Roku Ultra: The best media streaming experience ever?

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Image: Roku.com
THE GOOD: THE BAD:
·         Small, quiet design

·         Crazy channel selection

·         Snappy interface and 4K video output

·         Ability to turn any TV smart

·         Expected an included HDMI cable for the price

·         Fixed featured channel buttons on the remote

·         Limited Access to US channels in India

When it comes to enjoying well-produced cinematography, whether a feature film or a broadcast program, one needs the best. I have been probing for the most suitable streaming device that complimented my needs for a long time. Streaming movies and shows on your laptop is not a very pleasing experience, unless you have the right device. I needed an economical, long-term solution for my streaming problems. In early May of last year, upon recommendation from a fellow cinephile, who was indeed based in the US, I decided to go for the ‘Roku 4’.

The now discontinued device came as a shocker as I had never been exposed to such a high capacity streaming device. Obviously, due to manufacturing defects and multiple performance issues, I had to replace the device, which I must say, was done very smoothly. Instead of replacing my Roku 4 with the same model, I waited for a newer version. Roku soon discontinued the Roku 4 to replace it with ‘Roku Ultra’, which I felt would be a better fit for me. It essentially is the same thing, with little but significant upgrades.

Roku Ultra’s latest features make it the most user-friendly and superior streaming device ever, having upgrades that propel its performance much farther than that of Roku 4. I have been using the device for more than a year now and here are some of its commendable features that I feel should be highlighted:

  • Quad-core processor: The fast quad-core processor and 802.11ac dual-band wireless system enables you to get to your favourite shows in a quick and smooth fashion. The processor elevates the response navigation and launches channels swiftly.
  • Full 4K output: The user gets to experience stunning 1080p HD streaming with 4K content watch-ability on a compatible 4K Ultra HD TV.
  • HDR and Dolby audio: If you have a TV that supports HDR and Dolby audio, it is a must to purchase Roku Ultra to get the full experience out of your TV.
  • Compact with a better cooling system: Roku 4’s one noticeable flaw was its chunky aesthetics and noisy cooling system. The engineers at Roku have finally figured out a way to make the device more powerful and compact, while also keeping the device cool so that it doesn’t sound like a jet engine about to explode.
  • Fast, easy navigation and app installation: Getting around is extremely simple as Roku Ultra is very powerful system and the user interface is beautifully designed.
  • Voice enabled search for easy navigation to apps, movies and shows.
  • Ports: Includes Power, HDMI 2.0a, Ethernet 10/100, MicroSD, USB and a Digital Optical Audio port.

Design

Identical in design to Roku 4, Roku Ultra is a compact device that looks sleek and elegant when installed along with your current setup. If you are like me and do not prefer wires sticking out of the frame of your TV, you can hide the device behind your TV for a seamless look without having any issues of remote range.

The device has glossy edges with a matte top to give a stylish touch to your entertainment system. It is 40% smaller in surface area in comparison to Roku 4 and does not use an internal fan for cooling, eliminating the noise of active ventilation.

Roku’s built-in media player allows it to be a replacement for any expensive media player out there. Using the ‘Roku Media Player’, you can play almost anything from your own media library in high resolution.

The Roku Ultra’s remote has a matte finish and has a thinner profile in comparison to Roku 4’s. It is not as skinny as the Roku Stick or Express remotes but compensates for it with its private listening audio jack and mic for voice search. The audio jack is an enhancement that makes Roku a far superior product that Amazon Fire Stick or other Roku models. This audio jack feature is called Night Listening Mode, which amplifies dialogue and tones down explosion. This feature allows me to do a late night binge without waking up my whole house.

The remote does have quite a few buttons, but most of them are very useful. There is are buttons for instant replay, search, options, rewind, play/pause and fast-forward. The bottom of the remote includes two extra buttons for gaming. The remote also features built-in buttons for Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV and Showtime. I had an issue with this as not every user will use these four apps, and it would have made a lot more sense to let users program their favourite channels.

We all have the struggle of the lost remote. Roku’s innovative thinking has included the easy find function that creates a beeping sound to help you locate your remote by just clicking the button at the top of your device.

My Rating: 8/10

User Interface

Roku Ultra’s operating system is the same as its predecessor and hasn’t had many significant changes. This is not me complaining. It really doesn’t need to change anything.

When it comes to using Roku and setting it up, it really doesn’t take much to understand how it works. Upon setup you will have to make a Roku account online and sync it to your TV using a unique code provided. After that you just put in details to time zone and the device will initialise.

Adding channels to your Roku is easier than ever. You can either directly install channels and apps from your TV itself, where a plethora of channels is filtered according to your location and will be available to install. But for channels and apps that are a little more ‘exclusive’ or private, and not available in India, you can find the channel code online and add it from your Roku account online.

Roku’s UI is well designed to keep all your channel selection in the center of the screen and is available on the launch of your TV. It shows you the apps you have downloaded and also allows you to move them around for better convenience. Roku tries to keep you as close to your content as possible, but due to the magnitude of apps and channels, it does get a little confusing to find the right channel. I suggest just going online to find the channel you want and add it from there. Roku syncs in no time.

I have had this 52 inch TV in my room for about 5 years now and it is not a smart TV. It does not even support Netflix. Imagine my struggle. But, it is an HD TV. I bought the Roku device as a means to make my non-smart TV, smart. I mainly use the device to watch Netflix and use Plex (an app that stores my media and allows me to play them on any device). Plex is one example of an app that was not available for me to install right away. As mentioned above, you need to find a way around by going into the ‘deep web’ and get the channel code.

One thing you should consider before buying Roku, is that it is a US based product. Due to country restrictions, it has its limitations. Roku is a means of replacing your media player with the add-on of its smart options.

My Rating: 7/10

Compatibility

When it comes to compatibility, there is a lot different things I would like to cover. Firstly, Roku Ultra can work in India but the channel selection is very limited. Only paid subscriptions to certain US channels is available for Indian use. As this is a US based product and hasn’t really launched in India causes problems in accessing and installing apps. When you initially setup your Roku account, it registers your account as an Indian user and there is no way around it. Trust me, I tried (If you do find a way around this, do let me know).

I have been unable to use Hulu and Amazon on the Roku, just like countless others who have been waiting for Roku to launch updates for India.

If the Roku remote is not the thing for you, you can always download the Roku app. Like the actual remote is allows you to listen to your media in night mode. The app also allows you to play media stored in your mobile device. Whether you use this app on your smartphone or tablet, controlling Roku becomes even easier.

The device also has multiple ports including power, HDMI, Ethernet, MicroSD, USB and a Digital Optical Audio port. The USB and MicroSD slot is a detail that I truly appreciate as it expands the usability aspect of the device manyfold.

My Rating: 8/10

Where to buy from?

I bought my device directly from a US Roku store. But you don’t need to travel thousands of miles for a streaming device. You can buy the Roku Ultra from Amazon India. A cheaper alternative would be to buy it from Amazon US as even after paying import taxes and duties, the device is much cheaper.

The Bottom Line

Even though Roku Ultra prices at a higher level than Amazon Fire Stick and many other alternatives in the market, my experience with the product has been very pleasant. Physically, the product is unobtrusive and minimal, with a strong UI and operating system. Despite its limitations with channel selection in India, the extra features played a very important role in making this product No. 1 for me. With its Night Listening Mode and real utility for videophiles of both casual and hardcore persuasions, Roku Ultra met all of my expectations.

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