Review: New Roku Ultra Makes Streaming Faster
With the seven-model 2019 Roku media player line shipping this month, we were eager to test the new flagship Roku Ultra model (4670x) and after using it for a couple of days now we weren’t disappointed.
The latest version of the Roku Ultra retains the popular classic, very simple-to-use interface enhanced with a host of new features to better navigate the platform’s massive app selection.
Anyone considering the purchase of a media adapter to add access to an app or two missing from a smart TV or to add smart TV capability to a basic non-connected display, monitor or projector, should be well pleased with the robust performance of this $99.99 suggested retail price unit when it ships out on Oct. 13th.
But those who purchased a Roku Ultra in the past couple of years probably won’t find enough of a difference to warrant the upgrade. Others, simply curious to check out what the buzz over Roku is about, might want to pickup one of the less-expensive options (4K UHD/HDR capability starts at $39.99 for the new Roku Premiere) that lack some of the bells and whistles of the Ultra but will still deliver the same popularly simple-to-use interface and broad library of availble streaming apps.
What you’ll get with this year’s version of the Roku Ultra is a more powerful quad-core processor bringing slightly faster streaming channel launch times, a remote with a newly added pair of personal shortcut buttons designed to get to content quickly and side mounted volume and mute controls to operate basic commands on the connected TV as well to control the volume for private listening using the supplied high-quality JBL earbuds.
Other features in the new premium Roku Ultra player include Roku’s best 802.11ac dual-band wireless connectivity solution, an Ethernet port for even greater stability, USB port for local media playback and a MicroSD slot for expanded channel caching capability for those who like to assemble large app libraries.
Also featured in this unit is Dolby and DTS Digital Surround pass-through over HDMI for decoding by a soundbar or AV receiver, and a lost remote finder that lets you press a button on the Roku Ultra box to signal a chirp from the remote control when it disappears under the ottoman.
New Roku OS v 9.2
The 2019 Roku player lineup also begins the introduction of the company’s upgrade to its new OS platform v 9.2 (build 4096-46). This will be rolling out in coming months to all Roku media players and Roku TVs from past years that are in use and connected, but certain 2019 Roku products (like the Ultra) have hardware features to use some of new capabilities (like the ability to control volume and muting on paired third party TVs via controls on the supplied remote).
Note that we ran into difficulty pairing and using the connected TV control features through the new Roku Ultra remote when connecting the player first to an AVR that was controlling source switching to the TV.
Part of the features in the new OS is an improved 4K Spotlight channel, which has been redesigned to make it easier to find 4K streaming movies and programs from a variety of services across the Roku universe. We found the app listed many more movies and programs than before, and selecting a particular program got us to the least-expensive option available in just a few steps.
For example, we found the 4K UHD version of The Avengers Endgame, which we previously purchased on Vudu, prominently listed in 4K Spotlight selections. Clicking on it brought us to a screen saying it was available for purchase for $24.99 on either Vudu or FandangoNow. Clicking on the Vudu option instantly loaded the Vudu app with the Avengers Endgame selection screen showing that we own the UHD version. Hitting the play button then started the movie playback.
Of course, knowing we owned the movie would have saved a few steps by simply calling up Vudu first, but the 4K Spotlight gave us a large window of 4K movie selections on 10 scrolling ribbons, each organized by genre. Avengers Endgame was listed first on the “Sci-Fi” ribbon with 19 other most popular “Sci-fi” titles culled from some of Roku’s app partners.
Another new OS v9.2 feature is a “Roku Tips & Tricks” channel offering step-by-step videos to guide users through various ways to further improve the use and enjoyment of the Roku experience. For example, new or unfamiliar users will find a video about using Roku’s voice command feature through either the supplied remote (on Roku TVs and some better-featured players like the Ultra) or using the free Roku smartphone app.
With the update, the voice control capability available to operate the Roku Ultra is expanded to include popular devices fitted with far-field mics and third-party AI voice control platforms, like Amazon Alexa (Roku OS v 8.1 and higher) and Google Assistant.
Unfortunately, we didn’t find a tutorial video under Roku Tips & Tricks on setting up the less-than-intuitive linking process for adding the Alexa Roku skill. Roku offers help for that on its support.roku.com web page that then refers you to Amazon’s skill-setting tutorial page. Just keep in mind that these third-party voice control platforms might not be able to perform some of the program search and control activities available through the Roku voice platform. In general, we found that the Roku voice control system is getting more responsive but is still a little clunky to use without the proper phrasing to execute commands. This takes some getting used to.
Other features in the new OS include expanded content seach capabilities through Roku Zones offering searches by genre and topical subjects, which are presented, like the 4K Spotlight app, in categorized, browsable, rows. These include new releases, titles that are free to watch, rentals and other fare.
The expanded Roku voice control in the new OS also adds new Media Player options for spoken personal music streaming, movies and photo searches. Users can now speak commands by pressing the mic button on the remote to control finding and playing stored files on USB drives connected to the Roku Ultra’s USB port.
Roku has added the ability to search for movies by speaking famous movie quotes into the voice search command. Users can now call up a movie like Apollo 13 by holding the mic button on the remote and saying, for example, “Who said, `Houston, we have a problem?’ ” to call up the movie title and available locations to find it ranked by the lowest price.
In addition, a new shortcut section has been added to the Home Screen to abbreviate the number of steps needed to execute popular activities. Roku players will have a shortcut tile to add channels, and coming soon, a TV power on and off control.
The Roku OS 9.2 firmware update will begin rolling out to select Roku players this month and is expected to reach all supported streaming players, including the Roku Smart Soundbar, in the coming weeks, the company said. Roku TV models are expected to receive the update in phases over the coming months.
Between the new faster OS v9.2 and the quad-core processor in the Roku Ultra, we found speeds just slightly faster loading most apps and getting to a desired program than last year. But, frankly, we found last year’s version was already plenty fast compared with many smart TV platforms and competing media adapters. Roku said many channels will load 17% faster and services including Sling TV, Hulu and YouTube TV will load as much as 33% faster than before. We didn’t time each app to the nanosecond but we can confirm the new fast channel launch feature got us to entertainment quicker by a second or two, improving channel launch times for the top channels across the Roku platform.
4K And HDR
As over the past several years, Roku has supported 4K Ultra HD and HDR playback through the latest Roku Ultra (and several other lesser 2018 and 2019 Roku player models). We were somewhat disappointed, however, that Roku still is not supporting in any of its standalone media players HDR profiles other than the baseline HDR10 with static metadata. That means that other than in some Roku TVs, Roku still does not support the Dolby Vision or HDR10+ dynamic metadata HDR profiles.
Why should you care? The dynamic metadata HDR profiles permit contrast and color grading on a scene-by-scene (or even shot-by-shot) basis from supporting content for greater range and realism on Dolby Vision or HDR10+ enabled televisions sets. These enhancements are not always so obvious to some people or even available on all 4K/HDR TVs, but more and more streaming services and the movies they offer are now delivering Dolby Vision and HDR10+ HDR. In some cases this is to the exclusion of HDR10. Furthermore, some of Roku’s competitors’ products, like Apple TV 4K, have already added this, as have some of the Apple’s streamed 4K Dolby Vision offerings.
As with last year’s Roku Ultra edition, this version includes an HDMI 2.0a output, an Ethernet port for wired networking a USB port to playback audio, video and photo files from USB storage drives and a microSD card slot for additional memory to cache a collection of favorite streaming apps. For those looking to add this to a older TVs and home theater audio components, be warned that there are no analog composite video outputs or optical digital audio outputs on this Roku player. You’ll have to look for an older Roku player version on the web to get such legacy connectivity support today.
Beyond the snappier loading and response of the Roku Ultra comes built-in 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi connectivity. After using the player for a couple of days, we found that our connection to a router that has sometimes wildly varying signal output strength was easy to setup and seemed generally more stable than the previous Roku player versions. A couple of days in, we’ve yet to hit any buffering or dropout issues.
The remote in the new Roku Ultra has been enhanced with the addition of two programmable quick launch buttons that now let users add customized fast access controls to the four dedicated fast-access buttons for Netflix, Hulu, ESPN+ and SlingTV provided by Roku. These buttons will almost instantly launch two additional favorite app channels. In addition to this, users will be able to quickly launch favorite apps by holding the mic button and calling for a channel to load.
In addition, this year’s version of the Roku Ultra adds a mute button to the volume up and down control on the right side of the hand unit. Once again, a mini headphone jack is placed on the right side of the remote where users can connect the supplied JBL earbuds for private listening late at night or when others might be having a conversation in the same room.
As mentioned, the Roku Ultra’s remote also has the handy remote finder feature that triggers a chirp when the unit can’t be found.
The Roku Ultra continues to support the leading 3D audio with lossy surround sound formats via HDMI pass-through including Dolby Atmos/Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS Surround. When connected to an external decoder/amplifier sound is clear and immerssive from supported streaming content.
The 2019 Roku Ultra is a little faster than before and has been providing very good stablity with our Wi-Fi network connection. For those in need of greater stability an Ethernet port is provided. Perhaps the greatest difference this year comes from the new OS v 9.2, but this will be coming to most legacy media players as well, so stay tuned for that if you have one.
The remote has some nice additions including the voice-programmable fast-access app buttons and a volume mute control to quickly silence a connected television without the need to find a second remote. These enhancements are certainly worth the $20 or $30 savings you might find on a 2018 Roku Ultra closeout model, but for Roku player loyalists with last year’s version there probably isn’t enough to here to rush out and upgrade. But for anyone just looking to cut the cord or add a missing streaming app, like say, CBS All Access, this Roku Ultra is our top recommended streaming media player so far this year. Even without Dolby Vision or HDR10+ support, this gets you high quality 4K content and movies with the widest available HDR profile on the web. It also has the most robust streaming app library available, and the most intuitive user interface we’ve seen to help navigate the thousands of movie and program selections available on this platform.
The Roku Ultra continues to be the most satisfying and responsive media player we’ve tested. We even prefer it to most of the built-in streaming TV platforms on the market.
We therefore award the 2019 Roku Ultra model 4670x five out of five hearts.
y Greg Tarr
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