Roku Ultra and Streaming Stick+ review: High-end streaming with low-end frills

Samuel Axon

Roku announced five different streaming devices. As part of an effort to map the streaming box landscape, we’re going to look at the two that support 4K video—the Roku Ultra and the Roku Streaming Stick+—to see how they measure up. We’re reviewing these together because they offer very similar features and are oriented towards a similar target user—someone who wants 4K HDR streaming on their TV. All the other Roku devices cap out at 1080p.

Both devices compete with the Google Chromecast Ultra, the Amazon Fire TV, the Apple TV 4K, and the NVIDIA Shield TV at the high end of the streaming device market. Most of those other gadgets outdo the Roku Ultra and Streaming Stick+ in some key areas, but Roku has another advantage: its devices are not tied to any particular online content marketplace.

Users who value staying neutral in Google, Amazon, and Apple’s ongoing struggle for dominance will find both of Roku’s 4K streamers adequate. But despite Roku’s status as the Switzerland of streaming, several of these competing devices outdo the Ultra and Stick+ in the end.

What’s the difference?

The Roku Ultra and Streaming Stick+ use the same software—Roku OS 8—and should offer the same image and audio quality. They have all the same apps and content. All the differences are in the hardware and how the devices interact with other technology in your home.

The Roku Ultra is a streaming box that plugs into a wall socket for power and connects to your TV with an HDMI cable, just like the Apple TV. The Roku Streaming Stick+, on the other hand, is an evolution of the dongle. It’s meant to be plugged directly into your TV’s HDMI port, and it has another component that plugs into your TV’s USB port or to wall power.

The Streaming Stick+ connects to your home network over Wi-Fi. The Ultra can do that too, but it also has an Ethernet port—ideal for interruption-free 4K video streaming. The Ultra has a USB port for sideloading content, whereas the Streaming Stick+ does not. There’s a microSD port on the Ultra, too. And finally, the Roku Ultra has an IR receiver so it can work with some universal remotes.

The differences continue in the remotes, too. The Streaming Stick+ has a slightly thinner remote, but the Ultra’s remote adds two things the other model doesn’t have: “A” and “B” buttons for playing games and a headphone jack for private listening. You can also press a button on the Ultra to cause the remote to make a sound so you can find it if you lose it.

The Roku Ultra is priced at $99.99, the Streaming Stick+ is $69.99.

It’s likely the Ultra’s Ethernet and USB ports will be what draw consumers to spend the extra $30, if anything, but most people will probably get by just fine with the Streaming Stick+.

Hardware

Roku Ultra

The new Roku Ultra looks exactly the same as its predecessor. It’s made of plastic, weighs eight ounces, and measures 4.9 x 4.9 x 0.85 inches. The top plastic panel is slightly indented, and it prominently features the word “Roku” alongside a small button that can cause the device’s remote to make a noise when you’ve lost it. It has a fairly useless piece of purple cloth sticking out the left side and a USB port on the right side.

The back has a DC-in power plug, a 10/100 Base-T Ethernet port, one HDMI 2.0a port, and a microSD slot. The bottom panel is made of rubber and features a subtle reset button next to the serial number and manufacturer information. If you don’t have an Ethernet port handy, you can connect with Wi-Fi; it supports 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless.

Included with the main unit in the box are the remote, a power adapter, and a pair of AA batteries for the remote. I also found a pair of Roku’s 3.5mm earbuds in the box, but they’re not listed on the official spec sheet, so that may just be for the review unit Roku sent Ars. Some prior Roku models have included the earbuds, in any case.

Turning to the remote, we have a whole bunch of buttons for a streaming box remote. On the front, there’s a power button, a back button, a home button, arrow buttons with an OK selection button in the middle, rewind, fast forward, pause, the multi-function “*” button, a button to hold down when you want to use your voice, two video game controller buttons, and a replay button.

There are also four buttons for quick access to certain channels—Netflix, Sling TV, Hulu, and HBO Now—on this device. These cannot be remapped and are completely pointless if you don’t use those services. I’m wildly speculating here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were included as part of some monetary deal between Roku and those platforms. But who knows.

One of the best features in the Roku Ultra is the 3.5mm jack on the side of its remote, which enables private listening when you plug headphones in. I’ve always enjoyed this feature on the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 controller when using the console as a streaming device; it makes sharing the living room with family members who might not be interested in what you’re watching a lot easier. To get the same experience on the Apple TV 4K, you’d need Apple’s relatively expensive wireless AirPods.

You can get this same functionality on the Streaming Stick+ if you use the Roku mobile app and connect your headphones to your phone—assuming your phone has a headphone jack, of course. But the simplicity of doing it right on the Ultra’s basic remote is the most elegant solution.

Roku Streaming Stick+

The Streaming Stick+ is a whole different beast. It has two primary components: the stick itself, which is 3.7 inches long with the word “Roku” written across the top and the serial number and other manufacturer info on the bottom. It’s not a USB stick; the connector at the end is HDMI. But on the opposite end from HDMI you’ll find a miniUSB port and a reset button.

Don’t get too excited about the miniUSB port, though. It only works with one thing—the Wi-Fi dongle. That’s basically a USB cable that I measured at about 15 inches long, and it has a bulky bit of hardware in the middle that acts as a Wi-Fi receiver. On one end of the cable is the microUSB that plugs into the HDMI stick, and the other end is a standard USB plug that can connect to your TV for power.

In the box you’ll find a male-female USB extension cable that measures in at just under 50 inches, plus a USB power adapter for powering the device from the wall in case your TV doesn’t have a free USB port. There’s also the remote and three AAA batteries to power it.

Your only connectivity option is 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless. But hey, at least Roku claims the awkward Wi-Fi cord gives this device better wireless range than the standard Roku Streaming Stick.

The remote is the nearly same as the Roku Ultra remote, but it’s a little thinner, it lacks the 3.5mm headphone jack, it doesn’t have the two video game control buttons, and it has a PlayStation Vue button instead of HBO Now.

Setup and installation

To start using the Roku devices, you just have to plug them in and turn them on. For the Streaming Stick+, you plug it into both a USB port and an HDMI port on your TV (or in lieu of USB on your TV, use the USB power adapter to plug it into a wall socket). HDMI is built into the device, so no additional HDMI cable is needed.

With the Roku Ultra, you plug a power adapter into a wall outlet and HDMI into the TV, but the HDMI cable is not included. Plug in your Ethernet cable if you want to go wired, then put batteries in the remote, and you’re good to get started.

When you hit the power button on the remote, the Roku boots up to ask you which language you want and prompts you to enter your network information if you’re connecting with Wi-Fi. As soon as you’ve entered your network information, the device will download an update and reboot, but it’s very fast.

The device tries to automatically detect your display type for 4K and HDR output and verifies if it needs to go with 4:2:0 or 4:2:2 subsampling. Then the Ultra starts trying to set up the ability to control your TV’s power and volume with your Roku remote. It will play some music, and ask you if you hear the music. If you say yes, it will then signal to the TV to mute and ask if the music is still going. If you say no, it takes that as confirmation that its communication with the TV is working well. If this doesn’t work, the Ultra first asks you to identify your TV’s manufacturer, then runs through a series of channels asking you if the music has stopped or not until it hits on the right channel.

In the majority of cases, this process will work on the first try. However, your mileage may vary depending on your audio setup. My sound system is a little older than the rest of the gear in my home theater, and it doesn’t support HDR passthrough. So while many people pass all their media devices through the sound system with HDMI, I have all my media devices connected directly to my TV with HDMI and have the TV connected to the audio receiver via optical. Not surprisingly, the Roku didn’t know that I had a sound system and that I always have the TV audio turned all the way down to allow the sound system to do its thing. If you had a similar setup and didn’t understand what was going on, I could foresee some confusion.

Next, you have to authenticate the device by inputting a code on Roku’s website using your phone, tablet, or computer. From there, you’re using your computing device to finish the setup process. You create or sign into a Roku account, then select which channels you want to put prominently in the Roku’s interface. You can set up and configure Hulu, Amazon, and Sling TV here, among a few others—but Netflix isn’t on the list. You can watch Netflix on the Roku device, but you have to do a separate process for that service once the Roku is up and running.

You’ll be asked to authenticate with some of the services you’ve selected by visiting their websites and signing in to give Roku access to your account. Then, you’ll be presented with a bunch of special offers for subscription services. And then, your Roku is finally ready to go.

If several graphs of setup description don’t give it away, I found this process to be a bit arduous. But at least you only have to do it once.

Advertising, promotions, and privacy

Most of the other streaming devices from Apple, Amazon, or Google are tied to a digital storefront that provides revenue for the companies that make them.

While Roku is getting more and more into providing content itself (more on that shortly), the company doesn’t have the advantage of that revenue stream. Roku presumably has to make money somewhere, apart from the hardware sale, so the company has a few things going on that you won’t find on an Apple TV, for example.

The first is that when you sign up, Roku offers you promotions on connected services like Hulu, Amazon, and Sling TV. Presumably, Roku gets a cut if you pay for services from these through its installation process. Other devices might have these kinds of deals, but the Roku feels like it’s pushing them harder.

The ads aren't invasive, but they're weird to see in a top-end device.
Enlarge / The ads aren’t invasive, but they’re weird to see in a top-end device.
Samuel Axon

The second is that Roku shows you ads while you browse between channels and apps. There is no way to disable these ads. On the lower end Roku devices, I don’t think ads fly in the face of user expectations, but they’re out of place on the Ultra or even on the Streaming Stick+. I just don’t expect to be forced to see ads all the time on the highest-end streaming devices.

Additionally, Roku tracks your personal activity data to display ads based on your activities. You can “limit” ad tracking in the privacy settings, which stops Roku from collecting data, but Roku’s disclaimer on the feature says this doesn’t necessarily stop individual app providers from collecting data on your habits.

On the plus side for privacy, Roku allows you to customize each individual channel’s access to the microphone. You can always allow microphone access, never allow it, or make a channel prompt you to use it at the first attempt.

Maybe advertising and marketing offers are the price to pay for an independent platform. If that’s the case, many users will find these inconveniences worth it. Still, they’re a little jarring if you’re coming from a cleaner experience like an Apple TV.

4K and HDR

If you’re buying the Roku Ultra or the Streaming Stick+ over the cheaper Roku models, it’s probably because you want 4K and HDR video. You won’t be disappointed; picture quality is good. Of course, the bitrate on streaming services is not going to match that of an Ultra HD Blu-ray, but most users wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I can only see artifacts in certain programming, but it doesn’t bother me in most cases.

The bump to 4K from 1080p is noticeable, especially on large televisions, but it’s not the dramatic shift that we saw going from standard definition ultimately to Full HD.

HDR, on the other hand, is a big deal. HDR is supported in the HDR-10 standard. Neither device supports Dolby Vision, which is a higher quality implementation of HDR on paper. In reality, its absence won’t be missed. Some of the advantages of Dolby Vision require TV panels better than the ones currently on the consumer market, and there aren’t any TVs that support Dolby Vision but not HDR-10, too.

Still, you’d be forgiven for expecting the latest and greatest from Roku’s highest-end box, especially given that Google’s Chromecast Ultra supports Dolby Vision at the same price point.

Dolby Vision aside, there’s little else to complain about in terms of picture quality, or how the Roku handles various content formats.

When I reviewed the Apple TV 4K, I was not thrilled with how that more expensive box handled standard dynamic range content, and the Roku devices don’t make the same mistakes. The Apple TV displays in HDR at all times—even for content that is SDR. That means that non-HDR content is essentially converted into HDR by the Apple TV 4K, and the results were not always great. Even when they were fine, it was an approach that didn’t play nice with some people’s home theater setups.

The Roku devices show SDR content in SDR, and HDR in HDR. There’s a slight flicker when the switch occurs, which is presumably what Apple was trying to avoid, but that flicker is definitely worth having an optimal SDR picture.

Like the Apple TV 4K, the Roku devices upscale standard definition and high definition content to 4K. Bottom line: it looks good.

Content availability

As with all 4K HDR streaming devices, content availability is a stumbling block. Your best bet is to watch original series and select films on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video; these look great.

The YouTube app supports 4K. Vudu offers a large library of 4K HDR movies. Previously they weren’t available on the Roku devices because they required Dolby Vision, but Vudu only a few weeks ago finally began supporting HDR-10 as well.

Roku also has a channel called “4K Spotlight” that highlights certain Ultra HD content across services.

You won’t be able to watch 4K or HDR movies from Google Play on the Roku devices, and Apple’s iTunes store—which has a rapidly growing library of 4K HDR movies—is only available on the Apple TV.

You can expect the availability of 4K HDR content to improve a lot in 2018, and it’s already much better than it was even six months ago. But still, you’ll end up watching at least as many movies and TV shows in HD as in 4K, and finding great HDR content remains even more difficult.

For just HD content, though, the Roku is unrivaled where options are concerned. Not only does it have a huge selection of services and channels, but its own Roku Channel recently rolled out a significant library of free, ad-supported movies.

Audio

Both the Roku Ultra and the Streaming Stick+ support modern audio formats, including Dolby Atmos.

It should be noted that the same content availability problems that you see with 4K and HDR also apply to newer audio technologies like Dolby Atmos. It’s out there, but it’s not the majority of what’s available. And while the Roku interface makes it easy to find 4K movies to watch, you’ll have no such help with cutting edge audio.

As mentioned previously, you can plug headphones into the jack on the Ultra’s remote for private listening. This is a great feature. It would have been good to see Bluetooth for wireless audio, too, but it’s not present.

The previous Roku Ultra box had an optical audio port, which was great for working with audio receivers that don’t pass through 4K or HDR. Sadly, there’s no optical audio in this year’s model—HDMI is the only option.

Software

Function

When you first turn on your Roku device, you can scroll vertically between screens like Home, News, My Feed, Search, Settings, and Streaming Channels.

Home pins the channels you’ve opted in to. In My Feed, you can follow TV shows or movies and then see when new episodes or other content related to them are released in a scrolling, chronological news feed. News offers up videos from Aol Video, which are ad supported, not hard news, and mostly not very good. Titles in the Aol tech section include “Who Really Invented the Selfie?” and “Why Are Emojis So Fascinating?”

Streaming Channels offers a complete list of channels you can download. Think of this like Roku’s app store. This section also includes screensavers.

The search function is one of the Roku devices’ best features. If you type in the name of a movie (the on-screen keyboard is not great, but it works), you’ll get a page dedicated to that film with casting information, a star rating, and a scrollable list of all the channels you can watch it on—along with indicators showing whether the movie is available in HD on a given channel, whether you have already added that channel, and best of all, how much it would cost to rent from each channel. Comparing between services is easy, though the prices are usually the same.

It’s also nice to see that both devices are positively zippy. That’s a big change from older Roku boxes, which had sluggish and sometimes unresponsive interfaces. The processor bumps Roku provided this year made a positive difference.

There’s some strangeness in the interface here and there. Sometimes error messages are human unfriendly. There’s an options button on the remote (represented by a * symbol), and the interface always shows an indicator suggesting you can hit it to do… something. But it’s never clear what this button will do, and pressing it frequently does nothing even though the UI suggests something will happen.

Roku OS is exactly as functional as it needs to be—no more. Apart from the new Smart Guide, there’s nothing ambitious here.

Form

When you first open the box, the Roku comes with four themes—the default Roku theme, Graphene, Decaf, and Nebula. The standard Roku one is the purple look many of us know by now. It’s not especially nice-looking, but it’s familiar.

Sadly, the other themes that come packaged each comprise visually offensive garbage that harkens back to the tackiest ‘90s Winamp skins, or to the eyesore horrors of skeuomorphism in Scott Forstall’s bygone iOS aesthetic. They look terrible.

You can buy more themes, though. Most of the options are themed skins for superfans of one thing or another. In other words, just in case the Roku didn’t show enough ads already, you can just skin the whole thing to be an ad if you want that for some reason. There are skins for Star Trek, Twin Peaks, Marilyn Monroe, and branded activation nonsense like a “Subaru Loves the Earth” theme.

On certain holidays, the Roku device automatically switches to a “featured theme” related to that holiday. These don’t generally look very good, but you can disable this feature in settings.

There are a handful of screensavers, but they’re not very exciting. The analog clock screensaver’s primary asset is definitely not 4K ready, so it looks bad. The aquatic life screensaver is cheap-looking. The digital clock screensaver is fine, but I ended up using the photo collage one.

None of the Roku devices score any points on software aesthetics, but it’s admittedly not the most important thing to the target user. Still, if you buy a 4K HDR TV, it stands to reason that you want everything you’re looking at on it to look as good as possible.

Voice

You can search for programming across channels using your voice. You just hold down the voice button on the remote, then say what you want to find. If it understands you, it will show you the search results, including pricing, from its supported services.

Unfortunately, the voice search doesn’t compare to what you’d get with Google Assistant, Alexa, or even Siri on Google, Amazon, and Apple devices, respectively. It just can’t do as many things; plain language questions that work on those other platforms return poorly written error messages on the Roku.

A not atypical result of a voice request.
Enlarge / A not atypical result of a voice request.
Samuel Axon

At this point, all of these devices’ competitors also sport smart assistant features above and beyond just searching for TV and movie titles, including controlling smart home functions in some cases. The Roku doesn’t do that.

It’s not so bad that you’d never use the Roku voice search, but it’s still not as good as what competitors offer. The Roku devices do offer one feature that’s less common, though: you can use the Roku voice search to search over-the-air broadcast programming when you have an antenna installed, which appears side-by-side with the OTT content in Roku’s Smart Guide.

Mobile app

You can download a Roku mobile app on Android and iOS devices, and it’s quite useful. You can launch apps and add new channels, visit a “What’s On” tab that highlights some new or curated TV and movie selections, and use your smartphone as a virtual remote with most of the same buttons as the physical remote. You can even use the mobile app for some of the voice features that aren’t supported by low-end Roku devices’ remotes.

There’s a tab called Photos+ that lets you stream music, photos, and videos from your mobile device to the Roku TV. Finally, you can rename the device and do a couple other minor things in a tab called Settings.

Conclusion

Most 4K TVs already have streaming apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video built in. A lot of people own game consoles that come with those apps, too. The Roku Ultra and Streaming Stick+ only do a few things to dissuade users from sticking with what they’ve already got in those cases.

With the Android-powered NVIDIA Shield TV, you get Google Assistant and streaming, triple-A video games in addition to basic streaming video apps. The Apple TV 4K offers an ambitious, albeit incomplete, attempt to bring order to cable service-authenticated OTT streaming platforms.

What do the Roku Ultra and Streaming Stick+ bring to the table? Not a lot, other than independence from tech titans like Apple, Google, or Amazon. The lower end Roku devices are tempting because they’re affordable for people who own more downmarket TVs that aren’t already decked out in streaming apps and features.

With that in mind, Roku owns the 1080p and low-end market for good reason. But at the top end, there are simply more ambitious and more elegant options out there.

The good

  • Great channel library
  • Doesn’t funnel you into any particular digital content marketplace
  • The Ultra offers a strong selection of ports
  • Cheaper than NVIDIA Shield TV and Apple TV 4K
  • Dolby Atmos audio support

The bad

  • No Dolby Vision HDR
  • HDR content availability is still limited, as on all streaming devices
  • Lackluster voice controls
  • You’ll see some ads in the interface
  • The Ultra doesn’t include an HDMI cable

The ugly

  • The software is, quite literally, ugly

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