Last month, Roku unleashed a whole slew of new set-top boxes meant to cater to every single person ever. There’s the box for people with old TVs (Roku Express+), the slightly different box for cheapskates (Roku Express), the boxes for regular joes (Roku Stick and Roku Premiere), and the coolest boxes—the two meant for people with a super expensive TV and a need to watch more than Netflix and Hulu: the Roku Premiere+ and more expensive, but fully featured Roku Ultra.
If you’ve cut the cable cord, got a 4K television capable of HDR—which on compatible content reveals more details in areas of extreme brightness and darkness, and you need a set-top box, there’s no choice. The Roku Premiere+ or the more expensive Ultra are what you should buy. There isn’t a better set-top box capable of both 4K and HDR playback currently. Nearly all other 4K boxes, including last year’s Roku and the 4K-capable Amazon Fire, can’t do HDR. So the Xbox One S and Nvidia Shield are the only competition, and both devices are three times the price and gaming systems first—movie and TV playback devices second.
There is a difference between the $100 Premiere+ and $130 Ultra though. The Ultra is intended for people with big expensive home theater systems. It includes an optical digital audio port, Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus decoding, and a USB port for playing additional media. It’s also got other bells and whistles to justify the $30 jump in price, including a button to help you find your remote when you lose it, and additional buttons on the remote so you can use it to better control games.
If you haven’t invested and don’t plan on investing in a big fancy sound system then you can probably skip the Ultra and stick to the Premiere+ (the regular Premiere is $70 and doesn’t include HDR playback—avoid it entirely unless you really need that $30).
Both the Premiere+ and Ultra are capable of 4K HDR playback provided you have a television with a free HDCP 2.2 port. HDCP is an irritating form of copyright protection on all devices capable of 4K playback. 2.2 is the most recent version and is is usually only available on one or two HDMI ports on a TV set. You’ll have to consult your user manual (seriously) to figure out which port. Or you can do like I did and trial and error your way through it. The Roku wouldn’t do HDR playback until I found a port on my Vizio P-Series that allowed it, but a pop up immediately appeared once I had found the appropriate HDMI port.
The playback itself is fine as long as you have fast enough internet speeds. Some channels are more forgiving than others. I could check out Mozart in the Jungle in 4K on Amazon Prime a lot faster than I could check out Stranger Things in 4K on Netflix. Yet once the show had buffered, the speeds evened out.
In particular, Netflix’s new hit Stranger Things was gorgeous in 4K HDR. The sunlight reflected realistically off the pool as Nancy searched for her missing friend Barb, and when Joyce used Christmas lights to communicate with her son in the Upside Down, I could see the filament in every single bulb with HDR activated. Deactivated those same bulbs were merely blobs of light with no detail.
The new 4K Rokus are also wicked fast. After months of splitting my time between playback off a Roku 3, a Nvidia Shield, and a Xbox One S, I was genuinely surprised at how quickly I could navigate from on the Roku Ultra. New screens loaded virtually instantaneously.
But bopping around in the Roku software did highlight one major problem: Roku’s user interface is outdated. It looks old and cheap played back on a quality 4K set. The gradient in backgrounds get digitally blocky, and you can see more digital artifacts around app tiles for older apps. Text in many apps just looks ugly too, because the apps have yet to be updated for 4K content.
In fact, the UI nearly ruins an otherwise extremely slick experience. Roku has come a long way from the chunky monkey you plugged into your TV back before anyone knew what a set-top box was. It’s now the de facto brand and could, one day, become as synonymous with set top box as Kleenex is with facial tissues. But the very simple UI is in desperate need of a refresh if that is ever going to be the case.
For now, if you can suffer past the unattractive UI you’ll be using the very best 4K set-top box available. It’s only competitors in the market of set =op boxes that do 4K and HDR are the $300 Xbox One S and the Nvidia Shield—which goes for $250 when you can find one online. The Roku Premiere+ and Ultra are both significantly cheaper than the competition and give a just much more satisfying TV watching experience. If you need a new set=top box, and have a TV that’s better than 1080p, then these two should be at the top of your list.
- It’s a Roku box, but capable of 4K and HDR playback.
- Comes in two types: the $100 Premiere+ and the $130 Ultra, which includes additional ports for better home theater integration
- The Premiere+ is a third the price of its competitors
- Easier to use that the competitors
- Requires HDCP 2.2, which is usually limited to only one or two ports on a TV