You Shouldn't Pay $100 and Still See Roku's Ads

We all have different priorities, but consider the situations in which you pay for upgrades: a first-class flight, a faster computer, a nicer burger. Each time you spend more, you're investing in a better experience. This is why I'm frustrated that the Roku Ultra's ads make the device feel less than ultra.

Credit: Roku

(Image credit: Roku)

The $100 Roku Ultra streaming box comes with the same sidebar ads as the $30 Roku Express. Sure, the extra $70 gets you a decent amount of perks — including a faster processor, 4K and HDR streaming, a remote control with a headphone jack for private listening, an Ethernet port, and USB and microSD ports — but the essential on-screen interface remains the same.

As much as people dislike the Apple TV line for its high prices (the cheapest one is $149), it owns the home screen game, with a five-column-wide interface that doesn't waste space. (Roku's ads fill up two columns' worth of apps.) Oh, and Apple's device uses the space at the top of the screen in a novel way, to present possible shows or movies to open from the app you've selected with your cursor. Not even Google puts ads on the home screen for its cheapest Chromecast, and ads are Google's main business.

Some at the Tom's Guide office are dismissive of my complaint — "that's just the way it is, look at the Amazon Fire TV" — but I'd argue that the status quo here isn't great. The act of cord-cutting is supposedly rooted in breaking the paradigms established by traditional cable TV nonsense: for example, paying to rent a cable box, which inundates its menus with ads for shows you don't want to see.

Not even Google puts ads on the home screen for its cheapest Chromecast, and ads are Google's main business.

I'm speaking of dreck like L.A.'s Finest, a Spectrum TV-exclusive cop show starring Gabrielle Union, Jessica Alba and Ernie Hudson. It's a part of the Bad Boys extended cinematic universe, but it has not included appearances from either Martin Lawrence or Will Smith. Tom's Guide Managing Editor Mike Andronico told me that this show's ads made it look more like "a parody" than an actual show.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Whenever I see ads for that, I'm reminded of the ads I see on Roku, which have included promotions for some kids' show called ZooMoo; the Mamma Mia! movie on the HBO app; and, most often, The Roku Channel, which offers some channel called FilmRise Classic TV, which is showing 21 Jump Street. The latter two are not bad but … like many programs promoted by ads, they're not what I personally want to see, and for $100, I think I deserve a bit more control.

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If Roku wants to push these shows and films in the spirit of content discovery, it could make a dedicated menu category for that purpose. Otherwise, Roku's wasting the space on my TV, while probably making money off of me. In Settings, under Advertising, you don't get the option I want: to disable ads. There's just one option to limit ad tracking. While that is great for privacy, it's only led me to even worse ads.

So, Roku, if you're going to make ads the default, just do what Amazon's Fire and Kindle slates do: Let me pay you to take them away. Amazon's extortion-based ad removal, in which you pay a whole $20 to remove the Special Offers, seems like a novel idea in comparison to the unchangeable experience on Roku devices.

Otherwise, the Apple TV's high price will continue to feel justified. And the second the apps and services I can't find anywhere but on Roku land on other platforms, I'll be done with the company.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.