Review: Roku Ultra Streams Brilliant HDR 4K Video
Adding HDR 10 high dynamic range (HDR) support, to a package containing a powerful quad core processor, and fast dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity, the new premium Roku Ultra set-top media streamer provides one of the most complete solutions for receiving the best video quality the Web has to offer.
The inclusion of HDR makes 4K Ultra HD a suddenly very sensible enhanced feature benefit, by presenting improvements in contrast and color are a very noticeable.
To get the most out of this device, a higher-performing 4K Ultra HDTV will be necessary. This will enable you to enjoy both the high resolution and wide contrast performance benefits offered by streaming videos encoded with HDR metadata as well as 8x better resolution benefits of 4K Ultra HD.
If you don’t have a 4K Ultra HDTV with HDR and don’t plan on getting one, a less expensive Roku option is available from among the list of new devices the company just introduced along with the $129.99 Roku Ultra.
The new flagship Roku rings in at the same price as last year’s Roku 4, which brought 4K Ultra HD streaming to the Roku family for the first time, and there are many similarities between that device and the Roku Ultra. But the Ultra nearly completes the 4K Ultra HD picture with the addition of HDR. But the new streamer supports only the HDR 10 format, and does not support the rival Dolby Vision system, which is currently found on a handful of movies from Warner Bros. and others on the Vudu streaming app. You can still watch those movies in 4K resolution, but you won’t get the boost in brightness, contrast and color of HDR that makes pictures pop. Luckily, the libraries of supporting HDR 10 content is ramping up, so plenty of options are now or will soon be available to test the new performance benefits available by this latest advancement.
Read more of our review of the Roku Ultra after the jump:
Ultra HD streaming content supporting HDR from services such as Amazon, Netflix and others literally glows in comparison to content with standard dynamic range (SDR). It brings a much wider contrast ratio to the image with the ability to present both deeper black levels and brighter whites plus additional colors and fine details at both ranges of the brightness spectrum. Better yet, all of these benefits are visible on the same screen at the same time.
The Roku Ultra is pitted against Amazon Fire TV at $99.99 (without HDR), Nvidia Shield 4K UHD with HDR streamer at $250, the latest $69 Chromecast with 4K UHD, HDR 10 and Dolby Vision support, and the Xiaomi Mi Box Android TV streamer at $69 with 4K UHD and HDR 10 support.
The Roku Ultra is about half the size of the previous Roku 4 and looks much like the new and somewhat less-featured Roku Premiere and Premiere+ boxes. The Ultra measures 4.9-inch square with rounded corners looking down from the top and 0.85 inches tall. It has glossy black sides and a matte black top. Alongside the Roku logo on the top panel is a button that can be pressed to find the remote control if it happens to disappear into the sofa cushions or the dog’s bed. When pressed the remote emits a series of bright beeps to assist in a quick retrieval.
A key reason for stepping up to the Roku Ultra is the output options it affords. The back panel has an HDMI port, power connector, Ethernet port, and microSD card slot (to be used to store additional apps that won’t fit in the unit’s on-board memory). Unlike the Premiere+ model, the Ultra also adds an optical audio output to connect to a supporting AV receiver that might not have an available HDMI input. A USB port is also placed on the unit’s right side, enabling the connection of an external USB drive to play various media files.
For wireless connectivity, the Roku Ultra continues to offer 802.11ac with MIMO to go with b/g/n Wi-Fi and HDCP 2.2 copy protection, which appeared in the Roku 4. This makes for smoother and faster streaming of content over the home network, between the cable modem and the display. As in the past, linking the Roku Ultra with a Wi-Fi network proved easy and fast.
As the saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The user experience through Ultra’s user interface is very much the same as its been for multiple Roku generations, including the snappy response from the quad-core processor that was first included in last year’s Roku 4. The on-screen user interface is the same simple layout of loaded app tiles on the right and a list of additional options to find movies and apps on the left. In addition, the Roku Ultra has voice search capability through a mic in the handset. Pressing and holding the button carrying a magnifying glass icon activates voice command mode. Calling out the name of a title quickly presents the viewer with a screen full of listings. Selecting the most appropriate one brings up a screen listing the various apps where the title can be found. Selections are listed in order of by price, starting with the least expensive offering and working up. Free options are first, followed by rental and purchase fees. Unlike some competitive devices, Roku’s programming suggestions are presented without prioritizing specific services or apps.
The remote for the Roku Ultra is virtually identical to the one that was included with the Roku 4. The primary difference is a matt black top plate instead of a piano black one. In addition, the newer remote now includes quick access buttons for the Hulu and Showtime apps, instead of the “rdio” and Amazon apps included in the last iteration. Both versions include buttons for Netflix and Sling.
The remote continues to include a headphone jack so one person can watch and listen to a program while others in the room sleep, read or whatever else they might want to do in silence. As previously mentioned, the remote continues to include a built-in mic to take spoken search commands and includes the useful remote finder feature, both of which were introduced in last year’s flagship streamer.
The remote measures 5.5 x 1.6 x 1.1 inches, has a thick rounded, textured matt-black bottom matching the top and is well balanced to fit comfortably in the hand. The top of the remote carries a layout of 14 buttons plus a purple up/down/left/right cross-shaped arrow key positioned at the top-end center of the remote just below the back and home buttons. At the bottom of the button layout are sideways positioned A and B buttons that act as gamepad controls along with the arrow keys.
The headphone jack is found on the left side of the remote and allows listening to the TV volume with the set’s speaker automatically muted. Volume can be adjusted with high/low button controls on the right side of the remote. A pinhole for the built-in microphone is found on the top front. In addition to the supplied remote, the Roku Ultra can be controlled using the Roku App on Android and iOS-based smartphones and tablets. The app also supports voice searches or typing in search commands. It will also assist in streaming videos, music and photos from the handheld device to the Roku box.
4K Ultra HD and HDR
Not only will the Roku Ultra support 4K Ultra HD, it will support 4K at up to 60Hz and in high dynamic range (HDR). Several original series offered on Amazon are already providing content at this frame rate.
App channels offering 4K video playable on the Roku 4 include: Amazon, YouTube, Vudu and Fandango. In addition, the Roku Ultra will support 4K downloads through the included USB and Plex app, with the addition of an external storage device.
As mentioned, the Roku Ultra will allow HDR streaming, although depending on the service used it can be a little tricky finding which titles are encoded with HDR 10. Roku offers a nice 4K Spotlight app which aggregates all of the 4K Ultra selections available without having to hunt app by app. The app now calls out movies available with HDR. I found that using the voice command on the remote and saying HDR content called up a list of suggested options I could choose to dig deeper into the services providing them.
I found using Netflix for 4K Ultra HD and HDR to be more problematic. I could call up a list of HDR titles the service carries in the app’s search engine, but had difficulty streaming those titles showing HDR and 4K Ultra HD resolution. Using the Amazon app for 4K HDR was more effective and satisfying. Most services recommend minimum broadband speeds of 11 to 25 Mbps for optimal viewing, and at certain times of the day, the quality of playback took a few minutes to ramp up to satisfactory levels. This is not the fault of the Roku Ultra, however, as similar issues resulted in content streamed directly through a smart TV app on the set. One method for ensuring optimal speed in the house is to use a wired Ethernet connection to the router instead of wireless Wi-Fi, but if you have a newer router and modem with 802.11ac capability or better you should enjoy a pretty robust home network connection without going to a physical cable. Conditions vary everywhere, of course.
Another issue some users will encounter is the need to manually shift the TV or display into the desired HDR playback mode. Most higher quality sets are designed to recognize an incoming HDR signal and automatically shift the TV settings into the correct mode. However, with some brands, like Sony and Hisense, this isn’t always the case. I found that to get the desired HDR effects, I had to go into the Sony XBR-55X930D picture settings and select HDR Mode from the Picture Mode settings before watching the streamed HDR content. This is an issue with the TV, however, as I noticed the same problem on some (though not all) 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray titles form second tier studios.
Loading and playing back of the Amazon 4K/HDR original series like Red Oaks was fast and simple. Playback over my Comcast broadband service flowed unimpeded by buffering, although it was apparent that resolution was periodically down scaled at times, and motion sequences showed more pronounced judder issues as a result of the bandwidth limitations.
The HDR benefits were clear and vibrant with bright picture elements standing out brilliantly from the surrounding background. Facial highlight lighting in appeared to glow with enhanced warm color tones.
As with all Roku media adapters, the Roku Ultra offers a vast selection of apps that are selectable through a “Roku Channel Store” section. The store offers a huge selection including all of the major apps, such as: Amazon, Hulu, MLB, Netflix, NFL, Sling, Fandango, Smithsonian, Vudu and YouTube, with thousands more offering both broad and special-interest fare in multiple languages. Roku also offers a broad selection of games, although most are basic smartphone-level experiences, lacking the depth and realism of most console-based titles.
The Roku Ultra continues in the tradition of past Roku streaming adapters, offering a huge collective library of advanced, easy-to-use over-the-top video, audio and gaming selections. The addition of HDR 10 is a welcome benefit that allows owners of new 4K Ultra HDTVs to enjoy most of the benefits of their displays from more services and content providers than might be included in the TV set’s own smart streaming platform. However, the exclusion of Dolby Vision support might give owners of new Vizio and LG TVs pause, since those HDR benefits will not be delivered to their Dolby Vision-supporting TVs. In contrast, Google’s latest $69 Chromecast device will deliver both HDR flavors.
Next year the ranks of Dolby Vision supporting TV brands is expected to swell significantly, which will require yet another Roku flagship model or a firmware update (if that’s even possible).
Still, Roku provides a wide rage of usage possibilities. For example, all Roku devices are now designed to work with Wi-Fi networks requiring sign-on through a browser, such as those found in hotels and dorms. This enables taking the Roku Ultra (and other 2016 Roku boxes and sticks) on trips letting users continue watching favorite programs where ever they go.
The Ultra is Roku’s most impressive streaming device to date, although it’s not for everyone. Those without HDR-enabled displays can find less expensive options in the Roku Premiere and Premiere+ models. In fact, the $100 Premiere+ also includes many of the same features as the Ultra — including HDR support. But this comes at the sacrifice of the optical audio connector, which can be very handy to some people, USB connections, and voice-search ready remote.
Still, the Roku Ultra is a fantastic solution for cutting-edge videophiles and 4K/HDR newbies alike who want access to all of the latest and greatest apps. And at $129.99, it’s not going to break the bank if you decide to upgrade to get Dolby Vision or something else in a year or two. It also isn’t going to require the use of a second screen device to stream content, like some Google Cast enabled models. Although, you can use the Ultra with a mobile device to mirror content or control the player, if you want to.
We therefore award the Roku Ultra 4.5 out of 5 hearts.
By Greg Tarr
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