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The Streamable Search

FIRST LOOK: Roku Ultra (2019) Review – Should You Upgrade From 2018 Roku Ultra?

Jason Gurwin

Last month, Roku announced an updated Roku Ultra which comes with two new features Fast Channel Launching and an updated remote with two customizable buttons.

The device begins shipping today, but we got an early look at the device and these are our thoughts on the 2019 Roku Ultra streaming player.

Roku Ultra (2019)

What’s New

The device itself is identical in form-factor to the 2018 (and 2017) Roku Ultra. In fact, if you didn’t look at the product label underneath the device, there is no way to physically tell the difference.

The most noticeable change between the the two devices in the updated remote with personal shortcut buttons, which replace the “A/B” gaming buttons that were hardly used on the previous generation’s remote. Also, the new remote includes a mute button on the right side which comes as a handy addition to the volume rocker.

What’s In The Box

Roku Ultra (2019)

When you first open the box, you’ll see the Roku Ultra, which like previous generations is about the size of a small portable hard drive. It has the familiar matte black of other Roku devices, which blends in nicely with most A/V hardware that you’ll have in your console.

Underneath the device, you’ll find a user guide, as well as the newly enhanced remote (with batteries), power adapter, and the included premium JBL earbuds — which Roku started bundling with the 2018 edition of the Ultra. The JBL earbuds are identical to the pair that came with last year’s model, which are nice to use for private listening with the built-in headphone jack on the remote.

Just like the 2017 and 2018 models of the Roku Ultra — the 2019 Roku Ultra — includes a built-in 10/100 Ethernet port, 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless, microSD card slot for additional channel storage, and USB port for local video playback.

Roku Ultra (2019)

Remote

Much of what you have to know about the 2019 Roku Ultra is the updated remote. As we said in the intro, the Enhanced Voice Remote has a few new buttons. A mute button on the right, as well as two customizable buttons that replace the A/B gaming buttons.

The customizable buttons must be programmed by voice, meaning that anything you can do with a single-command by voice can be assigned to a button. To program it, you press and say a voice command like “Launch fuboTV”, then hold down one of the customizable buttons for 2 seconds. You will hear a quick beep and then your last voice command gets assigned to the button.

Roku has a long list of voice search options including launching channels, browsing genres, specific shows, playing music channels, or controlling playback. For instance, you could add a custom button to turn on closed captioning. However, we couldn’t find a way to set-up the button to toggle captions, so you’d have to manually turn them back off.

Some users might use it to play their favorite playlist on a music service like Pandora — for instance “play Taylor Swift radio.” Others might add an additional Playback command like “skip 1 minute” — which won’t work across all channels, but will on some like The Roku Channel.

Since the buttons don’t have any indicator on them, you’ll have to remember the shortcuts assigned to each button. The one annoying feature of the new buttons is they play an audible “beep” every time you press them — which we hope they mute in a software update. It would also be nice to be able to program the buttons to control your TV to do things like change input.

Besides the custom buttons, the addition of the mute button is a subtle, but a much needed enhancement. Before you would have to just volume your way down to turn off sound — now it’s just a button press away.

Just like the older Roku Ultra devices, on the left side is a headphone jack which lets you enable private listening. This is a great feature especially for those who want to watch TV, but share a room with someone on a different sleep schedule.

One thing that has never been added to the Roku remote, that we would love to see in a future edition is backlight on the buttons. It would be the great enhancement, similar to private listening, to improve the experience late at night.

Overall, the improvements to the Roku remote are useful. You’ll most likely customize the buttons to launch your favorite apps (if they aren’t already pre-assigned on the remote).

Roku Ultra (2019)

Set-Up

One nice improvement over the 2018 Roku Ultra was a streamlined set-up — since the device comes pre-loaded with Roku OS 9.2. We didn’t need to pair our remote for it to work out-of-the-box (you will still need to do a quick set-up to control your TV) and when we were finished it played a nice tutorial on how to use the Roku.

Since Roku devices are the first streaming player for a lot of users, they have nailed the on-boarding experience for even the most novice technophile.

Performance

The other major feature that Roku touted in the 2019 Roku Ultra is up to 20% faster channel launching. While the 2019 Roku Ultra performs well, the performance isn’t noticeably better than the 2018 Roku Ultra. The insides of the device are identical to the 2017 & 2018 editions with an ARM Cortex A53, 1GB of memory, and 512MB of channel storage.

To test the device, we launched and streamed three different Live TV Streaming Services to measure launch time and time to first video load — which Roku said would see the biggest difference in speed.

In our tests, PlayStation Vue, fuboTV, and Sling TV had nearly identical launch times between the 2018 and 2019 editions.

2018 Roku Ultra
2019 Roku Ultra

When loading or switching between a live channel, the three services saw very different, but not necessarily better results.

PlayStation Vue was actually slower on the 2019 model — which may be because the app has yet to be optimized for Roku OS 9.2 (the 2018 model was running Roku OS 9.1). fuboTV loaded video about 10% faster than on the 2018 model, while Sling TV saw video load times that were 25% slower (which only amounts to about a half second).

These tests were not perfect, but we had hoped to see more conclusive speed gains especially when launching the apps for the first time. Don’t expect huge, if any speed gains on the new version — instead expect to see the same quality performance of the 2017 & 2018 Roku Ultra.

4K Streaming

The device supports 4K HDR streaming including HDR10, but doesn’t support Dolby Vision. While there isn’t a lot of content that this will affect, it’s good to know if you are trying to future proof.

Audio

The device supports audio via Dolby Digital and Dolby Atmos pass through over HDMI.

Roku Ultra (2019)

Should You Buy It?

The 2019 Roku Ultra ($99) is the top-of-the-line Roku device. The reason to buy it over the lower priced Roku Streaming Stick+ is for the built-in Ethernet port, SD Card slot for additional channel storage, and USB port for local video playback.

The Roku Ultra is the only Roku device that comes with the Enhanced Voice Remote which includes a headphone-jack for Private Listening Mode, as well as the newly-added mute button and customizable buttons that only come in the 2019 edition.

We would definitely recommend the 2019 Roku Ultra for someone who wants to guarantee consistent live streaming performance.

The Roku Ultra has a built-in 10/100 Ethernet port, so while it does not have Gigabit Ethernet, the ability to hardwire to your router, will give it a leg up to other Roku models. But, if you are going to use Wi-Fi, you can probably get away with the lower-priced Roku Streaming Stick+ ($59) — which also has 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless.

If you have the 2017 or 2018 Roku Ultra, we wouldn’t rush out to upgrade just yet. Performance-wise it’s about the same as the earlier models, with the remote being the biggest enhancement. In fact, with the addition of the 2019 Roku Ultra, one of the best streaming player deals you’ll be able to find is the 2018 Roku Ultra, which has been dropped to just $69.99 at most stores.

For those that want the top-of-the-line in Roku devices though, with the only customizable Roku remote, you won’t be disappointed by the 2019 Roku Ultra.

Roku Ultra (2019)