Why are we disappointed with the best streaming media box on the market?
The Roku Ultra is great. But its limitations are showing
Review If you are going to buying a streaming media box – and you really should if you want to watch TV shows or movies on a big screen – then you should buy a Roku. It really is as simple as that.
Apple fanbois will, of course, point to the latest Apple TV with its little touchpad. Googlers will swear by Chromecast. And Jeff Bezos would no doubt choose his FireTV. But for everyone else, just get a Roku.
It's been more than two years since we did a proper review of the Roku and so with the release of the company's latest and greatest – the Roku Ultra – it made sense to check in to see what has changed.
And the disappointing answer is: not very much really.
Don't get us wrong, the Ultra – which costs $99.99 – is the best media box out there. It does 4K picture quality. It lets you access all the major sources of content: everything from Hulu and Netflix to an entire wealth of more niche content sources, like old British TV shows or Bollywood movies. It is very fast. It is small. Its control is nice and easy to use. It does voice search.
It's only real competitor is Apple TV which costs twice as much and has less content (thanks to Apple's ongoing control freakery).
And yet. And yet. The Ultra is basically the same as the Roku 4 and the Roku 3 and the Roku 2, just a bit faster. It's a similar feeling to when you add new RAM to your old laptop (or, at least, when you used to be able to): It feels great to go faster but to be honest it's not that exciting. It's still the same old machine.
This reviewer was excited about a new feature – the listing of live streamed shows and movies alongside paid-for services. Just stick some digital bunny ears on and you get the best of both worlds: free over-air TV and streamed content.
Except that feature does not come with the Roku boxes – only with standalone Roku TVs. There is no antenna on the back of the Ultra that you can plug into. Seems a shame as that feature could enable a final cutting of the cable cord.
There's also no 3D content on the Roku Ultra. We asked Roku why not – and they told us it's because there simply isn't demand right now.
There is one really nice new feature: a Roku channel that combines all the free content available across its pulled-in content in a neat AppleTV-like interface that lets you play it immediately. But that channel is also available on older Roku boxes – you don't need to buy the Ultra to get it.
Such was the disappointment at finding nothing really new, I started digging around in the settings, hoping that maybe I'd missed something. It was worthwhile because I found a setting that lets you hide the Fandango-sponsored movie store on the home screen so things are a little less cluttered.
But while the box is great - higher quality images and faster loading are not to be sneezed at – the whole experience was a little underwhelming. The limitations to Roku's business model are showing through.
The fact is that while we will get 8K screens in future, unless you are sitting one foot away from it you won't notice. And once a channel opens and a movie starts within a few seconds, there isn't much more you can do.
The exciting future of streaming TV is going to be in personalization. With an overwhelming number of options out there for instant viewing, the streaming media box that can help you quickly and easily find something fun to watch is the one worth buying.