Review: Roku Ultra 2020 Gets Snappier, Brings Dolby Vision
Today, Roku is making available the 2020 version of its flagship premium Roku Ultra HDMI-connected set-top media streamer, and we believe many people dissatisfied with the way they get streaming apps and content will find this a good add-on solution.
The good news is that the 2020 Roku Ultra media player continues to be offered at the $99.95 suggested retail price (this will surely come down during promotions and over the course of time), and the updated quad-core processor and internal architecture have been improved to provide a boost in speed getting to your content along with smoother and to our eyes clearer 4K/HDR video streaming during playback.
Keep in mind, the price for the Ultra is significantly higher than some of the cheapest Roku players available, but in addition to the smoother and speedier performance benefits, the new player delivers newly added support for Dolby Vision premium high dynamic range (HDR), which might please a few owners of 4K/Dolby Vision-enabled TV sets desiring Roku’s simplified access to a vast media app library and thousands of free ad-supported programming options.
In addition, the Roku Ultra is among a range of select Roku devices to add support for Apple HomeKit and AirPlay 2 functionality. This was added through a recent firmware update for OS version 9.4, and allows controls of certain Apple HomeKit-enabled smart home devices as well as the ability to stream content using AirPlay 2 from an Apple iOS device to the Roku player for playback on a television screen.
Sadly, if you don’t have an HDMI input on your television, the Roku Ultra is not for you. But fewer and fewer people are finding this an issue any longer. If you need the most rock solid internet performance, Roku Ultra still comes equipped with an Ethernet port for the fastest and most reliable broadband streaming. Still, if you don’t want to run a long Ethernet cable to a remote room, you might not have to. The 2020 Ultra delivers “up to 50% more range,” for wireless connections. We didn’t have any lag or failures during our testing of a router connection from a floor below at the far end of a house. Your range/house size may vary.
The Roku Ultra 2020 also has the best remote among all of the Roku adapters. This means you’ll get Roku’s coolest features including a headphone jack in the remote for private listening and a lost remote finder.
However, Roku last year improved the Wi-Fi range of the Roku Ultra so if you don’t want to run long Ethernet cables from the router to a remote room, you should still be able to connect to a decent router with fewer dropouts and interference issues than many other media streamers.
The Roku Ultra 2020 has changed very little in appearance over the past several years. It’s a mat-black flat squarish (with rounded corners) puck shaped box measuring 4.9 x 4.9 x 0.9 inches. It has a rear-positioned HDMI output, an Ethernet port, a power cord input and a USB-A input to access various media files from a thumb drive. Roku no longer equips the Ultra with a microSD card for expandable memory to accommodate large installed app libraries. It now builds in sufficient memory for most reasonable collections of this sort.
This year, the device is lighter and a little less solid in feel than its predecessors, but it’s doubtful most people will be handling it much after set up. It will typically be placed somewhere below the television, or AV receiver, within reach of the HDMI cable.
On screen, the user interface looks very much the same as the Roku platform always has, but through a forthcoming firmware update Roku will give users greater options to customize the look and feel, with different background themes, a wider selection of screen savers and the like.
The Roku Ultra 2020 remote also looks very similar to previous iterations, and remains among our favorite remotes to hold and use. The only issue we continue to have is that minimal button layout still is not backlit, making it hard to distinguish between some of them in the dark.
Of course the enhanced remote supplied with the Roku Ultra includes a built-in mic to pick up spoken commands for content searches and other tasks.
New this year, the remote includes buttons numbered 1 and 2. Pressing either one triggers an audible identifier saying, “This button can store your last voice command. To speak a voice command press and hold the microphone button.”
So, now you don’t even have to speak a frequently used command to the Roku. Simply program one in and press the appropriate button to make it happen without straining your vocal cords.
This year’s fast access app buttons include the ever-present Netflix along with Disney+, Hulu and Sling TV.
The enhanced remote features RF connectivity so objects that might pop up between the TV and the line of sight of the remote won’t interfere with operation. This makes it possible to move the Roku box out of view in many instances.
The unit continues to offer controls for power and volume on the top right-hand side of the unit, enabling fast access to mute or lower sound during a phone call. The set up for this inter-device control was straight-forward, swift and painless. The Hisense TV we tested with the Ultra wasn’t immediately recognized turning the volume lowering test, but this was swiftly remedied by an on-screen prompt guiding us to completion.
Dolby Vision Performance
The Roku Ultra has been at the top of the most popular premium streaming media player lists for a few years now. The company’s flagship device has delivered 4K Ultra HD video in up to 3820×2160/60p resolution for a few iterations along with support for HDR10 high dynamic range (HDR).
However, until this year, Roku has not supported the premium Dolby Vision HDR profile with high dynamic range metadata in an outboard device.
The addition of Dolby Vision means the Ultra, like many 4K Roku TVs, will now deliver a dynamic metadata variation of HDR that allows images to reflect a wide range of light values and color hues, from deep black to bright white, on a possible continuously varying shot-by-shot basis. Previous Roku 4K streamers only delivered the baseline static metadata HDR profile called HDR10, which maintains a constant set of light and color parameters for post-production content grading of all scenes from the beginning to the end of the program.
This means images will have a more realistic quality to the overall appearance, and in some cases specular highlights might appear even brighter than the same images presented in HDR10. When Dolby Vision is played on a non-supporting TV or through a non-supporting media streamer, it defaults to the base HDR10 level.
After a run through of the new player, we can report that 2020 Roku Ultra supports Dolby Vision with great results. Testing on a 65-inch 2020 Hisense H9 Quantum Series TV, we found streaming 4K Ultra HD programs with Dolby Vision, like the Billionaire Bad Boys series on Netflix, delivered a stunningly sharp picture with three dimensional qualities, rich deep colors and bright points of flicker-free specular highlights.
Of course, these results were a credit to both the Roku Ultra and the connected 2020 Hisense H9 4K Ultra HDTV quantum dot LED LCD TV, which we will be reviewing in more detail shortly.
Interestingly, the Hisense H9 Quantum TV includes an Android 9 Pie OS with a nicely improved platform for streaming many of the latest apps as well. But after trying both side by side, we still find the simple-to-use and navigate Roku platform to be our favorite way to quickly get to our apps and content. It doesn’t provide a lot of flashy thumb nails or suggested titles pushed to us in a cluttered screen, just the app icons that we can get to immediately, letting the selected service provide us with the extra layer of teasers and new release announcements.
You’ll have to determine for yourself if Dolby Vision HDR is a big deal worth upgrading your Roku device for or not. We have long said the improvements Dolby Vision brings are very hard for most people to distinguish from HDR10, on many of today’s sets, without a side by side HDR10 reference comparison. However, if you have paid for a 4K Ultra HD television set with native Dolby Vision support, it’s only natural to expect to be able to take advantage of that with any sort of add-on media streamer. Roku fans now have an option with the Ultra 2020.
Of course, if you have such a Dolby Vision-ready set, the chances are you already have a streaming media player built into the smart TV platform, and you probably already have access to Dolby Vision HDR through the apps resident on the TV. So in this case, the benefit of adding the Roku Ultra will be the strength of app and content selection, ease of use and very responsive means of getting to favorite programs slightly more quickly than even last year’s Roku Ultra.
For sound, Roku offers support for a wide range of music files and surround codecs, including Dolby Atmos object-oriented 3D surround sound. Sound output is typically transcoded to fit the playback ability of the connected display or decoded by a connected AVR or soundbar in native form, where applicable.
We’ve long enjoyed the quality of the sound output by Roku products played through connected devices, including its own audio-for-home theater devices like the Roku Soundbar and connected add-on channel speakers.
For those who are asking, Roku does not support decoding for lossless multichannel surround sound codecs like Dolby True HD or DTS-HD Master Audio, on top of which the Dolby Atmos and DTS:X 3D audio format metadata rides. As it is with almost every streaming platform/service today Dolby Atmos is carried in the lossy (compressed) Dolby Digital+ surround sound codec provided by virtually all of the premium streaming services today.
This could change down the line, but it’s not much of an issue now, except for streaming Dolby True HD sources on a Plex Media Server and the like.
We love to use the Roku Media Player app to tap into our home media server, which in our case is a networked PC equipped with a hard drive carrying a library of digital hi-rez music files. This can also be done using the Plex app and others. It tends to be more flexible and useful than even some whole-home wireless music service platforms from major audio component manufacturers.
Meanwhile, if your music file library resides on your smartphone or tablet, the Roku Ultra now supports casting music, podcasts, and more to a TV with a Bluetooth connection.
Keep in mind that Roku is also rolling out a new update to the Roku OS and the Ultra 2020 will be among the first devices to get it in coming weeks. Unfortunately, for this review, we were limited to running the current Roku 9.3.1 version. When it gets here the Roku OS 9.4 will add support for a range of new features such as the addition of Apple AirPlay 2 and HomeKit, allowing use of Apple device screens and video to the Roku player experience. HomeKit will add control of the Roku through the Home app, or via Siri voice control entered through Apple devices.
We expect use and speeds might be improved further with the newer OS iteration.
With the model and OS on hand, we tested access for the most popular apps and found the 2020 Ultra was, indeed, slightly snappier than last year on select services. No. 1, of course, was Netflix, which takes just under 2 seconds to go from the fast-access button on the remoteinto the Netflix user interface, after account set up has been established. Getting into the selected program will take slightly longer.
Other apps, like Prime Video, and Disney+ took us two to three times as long after app authorization.
Roku Ultra continues to offer a range of voice control options, including use with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, but for many content searches we prefer the Roku experience.
This is especially the case using YouTube, where the Roku voice input search system was very responsive and accurate in determining selections to suggest from our audible input cues. We remain impressed with how accurately the system guides us to subject/content matter using basic trigger words.
Unless you really want to stream 4K content with Dolby Vision from a Roku player, anyone who now owns of 2019 or even 2018 Roku Ultra streaming player isn’t going to notice any huge breakthrough in features or performance with a 2020 version. Sure, the new one will be marginally better in a few areas, but no one’s life is going to change over it.
However, if you have a better-performing 4K Ultra HDTV with Dolby Vision and you’ve been dying to see why so many people seem to enjoy the Roku smart TV experience, this is a great choice to get channels that some smart TV platforms might not carry. Just keep in mind that one of the few apps Roku does not yet offer yet is AT&T/Warner Media’s new HBO Max app and service. So, if that’s going to be a deal breaker don’t get one. Keep in mind, you can still subscribe to premium HBO content through The Roku Channel, but without the original HBO Max content and expanded fare.
Frankly, the absence of HBO Max surprises us. Roku has always been very fast to add the latest and greatest new streaming apps, but as the service becomes bigger and more powerful, the content community seems to be pushing back on revenue sharing and the like. We don’t know if this issue will ever be resolved, but if your current smart TV has access to HBO Max, get it through your set and add on the Roku Ultra 2020 for other apps you might not have. Roku has a ton of esoteric streaming services that just might fit your particular pocket of interest.
In addition, those who order and activate prior a Roku Ultra prior to Jan. 31, 2021 will be able to get a three-month trial to the Apple TV Plus premium streaming channel. Further, those who buy the Roku Ultra before Nov. 6, 2020 and redeem before Nov. 8 will be eligible for a 3-month free trial of Pandora Premium.
In the end, we found the Roku Ultra 2020 to be faster, even easier to set up and use, and offering all of the data support to produce stellar picture and sound quality from a better quality Dolby Vision 4K Ultra HDTV. We therefore award the Roku Ultra 2020 five out of five hearts.
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By Greg Tarr
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