2020 Roku Ultra is a surprisingly tough streaming box to review.
While Roku’s hardware and software have not changed much from last year’s model, the wider world of streaming TV has changed a lot. Between new services like Apple TV +, Peacock, HBO Max and the upcoming Paramount +, there are more streaming options to juggle than ever. In response, we’ve seen devices like Chromecast with Google TV and TiVo Stream 4K emerge to make sense of these options, and channel content from multiple apps into a single unified menu.
Roku, meanwhile, has maintained its less ambitious approach: Make free content easy to find, but get users to dig through individual apps for everything else.
This review is part of TechHive̵7;s coverage of the best media streamers, where you will find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.
If you still agree with this approach, the $ 100 Roku Ultra has a lot to like. It supports Dolby Vision and HLG video with high dynamic range, Bluetooth audio and Dolby Atmos audio decoding. It’s also agility faster than other Roku players, and it still has the most comfortable remote you can find with any streaming player today.
But if you anchor a new paradigm in streaming, where it is no longer necessary to dig through a dozen different apps, the new Roku Ultra will inevitably disappoint.
Slicker box, better specifications
Roku Ultra 2020 is easy to distinguish from previous versions. The plastic housing has a matte surface instead of being glossy around the edges, and the sides of the box curve inwards instead of outwards. I find it more attractive.
The port arrangement has also changed. There are no more MicroSD card slots for expandable storage, although Ultra has more built-in storage. (Roku will not say exactly how much.) Meanwhile, the USB slot for local media playback has moved from the side of the box to the back, where it gets along with the Ethernet port and the HDMI output.
This is also the first Roku player with Bluetooth, so you can connect a phone, tablet or computer and play music through the TV. It’s a nice addition, although it does not support pairing of wireless headphones to play audio from Roku. (For that, you can use Roko’s mobile app, which offers private listening through headphones or earbuds connected to the phone.)
As before, Roku supports Ultra 4K HDR video, allowing for both higher resolution and more color details in highlights and shadows, but the new arrival of Dolby Vision means that these color optimizations can happen scene by scene. Of course, you need a TV with Dolby Vision HDR support to take advantage of it, along with supported content in apps like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Dolby Atmos decoder support means that some content can produce object-based sound effects if you have an Atmos-enabled speaker system.
I should mention a strange problem with video playback, though: Deep down in the Roku settings, there is an option to automatically match the TV’s refresh rate to what content is being played. It’s disabled by default, but activating it prevented me from playing video from Apple TV + due to HDCP errors. Roku says I encountered a known bug that works to squash. If you are buying a Roku Ultra, it should be your first order after connecting it to your network, if you are looking for a firmware update.
However, the remote control is unchanged from last year’s Ultra, which is fine. It’s a little heavier than most streaming remotes, making it easier to hold, and the different shapes and sizes of buttons help you navigate without looking at them. A headphone jack on the left side allows for private listening – a set of earbuds is included – and the volume and mute buttons are on the right along with an on / off button at the top. The remote control has an infrared transmitter, so you can program the buttons to work directly with the TV.
You still can’t reprogram the Roku remote’s built-in app launch buttons, but the two numeric buttons above them can be assigned to any voice command, so you can use them to open your favorite apps or turn on subtitles. And as with previous Ultras, there is a button on the box itself that plays a sound on the remote control to help you locate it – a nice touch that most other streamers have still not replicated.
Minor speed bumps
In addition to the more tangible hardware improvements in the 2020 Roku Ultra, Roku claims that the new box launches popular apps faster and has better wireless reception than previous versions. In practice, these improvements are noticeable, but not dramatic.
Compared to last year’s Ultra, the new model Amazon Prime launched about 1.5 seconds faster and The Roku Channel about a second faster, but the launch times for Disney + and YouTube were comparable on both. Ultra has a more distinct advantage over the $ 50 Roku Streaming Stick +, Prime launches about 4.5 seconds faster and loads Roku Channel, YouTube and Disney + about 1.5 seconds faster, but none of these differences are enough to justify upgrading for speed alone.
Connection speed is where things get more interesting. Roku did not upgrade the internal Wi-Fi components – Ultra still supports Wi-Fi 5 with dual-band MIMO – but the company says they have optimized the antennas to improve the reception area.
To evaluate, I ran many speed tests – both from the Roku settings menu and from the Netflix help section – in two difficult places: One set of tests in my entertainment center in the basement, and the other in the opposite corner of the house from my router. Here are the results:
- 2020 Ultra (5 GHz): 58 Mbps in the basement console, 36 Mbps in the far corner
- 2019 Ultra (5 GHz): 59 Mbps in the basement console, 18 Mbps in the far corner
- 2020 Ultra (2.4 GHz): 73 Mbps in the basement console, 29 Mbps in the far corner
- 2019 Ultra (2.4 GHz): 56 Mbps in the basement console, 20 Mbps in the far corner
Roku’s claims of improved range seem to be checking out, although I also observed similar or better connection speeds in other high-end streaming boxes, including Amazon’s Fire TV Cube and Apple TV 4K. This is at least in part because Roku intentionally encapsulates data rates of 100 Mbps on devices, supposedly focusing on range instead of speed. (I want more to say about this in my wire cutting column later this week.)
Software: Free is the focus
Software is as important as hardware, and Roku’s software is largely the same as a year ago. The main screen presents a grid of apps for services like Netflix and Hulu, while other sections let you browse free movies and shows, search for free content, install new apps, or purchase a la carte videos from Fandango.
As always, Roku does a better job than any other streaming platform on the surface of free movies and shows. The “Featured Free” section of the home screen downloads content – mostly ad-supported – from various apps, and if you search for genres such as comedy or action, Roku will highlight some of the free options in the results.
The Roku Channel app meanwhile provides many of its own movies, shows and linear channels to watch for free. Although Roku has also brought that app to Samsung TVs and Fire TVs, it is more deeply integrated with search and voice control on its own streamers.
It’s just a shame Roku does not make the same kind of effort in appearing videos from premium sources such as Netflix, Disney + or CBS All Access. Sure, you can use voice search on Roku’s remote to find specific movies or shows from these services, and you can browse apps using some broad genre searches. But if you want to see what’s happening across all your streaming services or continue where you left off on a particular show, you’ll need to jump into individual apps. Devices like Apple TV 4K and the new Chromecast have shown that universal streaming guides and watchlists are possible, but Roku, for whatever reason, has not tried to build one himself.
This is not the only way Roku lags behind other platforms. Your ability to start music with your voice is still limited to Pandora, TuneIn or iHeartRadio only, and you can not use your voice to start live channels in apps like YouTube TV or Sling TV. Apple TV, Fire TV and Chromecast with Google TV stand out on all fronts. And because Roku is not connected to any smart home platforms, you can not use it to check security cameras, check the lights or adjust the thermostat.
There is also the long-standing problem with HBO Max, which is still unavailable at Roku due to disagreements with AT & T’s WarnerMedia over shipping terms. You can still access HBO on Roku in other ways – through standalone HBO, as a Roku Channel subscription or as a supplement to certain live streaming services – but you will not get the full Max directory. And for cable subscribers, you can no longer log in to HBO on Roku at all. While every streaming platform has some app holes, Roku’s HBO issues are a flaw in the unique reputation of app support.
That problem aside, Roku’s simple approach has its advantages. There is never any doubt about how to access your apps, and the system as a whole feels fast and stable. For these reasons, the Roku Ultra remains a safe, easy recommendation for an advanced streamer.
Whether it’s the best depends on your philosophy of streaming.