Roku Ultra (2020) review: Incremental improvements

The 2020 Roku Ultra is a surprisingly tough streaming box to review.

While Roku’s hardware and software haven’t changed much from last year’s model, the wider world of streaming TV has changed a lot. Between new services like Apple TV+, Peacock, HBO Max, and the forthcoming Paramount+, there are more streaming options to juggle than ever. In response, we’ve seen devices such as the Chromecast with Google TV and the TiVo Stream 4K emerge to make sense of those options, funneling content from multiple apps into a single, unified menu.

Roku, meanwhile, has held steadfast to its less ambitious approach: Make free content easy to find, but make users dig through individual apps for everything else.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best media streamers, where you’ll find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping for this type of product.

If you still agree with that approach, the $100 Roku Ultra has a lot to like. It supports Dolby Vision and HLG high dynamic range video, Bluetooth audio, and Dolby Atmos audio decode. It’s also a smidge faster than other Roku players, and it still has the comfiest remote you’ll find with any streaming player today.

But if you’re rooting for a new paradigm in streaming, where digging through a dozen different apps is no longer necessary, the new Roku Ultra will inevitably disappoint.

Slicker box, better specs

The 2020 Roku Ultra is easy to tell apart from previous versions. The plastic enclosure has a matte finish throughout instead of being glossy around the edges, and the sides of the box curve inward at the top instead of outward. I think it’s more attractive.

rokuultra2019v2020 Jared Newman / IDG

2019’s Roku Ultra on the left, 2020’s Ultra on the right.

The port arrangement has changed as well. There’s no more MicroSD card slot for expandable app storage, though the Ultra does have more built-in storage. (Roku won’t say exactly how much.) Meanwhile, the USB slot for local media playback has moved from the side of the box to the back, where it’s joined by the ethernet port and HDMI output.

rokuultrarear Jared Newman / IDG

MicroSD for expanded app storage is gone, but USB for local media playback remains.

This is also the first Roku player with Bluetooth, so you can pair a phone, tablet, or computer and play music through the TV. It’s a fine addition, though it doesn’t support pairing wireless headphones to play audio from the Roku. (For that, you can use Roku’s mobile app, which offers private listening through headphones or earbuds connected to the phone.)