Let's make this clear: If Roku had baseball caps and team jerseys, I'd be wearing them. I'm that big a fanboy. No, I don't own stock in the company and have no connection to Roku other than owning several of its streaming players. But after trying a first-gen Amazon Fire TV stick and a Google Chromecast streamer several years ago, I picked up a Roku stick and never looked back.
I'm not dissing the Fire TV, Chromecast, or even Apple TV. Check out my colleague Dennis' review of the new Apple TV 4K and all our streaming media player reviews here, and let me know what you think. I'm interested in your thoughts, but I doubt they're going to change my mind. I suspect I'll remain a Roku fanboy for the foreseeable future, because the company seems to knows what it's doing and does it well.
It's newest flagship streamer, the Roku Ultra Model 4670X, is a great example. Like every other streaming device Roku has produced, the new Ultra is simple to set up and operate, has a robust feature set, provides more channels (apps) than most other streaming boxes, is reasonably priced, and typically works flawlessly.
During its dozen years in business, Roku has matured as gracefully as Christie Brinkley and Cindy Crawford, its products evolving with new features and higher performance capabilities. That describes the Roku Ultra introduced late last year, the fourth generation of the company's flagship streaming player. It looks just like its predecessors and could even be easily mistaken for my 3.5-year-old Roku Premiere. About the size of a pair of small smartphones laid side-by-side, the Ultra measures 0.85 inches thick and 4.9-inches square with rounded corners and a weight of 8 ounces. That makes it the largest of Roku's nine available models, but small enough to sit inconspicuously on a credenza or media rack or beneath just about any TV.
At a glance, the Ultra would be indistinguishable from my 2017 Premiere except for the inconspicuous "remote-finder" button that's flush with its top surface. The only other switch or button is a tiny reset on the undercarriage (although I can't recall ever having to reset any of my Roku devices). I haven't used the remote-finder, either, but it might come in handy. Press it for a second or two, and you'll hear a chirping sound coming from an Ultra remote that has slipped between a couple of sofa cushions or has been carried into another room and inadvertently left there.
The remote itself is probably the most conspicuous difference between the fourth-generation Ultra and its precursors. Feeling like a slightly wider, curvier stick of butter, it is a bit larger and heavier than other Roku remotes. It gets a new pair of customizable buttons labeled "1" and "2." In addition to the two programmable buttons, Roku also endowed the Ultra with every feature it has ever offered in a remote.
The Ultra, despite all of its features relative to the rest of Roku's lineup, is no more difficult to set up and configure than any other model. All the setup info anyone should need is contained in an eight-page, foldout booklet containing fewer words than the average Dr. Seuss book. The good doctor likely would appreciate the fact that the booklet's content consists mostly of clearly labeled illustrations. Even a first-time cord-cutter shouldn't need to spend more than a few minutes perusing the booklet to get the Ultra up and running.
That's assuming the user already has an HDMI cable (the Ultra doesn't come with one) and an available input on their TV. There is no other way to connect Roku's flagship streaming player. One reason the Ultra is so simple to set up is its sparsity of inputs, outputs, and buttons. It has a total of seven, including an HDMI 2.0a output jack and the remote-finder and reset buttons. There's also a power connector, an Ethernet port, a microSD slot for expanded channel storage, and a USB port that supports playback of all the popular video and music files along with JPEG photographs.
With an HDCP 2.2-compliant HDMI cable in hand (necessary for 4K HDR content), I plugged one end into the Ultra and the other into my TV. Then I connected the power cord, turned on the TV and selected the correct input. The remote control automatically paired with the Ultra as soon as I inserted the provided alkaline batteries. Once the remote was paired, I used it to walk through a series of simple on-screen steps that connected the Ultra to my WiFi network. The Ultra provides dual-band, 802.11ac connectivity, and its setup screen indicated it was getting an "excellent" signal from my router. Those with a less robust WiFi signal will appreciate the Ultra's Ethernet port.
That's pretty much all it takes to connect the Ultra, but you won't be able to download and stream channels until you set up a new Roku account or activate the device using an existing account. You can't do that on the device itself; you'll need a computer or mobile device, which some users might consider the lone hiccup in an otherwise effortless setup process. Another caveat: If you're setting up a new account, have a credit card handy.
A Roku account is free, and it doesn't cost anything to download channels. There's also plenty of free content among those channels, including Roku's own channel of burgeoning content (free and otherwise). You'll only be billed if you rent or buy on-demand content or subscribe to channels that charge a fee, but Roku nevertheless requires every account to have a credit card associated with it.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
For the most part, the Ultra's performance is as satisfying as its setup. The screen is divided into left and right sections, the right one corresponding to whatever is highlighted on the left. Sometimes, scrolling to the right brings up additional options, and you may need to scroll through more than one screen to make a selection or entry. The interface guides you through the steps, which are as intuitive as moving playing pieces around a board game.
You can operate the Ultra with the included remote or a Roku mobile app available on Google Play or Apple's App Store (or, in the case of Senior Editor Dennis Burger, a truly excellent two-way IP driver for Control4 automation systems). Because the mobile app works with any Roku, I'm not going to discuss it here other than to say it's full-featured, very popular, and highly regarded. It averages a 4.7-star (out of five) rating from nearly 933,000 Apple users and a 4.5 rating from nearly 388,000 Android users.
This might be a good time to note that despite offering both Android and iOS apps, screen mirroring is only supported for Android -- both currently and in Roku OS 9.3, scheduled for April rollout. The new OS wasn't available when this was written, but Roku said it will shorten boot and launch times, enhance voice searches and commands, offer increased customization options, and increase to more than 50 the number of channels that offer direct playback of programs from search. Unlike Android and Windows users, who can mirror their devices, iOS and Mac users will still be limited to casting only personal photos, videos, and music and content from certain apps (such as Netflix and YouTube).
Getting back to Roku's highly regarded app, I nevertheless prefer the Ultra's real remote. Its size, shape, and well-spaced buttons make for easy, no-look, one-handed operation that negates the need for a backlit remote. Over the years, Roku devices have frequently been distinguished by their remotes: The more expensive the player, the better the remote. Some may be able to control TV volume, while others have microphones for voice control or headphone jacks for private listening.
The fourth-gen Ultra's remote has all of the above and then some, possessing every feature Roku has ever offered in a clicker. The voice control is somewhat rudimentary compared to true digital assistants, but you can control playback functions (pause, fast-forward, rewind, etc.); launch channels; and perform basic genre, title, actor. and program searches. I particularly got a kick out of being able to find movies by simply uttering something such as, "Who said, `This is the start of a beautiful friendship'?" and being presented with a list of channels offering Casablanca. You can find all of Roku's expanding list of voice command capabilities here.
Voice commands are used to program the remote's two personal shortcut buttons, too. Programming is simple: Hold down the remote's microphone button while giving a command, then release it and press and hold one of the shortcut buttons until it chirps. Roku suggests using the buttons to create shortcuts such as "Play rock on Pandora" or "Turn captions on," and I suppose pressing a single button once is more convenient than holding the mic button and verbally issuing those commands. But my favorite use was for quick access to programs on which I'd been binging. For example, I programmed a button to start playing the Navy SEALs drama Six on Hulu right where I'd left off. Very cool. And because the process is so easy, I reprogrammed a button every time I began a new binge.
The remote also makes life easier by incorporating both wireless and IR capabilities. Having the former means the Ultra can be operated without line-of-sight. Having IR enables the remote to control your TV's power and volume using the rocker switch and mute button on the right side of the remote. It can't directly control other audio devices, such as a receiver or non-Roku soundbar, but it can do so indirectly if your audio device and TV support HDMI CEC and are connected and configured to use it. For example, I used the Ultra remote to control power and adjust volume on a CEC-capable TV and non-Roku soundbar.
Like its remote, the Ultra streaming player performed beautifully. Yet it doesn't represent a dramatic upgrade over its predecessor, the Ultra Model 4661X. The biggest difference, according to Roku, is that it is quicker to load and launch channels. I've never used its predecessor, but the new Ultra was noticeably faster during setup and while downloading my favorite channels than any of my other Roku devices.
That's an anecdotal impression, but thanks in parts to Dennis' own testing, I do have statistical evidence that the fourth-generation Ultra is faster than its predecessors. For example, the new Ultra took an average of 1.98 seconds to load the Netflix user-select screen. Dennis' average time to do the same thing with its predecessor was 3.05 seconds. My old Roku Premiere Model 4620X (from 2016) and Roku 2 Model 4210X (2015) took an average of 3.25 and 3.85 seconds, respectively. The results were similar for launching programs from the Netflix home page. My launch times for the fourth-gen Ultra ranged from 2.52 to 2.92 seconds. Dennis got an average 3.2 seconds with his third-gen Ultra. I recorded 3.2 to 4.5 seconds with the Premiere and 4.5 seconds or slower with the Roku 2.
An extra second or two to launch a channel or a program is not a big deal when evaluating the user experience, but the difference was much more dramatic with some other channels. For example, it took the new Ultra an average of 7.8 seconds to launch Disney+ from the Roku home page. That was at least 4.5 seconds faster than my Premiere and 5.1 seconds faster than the Roku 2. Those were some of the biggest disparities I got, but the Ultra was always noticeably and measurably faster launching channels and programs than the older Roku devices. For point of reference, my actual WiFi download speeds during testing were typically 50 to 60 Mbps using a TP-Link 802.11ac, dual-band AC4000 router.
It's worth noting at this point that the Ultra achieved its load times while delivering 4K HDR10 content, while the Premiere and Roku 2 maxed out at 1080p and 720p, respectively. Once a program started, the Ultra never failed to deliver an excellent picture with absolutely no buffering hiccups.
The Ultra has room for plenty of channels and a microSD slot if its built-in storage isn't enough. I downloaded nearly 130 channels and never got a message that I needed to use a memory card. Although I admittedly only watched a couple dozen of them, I also never noticed the Ultra having to offload channels and then download them again at selection because its internal memory capacity had been exceeded. Dennis, however, has far fewer than 130 channels on his third-generation Ultra and did have to install a microSD card to avoid channels being offloaded and re-downloaded when needed.
One of the major downsides of this new Roku Ultra is that it still doesn't support Dolby Vision. Many Roku TVs do, so it's obvious that Roku isn't entirely allergic to Dolby Vision, but none of its standalone players -- even this flagship model -- supports 12-bit HDR. That leaves the two custom buttons and the faster load times as the most significant upgrades over the previous-generation Ultra, making it a hard sell if you already own an Ultra and are looking for a reason to upgrade.
Although Roku's flagship streamer features a voice-activated remote and can also be controlled using Google Assistant or Amazon Echo devices, it can't send commands to those personal digital assistant ecosystems, meaning you can't use it to control smart home devices, etc.
Competition and Comparisons
The Roku Ultra's most obvious competitors are the $180 Apple TV 4K, $150 Nvidia Shield TV and $120 Amazon Fire TV Cube. I have no hands-on experience with any of those devices, so my comparison is going to be limited to their specs and prices.
At $100, Roku's Ultra is the least expensive of these flagship streamers, significantly so compared with the Apple and Nvidia offerings. However, all three competitors offer Dolby Vision video and Dolby Atmos for Netflix. The Apple and Nvidia devices don't support the VP9 Profile 2 codec, though, so they won't play 4K/HDR content from YouTube.
Amazon's Fire TV Cube also has Alexa built-in. Since an Echo device is typically going to cost $30-40, having one built into the Fire TV Cube makes its $20 premium over the Ultra look like a pretty good value. Nvidia's Shield has Google Assistant built in, but it costs $50 more than the Roku so that alone doesn't make it a bargain.
Roku's streaming platform is generally acknowledged to provide access to more apps than any other streaming platform, but all three competitors provide access to the most popular streaming services. The notable exception is the Fire TV Cube, which doesn't support Vudu unless you sideload it. At least that's what I've heard. Personally, I'm not sure I know what it means, nor do I care. I shouldn't have to hack my media streamer.
The general consensus is that Roku also has the least cluttered, most intuitive interface and menus, but that the Fire TV Cube, Apple TV 4K, and Nvidia Shield are considered to have somewhat more robust voice control capabilities. That would probably mean more to me if I wasn't constantly frustrated by both my Google Assistant and Echo devices because they don't respond to the same simple command (such as "Turn on the basement light.") from one day to the next.
Bargain hunters might believe the Roku Ultra's toughest competitor is Roku's own $50 Streaming Stick+. Because it provides access to Roku's appealing streaming platform and delivers most of the Ultra's big-ticket performance features at half the price, it has been the top pick in countless streaming device roundups. Unlike the Ultra, the Streaming Stick+ doesn't come with earbuds, doesn't have a remote finder, and lacks the Ultra's microSD, USB, and Ethernet ports. Also, its remote lacks a headphone jack and programmable shortcut buttons. But if you're sold on getting a Roku streamer, only you can decide whether or not those features make the Ultra worth twice as much as a Streaming Stick+.
Home Theater Review readers are more tech-savvy than the average person. That might not be a great revelation, but it is definitely important to the context of this review. Many of you have friends, relatives, kids, spouses, roommates, etc. who aren't as comfortable with technology as you are. If you're considering a new streaming device that primarily will be used by someone who isn't as tech-savvy as you or are recommending one to grandparents looking to cut the cord, ease-of-use should be a major factor. Would your grandparents rather have a streamer with Dolby Vision or one that is as easy to use as their TV?
We both know the answer to that question, which at least partially explains why Roku's streaming platform is by far the most popular in the U.S. According to David Watkins, a director with Strategy Analytics, there were 54 million active Roku devices at the end of last year. At that time, the next-closest streaming platform in popularity was Fire TV, with 40 million active devices. Other reasons for Roku's popularity include the platform's longevity and device selection. Only Apple TV has been around (slightly) longer, and nobody offers more entrées into its streaming world than Roku, which currently lists nine different standalone streaming players on its website. Its platform also is built right into a couple of soundbars and at least a dozen different brands of TV.
As Roku's top-of-the-line standalone streaming player, the Ultra embodies all the qualities that make the company's streaming platform so popular. It's not perfect: Bargain hunters can argue it's not Roku's best value, and the absence of Dolby Vision and HDR10+ may be a deal-breaker to those with TVs capable of delivering those technologies. But for everyone else, the Ultra is a great performing, simple-to-operate and feature-packed way to access America's most popular streaming platform.
• Visit the Roku website for more product information.
• Check out our Streaming Media Player category page to read similar reviews.
• Read HomeTheaterReview's Streaming Media Player Buyer's Guide.