Roku's Ultra is an affordable streaming box amid a sea of streaming services

Jason Cipriani, CNN Underscored
Tue November 26, 2019

It's kind of amazing how many streaming services are available as we near the end of 2019. In a market where Netflix and Hulu once reigned supreme, we now have streaming services from nearly every major cable network, along with tech giants Amazon and Apple.

The shift from simply signing up for cable and picking which channels you want to watch now involves signing up for multiple monthly subscriptions and finding a streaming device.

Roku's been in the streaming device game for a while now, and recently the company announced a handful of updates, as well as new products in time for the holiday season.

The $99 Roku Ultra is billed as the company's "ultimate streaming player" thanks to its 4K HDR support and recent speed improvements.

Design

Roku updated the Ultra with a faster processor and improved Wi-Fi connectivity in October. The boost in performance is due to a new quad-core processor and 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi, which equates to less waiting while channels load and a stronger Wi-Fi connection with little or no buffering. Of course, that depends on your home's Wi-Fi quality. (If you're struggling to find a reliable Wi-Fi system, make sure to check out our review of Nest Wi-Fi; it's our top pick.)

The Ultra measures 4.9 inches by 4.9 by 0.85 and has an all-black housing. On the top of the Ultra is a button (more on this in a minute), a microSD card reader just below the HDMI port, an ethernet port and power connection on the back. On the right side of the housing is a USB port.

The microSD card reader enables you to add extra storage and the USB port is used to connect an external media player to the Ultra.

The Ultra comes with a power adapter, an enhanced voice remote, two AA batteries and a pair of headphones.

The remote is small, but not Apple TV small, and feature volume controls on the side instead of getting lost in the mishmash of controls on its face. After using the Roku Ultra, I think I prefer having volume controls on the side, complete with a mute button. It's far easier and more intuitive, simply because I know exactly where the controls are without having to glide a finger over the face of the remote to find my place, then make any adjustments.

Features and performance

There are two key features that need to be called out before anything else: A lost remote finder and private listening through the remote or mobile app.

The Roku Ultra box has a button, when pressed, will trigger the remote to play a sound — think of the blip of a submarine's sonar — and lasts long enough for you locate the lost remote.

You have two options to use private listening, either with the headphone jack on the side of the remote or with the iPhone or Android app. A pair of headphones is included with the device.

When using private listening, all audio is routed to your headphones in sync with whatever you're watching. This allows you to continue binging on the latest Netflix docuseries without keeping your partner awake.

I used my AirPods Pro with Roku's iPhone app, and outside of an occasional stutter, it was a smooth experience.

Roku's enhanced voice remote includes all of the necessary controls for adjusting the TV and interacting with the Roku's interface. There's a voice control button that you press to tell Roku to open an app or search for a show or movie.

There are also two customizable shortcut buttons that can be assigned to handle the task of your choosing. I assigned the first key to launch the Apple TV app, and the second to open HBO Go. Assigning a task to each button is as simple as giving a voice command and then holding in the button you want to use for that command.

The Ultra is capable of streaming shows in up to 4K HDR, provided the streaming service and the TV you're using supports it. For those with 4K UHD TVs or even standard HD TVs, the Ultra will upscale lower resolution video to match your TV's maximum output. In other words, even if you don't have a top 4K TV, the Ultra does the heavy lifting to ensure you get the best picture quality possible based on your TV.

I have a 4K HDR TV, and have to say that everything streamed through the Ultra looked clear and crisp. Apple TV+ shows were some of the best looking I've seen, almost frighteningly realistic at times.

Navigating and loading streaming channels and apps on the Ultra was as smooth and responsive as I've seen on Fire TV or Apple TV.

Roku supports a lot of channels, including ones I've never heard of like Fawesome.tv, to the recently launched Apple TV app. I have no doubt I'll ever be left longing for content on Roku's platform.

It's not the cheapest Roku, but it's the best

The $99 Roku Ultra is the most expensive 4K streaming device it offers, but it's also the fastest and includes a more capable remote.

Even at that price, the Roku Ultra is less expensive than the Apple TV 4K and offers the same basic experience, but in a different package.

The Roku Ultra will surely make a great gift to someone who is looking for a 4K-capable streaming device and, best of all, it doesn't cost a fortune.

You can order the new Roku Ultra right now for $99.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.