently the only Siri command available for Roku streaming players.

With the newest Roku OS update, you'll find a menu item in the Roku settings for AirPlay and HomeKit. At the bottom of that screen is the HomeKit setup. Clicking on it displays a QR code. Open the Home app on your mobile device and tap the "+" button at the top of the screen. You can scan the QR code with the mobile camera, then add it to your home. You can also edit the Roku device's name and put it in a room group.

Roku menus are nearly identical on all devices (the Roku TVs have squares to select inputs). This is the same grid channel layout that Roku has had for some time. While it's simple to navigate to a channel, Roku doesn't have fast access to continue watching shows from various channels like you'll find on an Apple TV, Fire TV, or Chromecast with Google TV. A lack of recommendations and shortcuts on the home screen may be less convenient, but it also keeps the home screen uncluttered as it's dedicated to navigating to channels. The continuous scroll feature in all menus brings you around to the top of the list rather than scroll to the top of the page. You can also skip to the end of a list by scrolling up from the top row.

In reviewing the menus, I took the opportunity to do a deep dive of the submenus on the screen's left side. These help you find something to watch when you don't have a specific show in mind. The Featured Free submenu displays available free content from various channels—from free Premium TV episodes to News, Sports, and Music.

The My Feed submenu is where you can follow TV shows and movies to see when a new episode airs or when a movie becomes available on a service to which you've subscribed. When browsing or searching, you press the remote's star button to add the title to your feed.

If your preference is to rent or buy movies, the Fandango Movie Store and TV store is very well-organized. Movie titles categorized as Drama or Comedy have sub-genres such as Romantic Comedy, Comedy-Drama, and Action Comedy. These make it easier to find a title that may suit your mood.

While browsing the Fandango movie titles, I happened on some unexpected entertainment watching trailers. Back to the Future was listed under the 4K UHD category as it has been newly released in 4K. Each title has the original theatrical trailer available. It was a piece of nostalgia to view the original 1980s trailer. The Psycho trailer was almost five minutes long and followed Alfred Hitchcock giving a tongue-in-cheek tour of the Psycho house ending in the bathroom and shower. It was easy to get lost in seeing the theatrical promotions for everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Superman the Movie to current releases like The Avengers.

At $100, the Roku Ultra costs twice as much as a Chromecast with Google TV with similar features, but is not as pricey as a 4K Apple TV ($180). If you want the best streaming picture and sound quality and your home theater has a Dolby Vision TV and Dolby Atmos-capable sound system, the easy-to-use Roku Ultra 2020 will be a worthwhile upgrade.