There's a reason — OK, all kinds of reasons — that Roku is the most popular streaming player in the United States. That starts with the price, of course. Roku has players all across the sub-$100 spectrum , but non retails at more than $100.
Roku's popularity also extends to its ease of use. It's simple to set up, simple to use. And Roku also was early to the game of streaming video. So it's had a longer runway on which to take off. It's also supported pretty much every streaming service ("app" or "channel" — call it what you will, really) there is.
Its top-end player — the Roku Ultra — has been getting a little long in the tooth, though. So in October 2019 we've found ourselves with an updated model. Same name. Same affordable price. And with a few of our lingering gripes managed.
Others, however, remain. Let's get into it in our full review of the 2019 Roku Ultra streaming player.
Roku Ultra (2019)
An upgrade to the old favorite
There's nothing substantially new and different about the 2019 Roku Ultra. It's just faster, better, and is the best Roku you can buy.
- An update to the internals speeds things up a bit.
- It's still super easy to use.
- The price is right. (And unchanged.)
- Still no support for Dolby Vision HDR.
- Loses the optical audio port.
- Roku's user interface still lacks sophistication.
Roku Ultra 2019 What I Like
My biggest complaint about Roku by far all these years has been one of speed. That's certainly one of the biggest changes when you go from a cable box to an all-streaming experience — things just aren't as quick as they used to be.
And that's been even more true on Roku devices over the years. It's not a backhanded slight — Roku hardware just isn't as powerful as, say, an Apple TV 4K or the NVIDIA Shield . It's also not priced nearly as high, even at the high end with the Roku Ultra.
But speed perhaps is the No. 1 difference you'll notice with the new Roku Ultra. On paper, the company says, you'll see something like an 17 percent quicker launch time with the top 100 channels.
And one popular multi-video programming distributor — that's the industry name for channels like YouTube TV, PlayStation Vue, AT&T TV Now and the like — saw a 33 percent improvement in how fast it launched. (Roku wouldn't tell me which one it was talking about, though.)
But here's the thing: I'm not entirely sure you'll actually notice. Yes, you'll notice if you've got a stopwatch and you're comparing things side by side. (And to be clear, I very much noticed the improvement compared to the Roku TV I normally use.)
We're talking a matter of a second or two, maybe. That's nothing to turn your nose up at, and there's a reason I'm leading (and dominating, really) this section with it. And while these very much are real-world improvements, they really sound better on paper. Yes, it's faster overall. Yes, channels load a little faster. Yes, scrolling within channels may be markedly improved. (I'm specifically thinking of YouTube TV here.) And Roku should be commened for that.
It just doesn't quite transform the Roku experience. Mostly, I found myself thinking, "Yep, this is the way it should be."
Another interesting improvement is the addition of two user programmable buttons on the Roku Ultra voice remote. The idea is you program some sort of voice command to one or both of them. Then instead of having to say it over and over, you just hit the button, silently. It's a great little option if you need it, and unobtrusive if you don't.
And there's actually a good bit more to enjoy on the new Roku Ultra as part of the Roku OS 9.2 improvements .
What the 2019 Roku Ultra is not , however, is a completely new experience. And it's not really supposed to be.
It's faster. It's better. It's still simple to use.
And there still are all those old reasons to buy the Ultra. There's the ethernet port for wired networking. There's the inclusion of JBL earbuds for private listening. (They'll work just fine with anything else, too.) There's the simple remote-control finder for when it gets lost in the cushions. And there's the fact that Roku is now offering up all kinds of great free (ad-supported) content on The Roku Channel. (That's not exclusive to the Ultra, but it's still worth a mention.)
Let's just put it this way: Roku Ultra remains the best Roku experience you can buy.
Some missing pieces
Roku Ultra 2019 What I Don't Like
There always are tradeoffs in any tech product. And that's even more so when you're getting something as functional as a Roku Ultra for a price as low as this player carriers.
Some of my gripes here are subjective. Roku's user interface still isn't my favorite. (Despite the fact that I have a Roku TV in my living room, and my family likes it just fine.) I can't stand Roku's screensavers.
Those are small potatoes, though. Larger is the lack of the Dolby Vision HDR standard. That's not overly surprising, given that the Ultra still comes in at just under $100, and Dolby Vision. requires some not-inexpensive licensing by the manufacturer. Still, though, it's my preferred flavor of HDR standard. It's better than nothing to have HDR10 on board, but it's just not as good.
I'll mention the loss of the optical audio option here — it's on the previous generation of Roku Ultra, and you can see the two compared in the image here — but only because it's something that was taken away. You really should be using an HDMI-ARC connection to connect to your TV if at all possible.
And there's one other thing in the bad column — OK, maybe not bad , but certainly in the you should know this before buying column.
And that is ...
And now, a word from their sponsors
Roku And Ad Tracking
We'd be remiss if we didn't at least mention what's at the heart of not just the Roku Ultra, but all Roku products.
Roku, in addition to being a company that makes excellent streaming video systems, also is an advertising platform. It gives companies a way to get their brands and products in front of your eyeballs. And it uses its physical products to do that.
In fact, that's exactly how it's able to do all this at less than $100 a pop. (It's also how it's been able to keep its investors happy .)
The flip side is that Roku gets all sorts of tracking information about what's being watched and, to a lesser extent, who's watching it. That's all in the name of being able to get more companies to pay it more money to show you ads. That's the game.
You can still turn limit some of what Roku gleans via the "Limit ad tracking" function. That'll help, but it won't stop everything. And it doesn't actually turn off advertising on the Roku platform.
That's the bargain you make when you buy a Roku product, and it's a personal decision you need to make. Me? I assume someone always can see something if I'm using a digital service. That's just the way it works.
You're free to come to your own conclusion, though.
Roku Ultra 2019
Should You Buy It? I Would
Here's the thing about reviewing Roku devices — the experience doesn't really change. Sure, the more expensive hardware tends to run faster and have more features than the cheaper stuff. That's always been true not just for Roku, but tech in general.
So don't go into the 2019 Roku thinking it's going to be some transformative experience. It's not. And it probably shouldn't be.
Maybe think of it like this: Roku is like the iOS of the streaming video world. Its user interface isn't trying anything terribly new. And for as simple as it is, there's actually quite a bit going on. It's also not the most exciting experience in the world.
But you know what? It just works. And like the iPhone year after year, it just keeps getting better.
Sure, there are some things it still doesn't do. The lack of Dolby Vision HDR is still a pretty big miss. The user interface is still pretty unsophisticated for my taste. I greatly miss the screensavers of Apple TV and the NVIDIA Shield.
But this is the Roku player I would buy. You get the most features and flexibility for your money. And to be clear, it's really not that much money. If you just have to have Dolby Vision, though — or if you already have some other streaming platform that serves you just fine — I'd hold off.
But for most folks, Roku — and the Roku Ultra — continues to represent what it's always represented: An easy, affordable way to watch what you want to watch.
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