Review: 2018 Roku Ultra Brings HLG, Google Assistant
Among the newly updated Roku media players recently announced for 2018 is a refresh of its top-of-the-line Roku Ultra set-top box bringing a small number of upgrades.
All Roku media players will be hitting retail stores this month (expected street date is Oct. 16th), and will receive a firmware update to the new Roku 9.0 OS, bringing some extra features. Unfortunately, the test player used in this review still had the 8.1 OS, so we weren’t able to try out all of the new bells and whistles, but what the player adds on the hardware end is quite nice.
Unlike the other revamped Roku devices, the Ultra is neither at “Streaming Stick” nor a compact HDMI cable-connected candy bar-shaped box.
The third-generation Roku Ultra is, at a glance, nearly identical to the first- and second-generation units — it’s a flat, square-shaped player with rounded corners that resembles a compact portable CD player, except this unit doesn’t play discs.
However this iteration of the unit does accept portable media. One way is the through the microSD card slot, which accepts microSD media for additional memory to download and store apps for quicker access when users amass a personal library too large for the on-board memory to handle. This year’s version also adds a port for a USB memory stick, where users can access digital music, video and photo files through the Roku Media Player app.
Like the earlier Ultra versions, the 2018 model supports up to 4K Ultra HD resolution video and HDR10 high dynamic range. New this year is the addition of support for the Hybrid Log-Gamma, or HLG HDR profile, which lacks a lot of programming now, but that is expected to change soon. Naturally, to make use of an HDR profile, the television set much be equipped to handle it. Many so-called “HDR capable” 4K TVs out there lack support for HLG.
The player’s 4K and HDR support, of course, is in addition to all of the lower resolution Full HD, HD formats legacy HDMI-equipped televisions might require. Keep in mind that any television used with this device must be equipped at least with an HDMI port. No analog outputs are included. Also absent is an optical audio output, which the Gen. 1 version did support, before Roku opted to dispense with it in Gen. 2.
The player also must connect to either an in-home Wi-Fi network through the player’s built-in wireless connection or hard wired using the player’s Ethernet port.
We were somewhat surprised to find Roku still hasn’t added support for the Dolby Vision, HDR10+ or Technicolor HDR formats to the device, since rival Apple TV made the addition of HDR10 and Dolby Vision support a big part of its feature package in the last installment, and now offers a healthy library of 4K Dolby Vision movies in it’s iTunes service.
Additionally, Roku is supporting Dolby Vision in select 4K Ultra HD Roku TVs from TCL and Hisense.
We were told Roku continues to study adding support for Dolby Vision and other HDR formats for future generations. In the meantime, anyone interested enough in having Dolby Vision will already have a Dolby Vision-enabled television with the ability to stream 4K Dolby Vision content through select apps in the television’s built-in smart TV platform.
What’s New With Ultra?
So what’s different about the 2018 Roku Ultra? Not much, including the $99.99 suggested retail price ($89 street price). However, the unit nicely adds a USB port for access to external memory support to play music and video files, and premium JBL earbuds (Roku said this is a $39.99 value) for private listening.
That means, users will be able to plug the earbuds into the headphone jack positioned on the left side of the supplied remote control for private listening. That way the television’s sound will cut out as sound is ported over to the earbuds to listen to the program sound without disturbing others nearby.
In the new Ultra, private listening mode works the same way it always has, except the newly included JBL earbuds add a slight upgrade in sound quality and ear comfort to the former purple and black ones that came with earlier models. It’s a nice touch but not a big step up. Both earbuds sound quite good.
In testing the earbuds we did run into a problem returning the Roku Ultra to normal television sound after unplugging the earbuds. We found we had to restart the Ultra by unplugging and re-plugging the unit from the power outlet to reset normal sound playback.
By the way, the Ultra’s new remote also features buttons to turn off/on TV power and control the volume, without the need to go to the television’s remote. This is a convenience feature that is quite easy to set up with a supporting television.
We tested the Roku Ultra on a 2017 Samsung 65Q8 TV. However, we ran into a glitch using the Ultra’s volume control when the set was connected to an A/V receiver for home theater sound.
This year’s version also has an updated collection of remote finder alert tunes including the Game of Thrones Theme and ESPN’s familiar two-bar “DaDaDa DaDaDa” jingle. That’s not to suggest that anyone will be listening to them very often, we hope.
If the tiny remote ever disappears beneath the sofa cushions or into the dog’s bed, pressing a button on the Roku Ultra will activate the audible alert for quick location and retrieval.
Awaiting Always-On Voice Control
New this year for Roku media players as well as Roku TVs will be the ability to control basic device functions and program searches using Google Assistant voice commands. This means users with a Google Assistant supporting input device like always-on Google Home smart speakers or even smartphones with a Google Assistant app installed will be able to simple speak a desired command and have the television turn off or on, raise the volume or search for a favorite movie or app.
Unfortunately, the Google Assistant capability wasn’t available at the time we conducted our test. Roku said it will be coming in a few weeks. Our test unit was equipped with the older 8.1 OS, and awaiting the firmware update to the new OS 9.0 version due to arrive between early November and the end of the first quarter of 2019.
So, we expect the Roku Ultra to be even more powerful and responsive, but even without the improvements we found the unit to be as pleasantly easy to use as ever.
Roku Voice Search
Of course, voice search capability long has been part of the feature set of select step-up Roku media player models. The new Roku Ultra continues to carry a mic in the remote control and a push and hold activation button to accept spoken commands for program searches through the Roku app partner portfolio.
However, the firmware in the review sample was still on the current OS version and didn’t operate differently from what’s out there now. Voice commands are prone to occasional glitches understanding title requests. This is usually correctable, however, after several tries, and sure beats hunting and pecking for letters through an on-screen soft keypad.
Roku said all the media players will be getting enhanced search command capability that will present an optimized way to search for free content very quickly, for example, by saying, “Search for free comedies” into the remote’s mic, to have the television instantly load a list of the free comedies available from the various app services at that time.
Meanwhile, Roku’s new streaming players for 2018 bring access to both the HDR10 and newly added HLG high dynamic range (HDR) profiles. As mentioned, none of the Roku players yet support Dolby Vision, HDR10+ or Technicolor Advanced HDR.
Roku said it added support for HLG because YouTube is now starting to offer some content supporting the HLG profile and that profile is expected to soon gain traction among broadcast and cable TV services. DirecTV, for example, is carrying HLG on its satellite platform, but not yet through the DirecTV Now live app service.
We won’t be surprised to see HLG support HDR coming over the air through the new ATSC 3.0 terrestrial broadcast system in the next year or two.
At $99.99 the Roku Ultra player is still an incredible value and our choice for the best external media streamers on the market. This is largely because users will find a long list of apps from mainstream to esoteric programming sources not available on a lot of the most popular streaming TV platforms built into the sets of leading TV brands or on media players from rival manufacturers. That alone makes a Roku Ultra a nice add-on for complete programming access.
Now, with support for both HDR10 and HLG, viewers will have a range of options ready to use as content providers begin to update their offerings. As noted, we were a little disappointed not to find any dynamic metadata HDR profiles supported, most noteably Dolby Vision. But HLG was an unexpected surprise. And as mentioned, if you are that interested in Dolby Vision, you probably already own a 4K Dolby Vision-enabled television set that can stream supporting services internally.
However, this year, users are going to have to decide not only if the Roku Ultra player is a better value than the latest Apple TV 4K (suggested retails ranging from $179 to $199) with Dolby Vision and HDR10, but are the few extra options worth the nearly $30 boost in price from the new $49.99 suggested retail Roku Premiere Plus? After all, the Premiere Plus carries most of the same capabilities, including the voice remote with TV power/volume control buttons, 4K with HDR10 and HLG support, but minus JBL earbuds and the player’s USB port. Furthermore, the $39.99 Premiere and the Premiere Plus models come with a supplied HDMI cable, which the Roku Ultra does not.
Most will probably be better off with either of the less expensive Premiere players.
Still, we like the added flexibility the Ultra gave us, and the ability to quickly plug a thumb drive or external HDD into the player to access a trove of personally stored music and video files is a nice touch.
As noted, our review test sample lacked the forthcoming new OS 9.0, which we expect will bring added functionality and new features, like Google Assistant connectivity, to 2018 models, so we think the very good performance and app selection will only get better as it goes along.
For those who already own a earlier Roku Ultra generation, it is probably not worth upgrading to this version. It doesn’t add that much, but Roku newbies who want the best should find this a pleasantly easy to use surprise for getting even hard to find apps.
The 2018 Roku Ultra used for this review was a company loan.
By Greg Tarr
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