I’ve long been a fan of Roku. In fact, I was a beta tester of the original streaming box from the company. Back then, you got Netflix, a photo viewer, and a simple interface to play local videos from a USB. That’s it.
Roku has come a long way from that first generation with streaming sticks, soundbars, and entire TVs running Roku OS.
I’ve been reviewing the latest Roku Ultra for about a month now. It’s an iterative update, but that doesn’t mean it’s not holding its own against the competition.
Overall, the design is reminiscent of the previous few generations of Ultra. It’s a large, rounded hockey puck. The casing seems to be made of plastic with a nice, soft-touch finish. When you hold it or set it in the entertainment center, the Roku Ultra doesn’t stand out, and that’s a good thing. It blends in with most decors and just goes to work.
The rear of the Roku Ultra is where all the heavy lifting takes place, with all the ports you’d expect. Here you’ll find the USB-A for storage expansion, HDMI out, Ethernet, and a barrel power port. This is a nice selection to make sure you have all the options you need. Add in wireless networking as well and this should work with anyone’s home.
Now, let’s move on to the remote. I’ll argue with anyone who disagrees, but I think the Roku remote is one of the best streaming remotes. It has a great feel in the hand, simple-to-use buttons, and isn’t too busy with unnecessary options.
Much like the Ultra itself, Roku has continued to offer minor tweaks to a tried and true design with the remote. This generation has all the legacy buttons and ports with a few additions. The new ones on the button layout are two new numbered buttons for two customizable shortcuts.
These can be assigned to any app you have in your library. It’s a nice way to offer personalization past the pre-assigned shortcut buttons you find on all Roku remotes. While these tend to offer the big names in streaming like Netflix, it’s still been a pain point for some to not have these be other apps. These new buttons ease that for apps you use daily that may not be provided out of the box.
The left side of the Roku Ultra remote house a new switch as well. Here you’ll find a slider switch to turn the microphone for voice assist on or off. This makes me happy, as I never use this is practice at my house, and I don’t need the risk of another microphone always listening in my private living room.
Lastly, the remote has a new power pack. This year, Roku has added an internal battery bank that’s capable of being recharged. I love that this allows you to use your remote without the need of AA batteries, even if you can’t hot swap if it’s your only remote. The other knock is that this is done over the now ancient microUSB standard and not USB-C, but it is capable to be used while charging, which is a plus.
If you’ve ever used a Roku device, you won’t be taken aback by the Roku Ultra. This new streamer is running Roku 12, and while it’s the latest update of the OS, it’s still basically the same as the system has been for yours. You get the same layout of menu items on the left and the grid view of you all your apps (Channels) on the main portion of the screen on the right.
Some new additions to Roku OS 12 that came out back in March are dedicated menu items for Live TV and Sports. These are instant access to Roku’s Live TV hub and any Sports action you may not want to miss. While it requires an antenna or Roku’s limited live options and can’t integrate with 3rd party apps like YouTube TV, it’s a nice option to get to that content as quickly as possible.
The other big software change is that you now have a Continue Watching sub-menu under the What to Watch feature. This is pretty self-explanatory, with dumping you into a list of things you’ve watched in the past and offering up the next episodes or chapters. Again, Roku stays out of the way with its simplistic approach, but is slowly adding more granular controls for those that want it.
I’ve found the Roku Ultra to be fantastic in day to day usage. My older Roku Streaming Stick was sufficient in our bonus room, but the Ultra is a powerhouse in comparison. The internal spec boost is noticeable in general transitions, Channel launches, and menu clicks.
Overall, the performance is what you expect from Roku. The interface is snappy and simple. The Channel lineup is still the best you can find across any streaming platform. Add Dolby Atmos with the 4K video and this Roku just rocks. I have zero complaints in this department.
Roku is the pioneer of the streaming box, and the Roku Ultra simply brings this pedigree into the next generation. The simple design, rock-solid OS, and easy setup make the Ultra a fantastic upgrade or first Roku device for those shopping in this segment.
The pricing puts it above some of the competition, but I believe there’s enough value added in the Roku Ultra to make it worth the $99. From the superb remote, better app support, and the least ad ridden home screen, you just get a better experience. Hit the links below to snag one of these from Roku’s site or Amazon.