Roku's $30 Express player is more intriguing than its high-end Ultra

Hardware

Let’s start with the Roku Express, which looks nothing like any of the company’s other players. It’s as if someone took one of Roku’s typical designs, shrunk it down and then chopped it in half. It’s pretty small, resembling a stack of USB sticks stuck together. Notably, though, it’s not nearly as small as the more expensive Roku Stick.

If I had to use one word to describe the Express, it would be “functional.” It’s not attractive or much of a centerpiece device; instead it’s something you’d just stick in front of your TV and forget about. Its singular purpose is to get you 1080p HD streams at the lowest price possible. The Express has an HDMI socket on the back and is powered through a micro-USB port. And yes, it can easily be powered by the typical USB connections you’d find on a TV, if you want to avoid connecting it to an AC adapter.

If you’re looking for old-school RCA video connections, which were typically the main selling point of Roku’s low-end gear, you’ll have to consider the $40 Express+. It’s pretty much the same as the Express performance-wise, except it adds those older connections.

The Roku Ultra, on the other hand, looks like a covert military weapon next to the toy-like Express. It’s basically a dead ringer for the Roku 4 — and most of the company’s relatively recent players, for that matter. On top of the usual HDMI connector, it also features an SD card slot and an Ethernet jack. Notably, it’s also the only Roku device this year to include an optical audio port (which is useful if you’re stuck with a soundbar that doesn’t take HDMI audio) and a USB port for local storage. And if you’re particularly adept at losing your remote, you can also hit the button on top of the Ultra to locate it.

If the name wasn’t enough of a hint, the Roku Ultra is basically made for true power users. It supports 4K and HDR, but strangely enough, it’s not the only player this year to do so. The $100 Roku Premiere+ also offers both of those features, making it a potentially better choice if you have no need for USB and optical audio.

As usual, Roku isn’t giving us much information about the components powering its devices. The company claims the Express is faster than the $50 Roku 1 it’s replacing, and that the Ultra uses a “fast” quad-core processor (but so do the cheaper Premiere and Premiere+). And you can forget about any other technical details, like RAM or onboard storage. Ultimately, what you need to know is that both the Express and the Ultra offer a performance boost over what came before.

When it comes to remotes, the Express features Roku’s most basic offering yet. It has the company’s typical button layout — a four-way directional pad, playback controls and shortcuts for Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV and Google Play. It also relies on infrared to communicate with the Express, so you’ll have to point it at the box whenever you want to control it. The Ultra, on the other hand, includes the company’s full-featured wireless remote with voice search. Its layout is mostly the same, except it has a shortcut to Showtime (really?) instead of Google Play, and it includes two extra buttons for games. And of course, the Ultra’s remote also has a headphone jack, something that Roku diehards are particularly fond of.

Software

If you’ve seen any of Roku’s previous players, there aren’t many surprises with its latest OS. It sports the same black and purple aesthetic, with a heavy focus on lists for the main menu. The company’s big innovations last year were the addition of voice search and the ability to follow actors and movie titles. Unfortunately, there aren’t any major software upgrades for these players yet.

I have the feeling I’m beginning to sound like a broken record for criticizing Roku’s archaic interface design — just go back and look at my reviews of the Stick and Roku 4. But, quite honestly, it’s still worth pointing out. Apple, Amazon and even TV manufacturers like Samsung and LG have made tremendous strides with their streaming interface designs over the past few years. I can understand if Roku doesn’t want to rock the boat too much for its fans, but a little effort would be nice. The company’s mobile app, for example, got a spiffy redesign last year that makes it much easier to use. So what’s the holdup for Roku’s core OS?

At the very least, you probably won’t be staring at Roku’s dull UI for too long. App developers like Netflix and Hulu can make attractive software for Roku’s platform. And while they don’t reach the level of what we’re seeing on the Apple TV, they’re still more visually arresting than Roku’s menus.

In use

Getting started with both players is relatively simple. Just plug them into a power source, hook up an HDMI cable and you’re good to go. After choosing a WiFi network, you just have to sit back and wait for the players to download apps (since I’ve been testing these players for a while, they automatically downloaded around 50 apps during setup). Not surprisingly, the Roku Express took a bit longer to get going, since it’s restricted to slower 2.4GHz WiFi networks. The Ultra, thanks to its speedier processor and support for 802.11ac/5GHz networks, was able to go through the initial setup process around two to three times as fast.

The most surprising thing about the Roku Express: It’s perfectly fine for basic HD streaming. Sure, moving around menus isn’t lightning fast, and it takes a few seconds more than the Ultra to start streaming an HD title on Netflix and Hulu, but heck, it’s a $30 gadget. The fact that it works as well as it does feels impressive. The Express is ideal for throwing on additional TVs in your home, or for gifting to relatives who haven’t yet gotten aboard the streaming bandwagon. The only major issue is dealing with its IR remote, which makes typing in search requests, usernames and passwords a bit cumbersome, since you always have to point at the box.

It’s worth noting, though, that the Roku Express is significantly slower than the Roku Stick. The latter is smaller and sports a faster quad-core processor, and it doesn’t exhibit any hiccups when it comes to moving about menus or streaming media. The Stick’s performance is so good that I said in my review that it made 1080p set-top boxes obsolete. But of course, at that point I didn’t consider the possibility that Roku would be able to drive the price of its boxes down to $30.

If you’re looking for the fastest Roku experience today, then the Ultra is for you. Doing just about anything on the player is lightning fast, be it navigating complex apps or jumping into HD streams on Netflix and Roku. The only area you might notice some slowdown is with 4K/HDR streams, which are more dependent on the speed of your internet connection than the box itself. On my 802.11ac WiFI network, the Ultra took two to three seconds to launch 4K titles on Netflix, Amazon and Vudu. It sometimes took a few more seconds for it to bump up from a low-resolution image to something high-res.

While 4K is a decent upgrade if you own a very large TV, it’s the addition of HDR that will really change how you watch things. That technology allows for a wider color range, deeper blacks and higher contrast than what we’re used to. If you have a television that supports HDR, you’ll quickly notice a bit more depth in shows like Jessica Jones and Chef’s Table on Netflix. In Daredevil, HDR allowed me to see much more detail in the dark fight scenes, and in Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle it breathed new life into the show’s NYC setting.

Unfortunately, Roku only supports the HDR 10 standard at the moment, not the competing Dolby Vision standard. But while there are some functional differences between the two formats, Amazon, Netflix and Vudu are currently supporting both, so you won’t miss out on much. To make it easier to find high-resolution content, Roku unveiled a special 4K section in its channel store last year. Now that same area highlights apps that feature HDR content as well. Just be ready to sign up for subscriptions or rent films to bask in the glory of HDR.

The competition

Here’s where things get interesting. At the low end, the Roku Express is a solid choice if you’re looking for the cheapest possible streaming solution. But if you need analog connections, you’ll have to spring for the $40 Express+. And if you’re worried about performance issues, it’s probably worth shelling out a bit more for the $50 Roku Stick. That device is significantly faster and more portable, so you can easily bring it with you around the house, or to hotels as you travel. Amazon’s $40 Fire TV stick is another good option, though it doesn’t have as many apps as Roku, and the $90 Fire TV doesn’t yet support HDR.

If you don’t need the optical audio and USB ports on the Ultra, you’d be better off with the $100 Roku Premiere+. That player has 4K and HDR capabilities, and from what I’ve seen it’s just as fast as the Ultra otherwise. The Premiere+ is also a sign that there might not be much of a market left for high-end set-top boxes, especially now that the hardware to play back 4K/HDR content is getting cheaper.

And what of the $149 Apple TV? Last year, Apple’s player was a decent competitor to the Roku 4, even though it was stuck with 1080p content. This year, with a multitude of 4K/HDR players on the market, the Apple TV just won’t fly anymore. Apple might soon unveil a newer player with 4K support, but until then, you’re better off avoiding the current model.

Wrap-up

If there’s one thing we can take away from Roku’s lineup this year, it’s that you don’t have to spend much to get a good streaming player. The $30 Express completely redefines what a set-top box can be, and it’s hard to imagine how Roku can drive down costs even more. And while the Ultra is a fantastic device, most people would be better off spending less for the $100 Premiere+. All of this is good news for consumers, though it might be worrying for Roku, whose business mostly relies on selling these video players.

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