Roku Ultra's Upgrades Feel Pretty Tame

With Roku's release of the Premiere and the company's increasing focus on free content, it's easy to feel like Roku is shifting attention away from its premium offerings.

Yet the $100 Roku Ultra is still on the market, and if you can stomach the relatively high asking price, it's still one of the better streaming players out there. In case you were thinking about adding the Ultra to your electronic arsenal, Roku has equipped it with a few upgrades since last year. They don't change the overall product much, but they're nice to have.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

A refresher

In case you've forgotten about the Roku Ultra (Roku's last big marketing push for it was about a year ago), it's Roku's most full-featured streaming player, and its most expensive.

The system is a large black box with a USB port, a microSD slot, an Ethernet port, a "find remote" feature and a remote control with a headphone jack. The device can play 4K HDR content and has access to thousands of channels, including all the big standards: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, YouTube, PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, Spotify, Pandora and so forth.

MORE: The Best Roku Channels - Movies, TV, Music, Kids, Sports

In other words: If you're a heavy-duty streamer and have a lot of your own content, the Roku Ultra is one of the better systems you can buy. But at $100, it's a major investment. Compare and contrast the $60 Roku Streaming Stick+, which has the same UHD resolution, channel selection and snappy performance.

Sweetening the deal

First and foremost, if you already have a Roku Ultra, you don't need to buy a new one. The packaging has changed slightly on the device, but it's still the same model as last year. Do keep it connected to the internet, though, because there's one very interesting update on the way. (More on that in a bit.)

If you don't have a Roku Ultra, now's probably the right time to get one, though. Before, the system came with a pair of Roku's house brand of earbuds. As you might imagine, these earbuds get the job done, but they're merely the kind of thing you'll want to wear when it's late at night, and you simply can't be bothered to go hunting around your house for a better pair.

Now the player comes bundled with a set of JBL earbuds. (JBL doesn't seem to sell them as a standalone model, but they bear at least a passing resemblance to the $40 E15.) As you might imagine, they're considerably better than the house-brand earbuds — although I'd be lying if I said they were great. Dialogue through the headphones has a slight metallic quality to it, while the volume is all over the place depending on whether you're watching an action scene or a conversation.

Even so, they're better than what you used to get with the Roku Ultra, for the same price. Roku deserves some props for that, if nothing else.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Forthcoming features

One feature that I was eager to try was the new sound library in the "Find My Remote" feature. If you've ever lost your remote, you know how useful this can be. While the sound library was admittedly better back on the Roku 4 (you could use the Star Trek hailing noise), the current selection isn't so bad; you can get Ride of the Valkyries, or Verdi's Anvil Chorus, straight from the Met Opera.

A few months ago, Roku representatives showed off two new "find my remote" sounds: the ESPN jingle, as well as the theme song from Game of Thrones. As system-selling features go — well, this isn't one. But it is an incredibly cool flourish on an already-solid product.

The sounds will go live sometime this month, so just check for software updates every now and then. It may make your search through the couch cushions sound a little more epic.

Worth it?

As for whether the Roku Ultra is still worth the $100 premium, it's harder to say. When the system debuted, viewers generally accepted that you were going to have to dish out a lot of money for a 4K HDR system. Now you can get excellent UHD streamers such as Amazon's Fire Stick 4K for half the price, or pretty decent ones like the Roku Premiere for even less. (We're not going to get into presuming why the Apple TV 4K costs so much more despite having similar specs.)

As I mentioned in my full review, the Ultra is best for streamers who already own a lot of content on their computers — or routinely acquire it. (I promise I won't ask how.) The microSD card and USB slot can pay for themselves pretty quickly if you want to load up your Roku with a ton of homegrown movies and TV shows.

Otherwise, the Streaming Stick+ gets the job done just as well for $40 less. Unless, of course, you can't live without a remote control that plays the Game of Thrones theme. And if that's the case, I don't blame you.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.