New Roku Ultra – and new Roku services – up the platform's already-substantial offerings
By Jim Bray
Roku, the streaming device company that's becoming a real power in the streaming services department as well, has a new top of the line player that ups the ante over its predecessor. It also has raised the stakes on its own streaming services, including offering its first "made for Roku" productions.
I'm a fan of Roku stuff and recommend it often to my friends and family when they're looking for a way to cut ever more out of their cable bills. You can get into a Roku for well under a hundred dollars, depending on sales, etc.; their entry level Streaming Stick 4K is on sale right now, according to the Roku home page on the device, for a paltry 50 dollars. I've reviewed this device in the past and found it an excellent performer at a great price even when it sold for $70CAD.
And while it's really all you need, the new Ultra (which, oddly enough, replaces the old Ultra) offers even more performance and features. It lists currently on Roku's Canadian website for $129.99. For that you get a more self-contained unit than with the Streaming Stick (you sit it on a shelf or whatever as opposed to merely plugging it into a vacant HDMI port on your TV). This might sound a little more complex, but it isn't really (other than the shelf space required) because you need to have access to its little box so you can use its USB port to recharge the remote control.
If you're happy with your existing Ultra, this might not be enough of an update for you, but if you're shopping and want a fast and powerful streamer that plays 4K HDR at up to 60 frames per second, this might be your cup of tea.
As always, installation is a breeze. You just unpack it (well, duh!), sit it near your TV, plug it into a power source (a wall plug or power bar, not your TV's USB port) and the TV's vacant HDMI port – and then you fire it up and follow the directions. These directions include having you log onto the company's website to either set up an account or add the new unit to your existing one. And that's about it!
Well, you'll have to add a credit card when you create your account, in case you decide to access premium content such as Netflix, Amazon and innumerable other ones. This raised my hackles way back when I first fired up a Roku, but in the several years since then I've never had a charge on my credit card, cheap bugger that I am, so now I trust the company not to screw me over.
Let's hope that isn't famous last words!
Anyway, the Ultra is a fine device and not only offers great picture and sound (Dolby Vision and HDR10, Dolby Atmos audio, etc.) and access to literally millions of programs – from old movies to today's latest (the latter, often, if you're willing to use that credit card). Roku says it's also their fastest (as in booting up and accessing apps) and most powerful player yet – until next year, undoubtedly.
Besides the Ultra device itself, you get the Roku Voice Remote Pro, which lets you press a button on the remote and speak a command – for example, you can say "Rhapsody in Blue" and the little robot brain sallies forth into cyberspace to find you sources for that particular title. You can also use your voice to turn it on or off, access particular apps or channels, or even search for broader categories such as comedies in general or whatever. You can even tell it to turn closed captioning on and/or off.
Another nice feature is the lost remote finder, which is as the name implies. If you can't find the remote, just holler "Hey Roku, where's my remote?" and (if it's within range, which chances are it is) and the remote will start emitting little pings.
And that remote is pretty smart, if you want it to be. You can use it to control your TV power and volume, for example. I don't like doing that, myself, but it's there. No I prefer having all the different remotes on hand because, well, I'm a bit of a nerd and I like having all their various buttons and features handy, whereas most "smart" remotes only control major functions of other devices. Besides, having a big pile of remotes confuses my wife and means she still needs me around for something…
The remote also has a little audio jack on it into which you can plug the ear buds that are in the package, for private listening when the rest of the family is asleep.
You can assign personal shortcuts or playlists to the remote via a couple of programmable buttons, too.
And here's something new: the remote is rechargeable, so you don't have to keep feeding it batteries. Instead, you'll get a display on the TV screen when the power is getting low and you can just plug it into the Ultra's USB port. It doesn't take long to recharge, either, which beats the heck out of having to sit there, waiting helplessly, for it to charge. Or poking around the basement trying to find fresh batteries.
Everything you need comes in the box, including the USB charging cable and an HDMI cable, as well as the power adapter and ear buds (the latter of which also has multiple "buds" for different sized ears.
Obviously, I like this unit a lot. The picture quality is wonderful and the audio of sources I accessed (I have a 5.1 system so can't comment on Dolby Atmos performance) were also top notch. A caveat here, of course: it depends on the quality of the source, the old "garbage in, garbage out" thingy. So, a crappy copy of an old movie probably won't look or sound as good as that streaming service's latest offering.
This, of course, isn't a Roku thing; the same can be said for any streaming device.
Meanwhile, Roku keeps adding channels and programming of its own. I find myself watching its Roku Channel more and more all the time. The channel not only offers a pretty decent selection of "live" TV (it's not exactly live but consists of 24/7 streaming channels such as The Tonight Show, Carol Burnett, Classic Doctor Who, This Old House, car-related channels, music-only channels, and – whew, you get the idea).
These channels are free – which means you have to sit through commercials, but that's acceptable to me even though there are long pauses with horrid background music when no commercial has been sold. And some of the PSA's are more than a tad left-leaning (environut stuff, etc.), but how is this different from mainstream media?
One new app that came onto Roku just in time for the Grey Cup is TSN's, also known in some circles as the "Toronto Sports Network". This is a pretty good app, though not without its bugs, and it lets you access all of TSN's live sports content from all five of its TV channels. So you can stream not only the CFL, but IIHF Women's and Men's World Championships and the World Juniors. If you're one for whom Toronto is the centre of the sporting universe, you can even get coverage of the Toronto Raptors and the NBA. TSN also covers F1 racing and lots more.
There's also an archive of TSN documentaries and stuff.
The downside is that TSN wants $20 a month for the service, and for that price you still have to sit through their interminable commercials, which I find completely outrageous. Fortunately, if you already get TSN through your existing TV provider, you can log into the app using your existing info.
I tried this for the Grey Cup and really wanted to see whether the Roku app's picture and sound were as good or better than "off the air" cable or satellite, but the feeds aren't synchronized so I couldn't really get a feel for it. The app's picture looks fine, though.
Roku is also producing its own content now, such as the much promoted and ballyhooed "Weird," which was marketed initially as a biopic of Weird Al Yankovic. I'm a Weird Al fan, though I didn't really care to see a biopic about him. But my dear wife talked me into watching it and I discovered that it isn't a real biopic at all: it's a Weird Al parody biopic and I laughed my way through the whole thing.
Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, plays Al and does a fine job. Al himself is on hand, too, in a supporting role. The production values are top notch, audio and video quality are just fine, and the whole thing is a very funny time in the Roku-powered home theatre. And it's as free as the other free offerings on the device and its channel.
Roku even threw in a bunch of extra Weird stuff, including most if not all of Al's song parody videos.
Weird isn't the only Roku original, though it's the only one that interested me so far. But my hat's off to the company for throwing its hat into the content provider ring and helping move the market away from the fat and lazy and greedy traditional cable (etc.) carriers and to the new world of online streaming.
The more competition there is for your eyes and ears, the better it is for us as consumers. And so far, Roku is doing a bang-up job in both the hardware and software department.
Copyright 2022 Jim Bray